Deceased December 15, 2001

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In Memory

Max Beck died of cancer at home in Brookline, Mass., on Sat., Dec. 15, 2001.

Max grew up in Yeadon, Pa., on the edge of Philadelphia. He graduated from The William Penn Charter School. (The way Max pronounced it—WILLyumpen CHAHteh—many of us thought the school was named after a Mr. Charter.) At Amherst he majored in American Studies; he was the student sports information director; he sat in at Westover AFB; he held hands around a bus at the Springfield selective service office; he bussed in Valentine; he trayed on Memorial Hill; he played intramural basketball and Frisbee.

Freshman year Max lived in North. The friends he made there—including Daya Khalsa (formerly Dan Cohn), Les Wolf, Tim Cockshutt, Jim Wicklatz, Jim Miller and Gary Kornblith—stayed his friends, throughout college and afterwards. Sophomore year Max lived in the social dorms (are they still called that?) with the late Fred Fischer ’71 and others. Junior year Max lived in Valentine and hung with Steve Shak, Rick Sahakian, Tim Murphy and Phil Shapiro. Senior year Max lived on Federal Street in Belchertown with some of the friends named above and with Annie Bryan, Lisa Davison and a dog named Pooper. Max could cook! For 30 years the rest of us have been making Max Beck’s salad dressing and accepting praise without attribution.

After Amherst, Max spent a year in an uninsulated shack in the woods in southern Vermont, then lived for a few years with his cousin Bob in the oak-paneled, leaded window Tudor-style gatehouse of a 20-acre abandoned estate in Elkins Park, Pa. Max’s employment situation and arrangement with the landlord, a developer hoping to subdivide the estate, were fuzzy, but seemed to involve no or low rent in exchange for caretaking that amounted to strolling around the estate, occasionally shooing away teenagers looking to drink or have sex, or both, in the empty mansion. 

Max went to library school while he was living in Elkins Park, but library science did not suit him, so he went to law school at Northeastern. He stayed around Boston for the rest of his life. He got married, had two sons, Jonathan and Alex, practiced law, mostly as a criminal defense lawyer, got divorced, assumed primary responsibility for the boys, was diagnosed with cancer, underwent chemotherapy, lost his hair and his eyebrows, enjoyed periods of remission, regained his hair and eyebrows, underwent more chemo and got remarried, just a year and a half ago, to Susan Roberts.

As a lawyer, Max’s principal criterion for taking on clients was whether they needed help. One of his partners told the Boston Globe “Max was the heir to his father, who was a general practitioner in a humble neighborhood. Max was a lawyer with a black bag.”

Most of us came away from Amherst with strong intellectual curiosity; Max brought that curiosity to Amherst. He was interested in everything. He loved sports, but he loved history and art and music and literature just as much and could talk about them just as enthusiastically, intelligently and in depth. Max did not care about grades, or achievement, or the approval of the establishment (including that anti-establishment establishment, the faculty). He trusted his own intellect and instincts. He constructed his own criteria for measuring success and measured himself only against those criteria. Those of us who went to Amherst with Max owe the College a lot for our education, but we owe Max just as much. Max was like a legal mind-expanding drug.

As was the case for many of us, Max’s adventures in the ’60s shocked his parents, Mort and Mickey, perhaps more than any generation of parents had ever been shocked before, but, unlike many of us, Max never really alienated his parents, or vice versa. He stayed close to them and to his sister Ellen and brother-in-law Stephen Solms for as long as they and he lived. Max’s friends usually became unofficial members of the Beck/Solms family—at the seder, at 76ers’ games, at the lake in Maine and always around the SORRY! board.

Here is how some of Max’s friends remember him:

Jim Wicklatz:  Max was the first person I met at Amherst, and he was my friend through those four years. Max made friends with everybody. He mixed easily among all kinds of people and seemed to know everyone at Amherst. He was always stopping by to say hello to somebody, chatting and joking, and if the conversation turned to politics or basketball, literature or rock and roll, Max had an opinion about it. I saw him only a handful of times after college, the last time being in 1985. So I remember Max as he was in our youth, with his exuberance and goofy grin and good cheer, and I will never forget him.

Tim Cockshutt:  Max was more of an idealist than most but he also had a strong appreciation for greaser style and the underdog—a Jewish doctor's son from a working class Italian neighborhood who attended an elite Quaker school. Max's enthusiasm for the spirit of the time was unabashed and he was always the organizer of our activities. Max took great pride in his role in the great Late Sunday Night Riot, which started as a couple celebrating a birthday party outside the social dorms but then moved on to inspire the president of Amherst to hide under his bed.

Jim Miller:  I’ve been trying to grasp the bad news. So far my words seem trite. I do know that Max wouldn’t appreciate bullshit.

Daya Khalsa (formerly Dan Cohn):  Max was unforgettable. He always knew who he was and was grateful for what God gave him, while seeing the irony in it all. He was very real. Max had a funny point of view on every part of the social and cultural landscape, and kept me laughing most of the way. I don’t know why God wanted him back early. I see him laughing about something, with that long black hair swinging around his face, trying to make everyone else laugh with his analysis of the world. He was down to earth about everything.

Gary Kornblith:  My memories of Max mainly revolve around the three key themes of the late ’60s:  sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. He served as a guide to my first-year college experience. I went with Max to several great concerts. A bunch of us used Max’s house in Philadelphia as our base for attending a huge concert at the Atlantic City Speedway, probably in 1969. Headliners included Jefferson Airplane and B.B. King. That was my introduction to King’s amazing music and other mind-enhancing pleasures. I remain in Max’s debt for sharing a bit of the ’60s culture with me.

In the last 15 years Max faced a disproportionate share of unusual, and undeserved, difficult challenges. Except for the cancer, he was able to turn them into good breaks. Throughout it all, he kept up the same enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and unique perspective that he brought from Yeadon to Amherst 34 years ago. Life has lost one of its biggest fans.

Rob Quaintance ’72