the spirit of reinvention.
The silent generation was named, in part, for being humble and hardworking. Take Dr. Martin Herman who, after having been recruited by Wayne State University's Monteith College in 1962, relocated to Detroit with his wife and two daughters at a time when Motown was making music history, J. L. Hudson’s was thriving, and the auto industry was booming. In 1966, he bought the Detroit home in which he still lives—witnessing the riots, the slow decline of the City, and now, a reawakening and revitalized Detroit.
“We have lived through a lot,” says the 89-year-old music historian, “and in the process, I’ve become a firm Detroiter.”
The only giveaway that Herman is not from Michigan is his quintessential Brooklyn accent. At WSU’s Monteith College, an experimental unit funded by the Ford Foundation, he became invested in making undergraduate general education more meaningful by creating the environment of a small liberal arts college within a large university. In 1969, he became chair of Monteith’s Division of Humanistic Studies, a position he held until the University decided to phase out the College in December 1975.
Between 1975 and his retirement in 1994, he served as Acting Dean of Monteith during its phase-out period and, after being transferred to the University’s College of Liberal Arts, served as chair of its Humanities Department as well as twice being appointed one of the College’s Associate Deans.
“To me, Wayne State was like one of New York’s city colleges,” Herman says. “It was a place that provided opportunities for upward mobility to many people whose parents never went to college or even had the opportunity to do so. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I remain so dedicated to this University.”
After his retirement, he served on a committee that led to the establishment of an Emeritus Academy at Wayne State.
“It’s for those of us who, even after retirement, want to remain active in academe and our home universities by continuing our research efforts, pursuing scholarly activities, exchanging ideas, and serving as mentors to junior faculty members,” he says.
Herman is also one of the founding fathers of SOAR (Society of Active Retirees), a lifelong learning program affiliated with Wayne State. Established in 2003, it offers non-credit classes to retirees and all who remain devoted to continuing education. Its faculty, consisting largely of retired faculty members from area universities and colleges, all volunteer their services and, as Herman says, “consider it an important contribution to the well-being of the community by helping to fulfill an unmet need. People are living longer, and not all of them want to sit in front of a television set watching reruns and game shows.”
Participating in SOAR has turned out to be a rewarding experience for its faculty, as well as its member participants, mainly because the Society’s membership is highly educated and consists of genuinely eager learners.
“It’s a lot more fun talking to 40 engaged people than looking at 100 pairs of eyes that seem to be saying: ‘Teach me something, I dare you,’” he says with a chuckle.
Classes offered by SOAR range from history and health to literature, science, art, and music. Since the Society’s inception, Herman has offered, each term, a class entitled “Experiencing Opera.” Usually meeting for six two-hour sessions, the course considers operatic dramaturgy and draws its examples from operas being performed that term by the Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House.
It is fitting that Herman should enrich the community with music, his lifelong passion. He comes from a family of music lovers—his father was an opera buff who sang beautifully, and his mother, a devotee of musical theatre. Although Herman studied piano, he was far more interested in the cultural aspects of music than mastering the technical skills required of professional performers. He belongs to one of the first generations of American music historians who were trained in the United States by distinguished European musicologists, many of them Germans—some of them Jewish—who fled Hitler’s Germany and were appointed to faculty positions in American universities. At both Yale, from which he received his master’s degree, and the University of Michigan, from which he received his Ph.D., he studied with several of these displaced luminaries.
Herman, a colleague and friend of David DiChiera, founder of the Michigan Opera Theatre, voluntarily offered lectures and workshops for MOT. He was a regular subscriber to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and member of a community-based committee that attempted to mediate a DSO strike several decades ago.
His loyalty to Detroit has not gone unnoticed. During the mid-1980s, he received Wayne State’s Community Service Award, and more recently, in 2016, an Eight Over 80 Award from Jewish Senior Life.
He’s hopeful for Detroit’s future but believes that a vastly improved educational system—one in which the skills of analysis, criticism, and evaluation are taught and emphasized—is an absolute necessity if the City is to thrive and realize its potential.
“When my children attended Detroit public schools, they received fine educations, but considering today’s educational landscape—from pre-school through college and beyond—it seems clear, at least to me, that the problem is not merely a local one, but a national one as well.
“Many good people with firm roots in Detroit remain deeply committed to the City. Consequently, it’s helpful for us all to continue laboring on its behalf and, by so doing, contribute to Detroit’s future success. I certainly intend on doing so.”