Chapter 160, The Việt Nam Chapter of the Veterans For Peace
Brockport professor leaves a lasting legacy
Throughout a career that combined activism and teaching, Ken Herrmann wanted to make life better for others and inspired those around him to do the same.
Herrmann, who had been on the social work faculty at The College at Brockport for 36 years and before that was a social worker, died on Sunday of pancreatic cancer at the age of 71.
His wife, former students and colleagues remember Mr. Herrmann as an inspiring figure who was never satisfied with the status quo.
“He hated injustice and loved humanity,” said Susan Herrmann about her husband.
When some of his former students recently learned that Mr. Herrmann was in hospice care, they posted such comments on Facebook as “a social work professor I’ll never forget” and “He did so much for so many.”
Mr. Herrmann, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War, was best known for establishing the Brockport Vietnam Program, which since 2000 has sent about 200 students — mostly from Brockport — to Vietnam for a semester or month in Da Nang.
“He was a larger than life, force-of-nature person,” said Travis Atwater, who last school year spent a semester in Vietnam in the program and is now a graduate student in social work at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In addition to taking a full load of classes, Atwater would have a weekly consultation with Mr. Herrmann on Skype, which connected the professor at his office home in East Pembroke, Genesee County, and Atwater in Da Nang.
“His teaching was hands on. He was going to push you, If you would say something, he’d say, ‘How would you back that up.’ He was incredibly intelligent,” Atwater said.
What makes the Brockport program unique is that Herrmann required participating students not just to take classes but also to make field visits to Vietnamese families in need. Many suffered from the effects of Agent Orange discharged by U.S. aircraft during the Vietnam War, which destroyed foliage where North Vietnamese soldiers could hide.
Mr. Herrmann, who suffered from a heart ailment linked to Agent Orange, was an outspoken advocate for providing aid to the estimated 3 million Vietnamese who suffer from the disabling effects of Agent Orange.
With funds raised by a foundation, which Susan Herrmann now heads, the students provide, in their home visits, cash donations, food, and household and medical supplies to families.
“Ken was a good friend and good person. His professional and personal integrity and his honesty were attributes appreciated by all, especially Vietnamese friends who were helped so much by Ken’s unselfish contributions,” said Chuck Searcy, who is vice president of the Veterans for Peace Chapter in Hanoi.
A defiant streak ran throughout Mr. Herrmann’s history.
Mr. Herrmann grew up in an Irish neighborhood in south Buffalo. In eighth grade, he entered a monastery in Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, but that turned out not to be his calling. He contacted his parents, who demanded that he stay but were overruled by a priest who insisted that it was time for the young Herrmann to leave.
Although Mr. Herrmann earned a bachelor’s in English from Canisius College in Buffalo and a master’s in social work from State University of New York at Buffalo, he drew heavily from his days as a social worker.
“He truly believed that first and foremost social workers are agents of change,” said Kristin Heffernan, an associate professor of social work at Brockport.
Mr. Herrmann joined the Brockport faculty in 1978, after he earned a reputation as an outspoken child protective caseworker in Erie County and later as director of children’s services in Genesee County.
In the classroom, Mr. Herrmann liked to connect what students read to the realities of social work.
“He was always very passionate about child welfare,” said Nicole Thomson, a graduate of Brockport’s social work program who now coordinates the local Center for Youth’s Safe Harbour Program, helping victims of human trafficking.
In one of the courses she took from Mr. Herrmann, he played the role of the person that a social worker was supposed to be helping.
“He made it very real. He took it from the numbers and made it into real life,” said Thomson.
Mr. Herrmann wrote a handful of books, the most recent, Child Welfare Practice: A Conversation About Reality, published earlier this year.
“I daresay the profession believes it has the knowledge, skills and values to make manageable or to resolve the victimization of children by caregivers within a society that finds children more of a burden than a blessing,” wrote Mr. Herrmann.
But he went on to say: “If the profession has this ability, why, then, do hundreds of millions of children live without hope, without dreams and without protection?”
When word got out about Mr. Herrmann’s failing health, Gregory Stephanie, who formerly worked in international education at Brockport, wrote a note to Mr. Herrmann that seemed to sum up the sentiments of many.
“You have a gift of allowing people to become part of you, and, in turn, you become part of them. I am honored to have part of you in me,” Stephanie wrote.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Herrmann is survived by 11 children and stepchildren and four grandchildren as well as a sister, Betty Zugger, of Angola, Erie County.
A memorial will be held on Nov. 21 at 7 p.m., at The College at Brockport. The exact location has not yet been determined.