S.F. State Professor Matthew Stolz

Tuesday March 06, 2007

Matthew F. Stolz, retired professor of political science at San Francisco State University, died of cancer at his Berkeley home Feb. 20. 

Professor Stolz, 71, led the life of a political theorist in the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, constantly interrogating himself, his students, and his colleagues in his quest to understand the political world. A highly dedicated teacher, he also contributed to scholarship by publishing Politics of the New Left (Glencoe, 1971). He also wrote about the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt in political science journals. At the time of his death, he was at work on a series of essays on the political thought of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  

In the 1970s, Professor Stolz founded the San Francisco State Political Theory Colloquium, for which he received an official commendation. The colloquium gave tangible form to his commitment to political dialogue by bringing together graduate students, visiting scholars, and S.F. State faculty to participate in intensive readings of current political theory. He co-authored papers with members of the group and drew graduate students into the process of publication. Visiting British scholar Harro Hopfl, who met Professor Stolz in the colloquium, characterized him as a “brilliant political theorist” who imbued his students with a full sense of the seriousness of political and civic discourse.  

Born in Oakland in 1935, Professor Stolz was educated at Fremont High School and the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated from Berkeley in 1956 as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and as political science scholar-of-the-year. He continued in graduate studies at UC Berkeley, receiving his doctorate in 1965.  

As the son of working-class parents, he appreciated the price students paid for their education and was devoted to redeeming that investment. He declined employment at a prestigious private college to teach at public institutions in Northern California—first the University of California at Davis and then S.F. State. He joined the S.F. State political science department in 1967 and retired in 2004. For the past two decades he was senior faculty member in political theory and unofficial “dean” of political theorists at the university.  

Professor Stolz was a demanding teacher with high standards and expectations for his students. Instead of lecturing formally, he turned his classrooms into arenas for thoughtful discourse. He insisted that his students master the primary texts in political theory, and he dazzled and tutored his department’s most gifted students. A soft-spoken and gentlemanly scholar, his commitment to theory was not as an academic specialty but as a vocation. As one of his protégés wrote in dedicating a recent book to Professor Stolz, “He was a brilliant teacher who taught me how to dwell in thinking.”  

Although a quiet man, Professor Stolz often spoke out as the conscience of his department. He said the best department meeting he ever attended was one in which the chair threw an eraser at him. He was passionate about politics and considered the 1960s a glorious moment in which theory and practice came together. He was a union member and walked the picket lines in civil rights demonstrations and in the 1968-69 S.F. State strike. He was also active in protests against the Vietnam War and both Iraq wars.  

Professor Stolz loved San Francisco State and identified with its students. He brought his wide-ranging reading to the classroom in an array of courses from Hegel to the Frankfurt School to the Italian tradition of political theory. But his first love was always the Greeks and the Classical tradition. A few days before his death he was asked if he would like a non-denominational spiritual counselor, and replied, “I would prefer a political theorist.”  

In private life he was a voracious reader, dubbed “the fastest reader in the West” by colleague Mason Drukman. With an extensive library of books and music shelved and stacked throughout his house, he ingested prodigious quantities of classical and modern literature and literary criticism, contemporary philosophy, and all periods of European and American history and music. In his later life—after overcoming a long disinclination to air travel—he enjoyed visits to Europe, especially sabbaticals in Florence and Bologna.  

Professor Stolz blended his love of reading with a love for the outdoors through walks and conversations. He greeted nature with a sharp eye, taking pleasure in identifying plants and birds, especially at Inverness and the Marin seashore. His greatest botanical pleasure was an annual search for the uncommon species Fritillaria biflora, the chocolate lily. While walking with great vigor he would bring up ideas from whatever he had been reading, talking about them the way other people gossip or discuss sporting events. In this way he clarified his thoughts by testing them against the responses of his companions.  

In his last days, Professor Stolz was surrounded by the people he loved most, including his wife, Kathleen Kahn, his stepdaughter, Sasha Crehan, and his granddaughter Olivia Feinstein, all of Berkeley; his granddaughter Melissa Crehan of Eugene, Ore.; and his many close friends and colleagues.  

In lieu of flowers, his family suggests that donations to fund a Matthew Stolz scholarship for political-theory students be sent to Professor Gerard Heather, Political Science Department, S.F. State University, 1600 Holloway Ave., San Francisco, 94132.