Remembering Irwin Abrams
by Scott London
Irwin Abrams passed away a few days before Christmas. He was a longtime professor of history at Antioch College, a pioneer in the field of peace research, and a global authority on the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also my grandfather.
We worked together on many projects over the years, including a couple of books, and I learned much of what I know about scholarly research and historical analysis from him. But his influence goes far deeper.
When I was a kid, he instilled in me a great love of knowledge — first through stories, and later through ideas. He was always presenting me with books and newspaper clippings, introducing me to his favorite students (and there were many), and sending me off on unexpected research assignments.
Growing up as I did in Sweden, he used to enlist my help translating articles from Swedish and Norwegian. I eventually became his far-flung research assistant. Before I was out of my teens, he had me running off to do interviews for his various projects.
I remember one occasion when he had me travel to meet the late daughter of Carl Von Ossietzky, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. She spoke Swedish but little or no English, so I was perfect for the job, he said. The interview carried on late into the day. She made me soup, served me cookies and tea, and later, as I was readying to leave, took out an old shoebox and showed me an item wrapped in terry cloth. I opened it to find her father’s gleaming Nobel Peace Prize medal. It was an impressive 23-carat gold piece weighing almost half a pound, with Gustav Vigeland’s beautiful engraving of three men locked in an embrace. It was assignments like these that nurtured my passion for journalism.
My grandfather loved to travel, to eat, to sing, and to tell jokes. He used to dance with his arms raised above his head, like Zorba the Greek. He spoke several languages, most of them quite badly, but always with a carefree exuberance. He was never a showman, but he loved a celebration and was happiest when in the midst of family and friends.
There was nothing in the world he cherished more than my grandmother, Freda. They were married 60 years. I used to love watching them beam at each other across a room, or across a big dinner table. He often told the story of how they met at a new year’s party on a train from Chicago to San Francisco in the months leading up to World War II. By the time they heard the stationmaster’s “bells and whistles” in Cheyenne, Wyoming, heralding the arrival of the new year, they were hearing bells and whistles of their own.
After she died in 1999, it was like a light in him had been extinguished. He spoke of her everyday, kept her artwork on his walls and her photos on the bedside table. Almost every time her name would come up, his voice would break.
He was always a special presence in my life, but perhaps especially after my grandmother died. During the last ten years, we were in touch almost every day, took on joint projects, and made trips together. Our conversations grew deeper, more rich and nuanced.
He came into his final years as I entered mid-life. There was a curious symmetry there, and I had much to learn from him about the transitions of life. His role shifted from grandfather to mentor, and finally to confidant.
When I saw him for the last time in mid-November, he still displayed his sparkling sense of humor. As usual, he seemed more interested in hearing about me than in talking about himself. Several times he would reach over and take my hand while we were talking, always very sweet and attentive.
Although he worked with a physical therapist several times a week, he was mostly confined to a wheelchair toward the end. He was quite frail and hunched over and though he wasn’t ill I sensed that time was running out. He died peacefully on December 16, a couple of months shy of his 97th birthday.
In the course of drafting an obituary, and also planning for the upcoming memorial service, I’ve been going back to his writings and correspondence. To my amazement, I discovered a letter addressed to me, written just days after I was born. “May I be the first to send you a letter welcoming you to this planet,” it begins. “There may be moments when you will regret your decision to dwell among us, but may I wish you a long residence here with few occasions for such regrets.”
My grandfather not only welcomed me into this world, he was always there to guide me along, especially during times of sorrow and regret (there have been more than a few). He had a long residence here on the planet, and he enriched many people’s lives. But few as deeply as mine.
With Irwin in Ohio, 1966
With Freda and Irwin in Maine, 1976
With Irwin in Oslo, 2002
With Irwin in Ohio, 2010