Former Penn State Abington CEO Robert Bernoff, a devoted scientist and educator, died on April 18 at Jefferson Health’s Abington Hospice at Warminster. He was 89.
Bernoff’s family said the son of Russian Jewish immigrants dedicated his life to science and to help the next generation fall in love with learning.
“One thing which was very important to us (siblings) was that my father was a scientist; he saw the world as a place where, if you were rational about things and careful in gathering evidence, you could solve problems,” son Josh Bernoff said.
He invested his time in his students and took care in designing unique lessons that would hook even the most reluctant students in his introductory chemistry course, Josh Bernoff said. But his passion for connecting students with the scientific world went beyond the lecture hall.
After attending a lecture on science education at the Franklin Institute, he was motivated to join a committee creating new curricula for schools nationwide.
Bernoff’s lectures included lively demonstrations and delved into relevant and practical issues like global warming. His passion for teaching didn’t stop with college students; he helped develop “Science: A Process Approach,” a program that included materials for children from kindergarten through sixth grade.
He was interested in how people taught science in elementary and high schools and received grants to write the science curricula for those students.
Bernoff served as the CEO of the Penn State campus in Abington (formerly Penn State Ogontz) from 1979 to 1990. There he revolutionized the role of the college and helped the campus evolve into what it is today, Josh Bernoff said.
During his tenure, he granted a bachelor’s degree to a student who completed all the requirements at the branch campus. Typically, the student wouldn’t have been allowed to receive a degree at a branch campus, so that was unprecedented and caused conflict with the university administration, Josh Bernoff said. Eventually, Bernoff’s decision created a path that allowed more students to complete their degrees at branch campuses.
“He was committed to honesty and fairness. Facts were important — you make decisions by looking at facts. You can’t understand my father without understanding that that’s the way he looked at the world,” Josh Bernoff said.
Bernoff was a trailblazer in more ways, as the campus had the largest minority population of Penn State’s locations and won a disproportionately large share of college teaching awards, Josh Bernoff said.
After he retired, Bernoff lectured at senior living facilities, synagogues and other places. He taught himself to use computers and became skilled at making engaging slide presentations.
While Bernoff was known publicly for science and teaching, he was a scientist in his private life, too. His curiosity led to several home improvement projects, and he was described by Josh Bernoff as a “DIYer.”
Bernoff is also remembered for his infectious, witty sense of humor.
“[My] father was fond of puns; he got that honestly — his father was also fond of puns. There were always these little jokes, there was always the possibility of jokes. I picked that up; I’m fond of puns. My own son seems to have the same thing going on. We now have a four-generation legacy of making puns,” Josh Bernoff said.
Bernoff was born on Jan. 11, 1933, in Philadelphia to Saul and Eve Bernoff. His parents were Jewish immigrants who left Russia to escape pogroms.
Although not a synagogue member, religion remained a part of his life,
“We always had Passover seders. We used the Maxwell House Haggadahs,” Josh Bernoff said. “At the end of the seder, they would talk about how in every age there’s a new realization of new groups who are oppressed and a new realization of what it takes to be fair to them. We never thought of ourselves as being people of Russian background. Our identity was Jewish, and we were taught to be very proud of that.”
Bernoff grew up in West Philadelphia where he met his wife, Sandra, when they were teenagers. They married in 1955 and later had three children: Josh, Andrew and Marjorie.
They lived in apartments in Philadelphia until they bought their first home in Dresher; they later moved to Elkins Park.
“The most important thing I learned from my dad was how to love. Their relationship was really mostly harmonious and supportive. That had a big effect on me. When I was looking for romantic relationships myself, I thought this is the way it should be,” Josh Bernoff said of his parents’ relationship.
Bernoff’s life inspired his children in their professional pursuits, as all three became educators to some degree. Josh Bernoff went into the software business and now gives lectures and writes books for corporate audiences on effective business writing. Andrew Bernoff is a mathematics professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California, and Marjorie Bernoff teaches preschool in Philadelphia.
Bernoff is survived by his wife, their children and five grandchildren.