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George Hochfield, 91, UB professor emeritus of English was involved in landmark academic freedom case

Sept. 15, 1926 – Jan. 17, 2018

George Hochfield had been at the University of Buffalo for only a year when he became embroiled in a landmark battle over academic freedom.

In 1964, he was one of five UB faculty members who refused to sign a loyalty oath mandated under the state’s Feinberg Law, which required them to declare that they had never been members of the Communist Party.

The case, Keyishian v. Board of Regents, went all the way the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was argued by Buffalo attorney Richard Lipsitz. On a 5-4 decision, the high court ruled in 1967 that the loyalty oath was unconstitutional.

Mr. Hochfield, a professor emeritus of English at UB, died Jan. 17 in Oakland, Calif. He was 91.

Harry Keyishian recalled the action at an American Association of University Professors awards luncheon in 2017.

“It was tense, it was sometimes tough. But there was no question at all that we were the coolest people on campus,” he said at the time.

Keyishian, who was dismissed from UB, and Mr. Hochfield, who remained on the faculty, were interviewed about the case in 1987 by Bill Moyers for his PBS series, “In Search of the Constitution.”

They told Moyers that most of their fellow faculty members opposed the loyalty oath and if enough of them did not sign it, the court case would not have been necessary.

“If a large number had refused to sign,” Mr. Hochfield said during the interview, “the certificate could not have been enforced ... and the state would have had to back down.”

Born in Trenton, N.J., Mr. Hochfield was the son of a man who barely escaped the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan in 1911. His father told how he tried to re-enter the building to rescue his sister, who also worked there, but was stopped by firefighters.

“He always ended the story by saying he went the next day to the office of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union local and asked for a gun so he could take care of the owners of Triangle,” Mr. Hochfield told The New York Times in 2011.

He served in the Navy during World War II, gathering weather information as an aerographer’s mate, and helped set up a weather station in China.

Returning from service, he attended University of California, Los Angeles, on the G.I. Bill and became best friends with a fellow student, Leonard Nathan, whom he met while waiting for a bus. Both transferred in 1947 to the University of California, Berkeley, where they were roommates and founded a poetry magazine they called "The Formalist," but only sold a few copies on campus.

He earned his doctorate at Berkeley in 1958 and taught at Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University before coming to UB in 1963, helping to form an august group of scholars and authors in the English Department.

By that time, Mr. Hochfield had established his reputation as an expert on 19th century historian and author Henry Adams. He was editor of Adams’ “The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 and Other Essays” in 1958 and was the author of a 1962 book, “Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation.” He went on to edit an anthology, “Selected Writings of American Transcendentalists,” published in 1966.

He was a visiting professor at Moscow State University in 1985 and Capitol Normal University in Beijing, China, in 1992. He was awarded three Fulbright lectureships, in Bologna and Venice, Italy, in 1958-59, in Slovenia in 1965-66 and in Rome, Italy, in 1980.

At UB, he also served in many administrative capacities. He was the university’s representative for the AAUP and vice-chairman of the English Department. He retired in 1992.

In retirement, he moved back to Berkeley and began a new career translating from the Italian, beginning with a World War II memoir, “The Officers’ Camp” by Giampiero Carocci, and two novels.

He also resumed collaborating with Nathan, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley and a prolific poet. Looking for a worthy joint venture, Mr. Hochfield discovered a neglected early 20th century poet from Trieste, Italy, and began a lengthy project with Nathan which finally brought that poet's work to English-speaking readers.

“I would give him a literal translation, and he would work over it, change the order of words, and before long, it was becoming a poem – not any longer the stiff awkward thing that I had given him,” Mr. Hochfield said.

Their translation, “Songbook: Selected Poems of Umberto Saba,” was a finalist for the 2010 Lewis Galantiere Award from the American Translators Association.

After Nathan’s death in 2007, Mr. Hochfield translated “Selected Poems of Luigi Pirandello.”

He was predeceased by his companion, Mayflower Day Brandt, in 2014, and a son, Benjamin, also in 2014.

Survivors include a sister, Sylvia; and his former wife, Marilyn.

A memorial service in Buffalo will be arranged.

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