Deceased June 26, 2023
Richard B. Bernstein passed away on June 26, apparently of a heart attack. He is survived by his younger brother, Steven; his younger sister, Linda, succumbed to cancer in 2004.
Richard was extraordinary in many ways—his passion for books, lifelong study of and authoring multiple volumes about the Founding Fathers, desire to help others, a forgiving nature, loyalty to friends and sense of humor. Example: titling a scholarly article about our founding charter “The Constitution as an Exploding Cigar.”
He chose to attend Amherst to study with the noted historian Henry Steele Commager. He began corresponding with Henry while attending Stuyvesant High School. Apparently, Commager saw some potential, and the rest is … history.
I became friends with Richard freshman year. At Amherst, at Harvard Law School and later while living in Brooklyn, he displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of every bookstore within miles; just visiting them seemed to be his greatest source of entertainment. Once he overheard a customer ask whether the store had a particular title. When the clerk responded that he didn’t know, Richard erupted, “You should but you don’t!” He added that a bookstore 10 miles away had three copies left and were the fifth, sixth and seventh books from the left on the third shelf of the fifth aisle.
To acquire books he couldn’t afford, he contacted publishers offering to write reviews of any books they sent him. Richard acquired so many books at Amherst that he had to install rows of floor-to ceiling bookshelves in his room to accommodate them. Upon graduation, his parents drove to Amherst to collect his things, only to discover that a second round trip was required to collect the remainder of his personal library.
When Richard started law school, his parents prohibited him from acquiring any books that were not required. The first time they checked on him, less than three months in, he was still able to hide his new collection under his bed. Later, other students and I had to keep huge stacks of books in our rooms whenever they visited.
Richard also had a photographic memory for the contents of books, which he devoured with enormous celerity. He banged out papers while fearlessly including quotes by memory from numerous sources. He also supplied the attributions from memory, including author, publisher, edition number, publication year and even the page numbers from which the quotes were taken.
Richard was selfless in his friendship. He wrote a moving In Memory tribute to his late close Amherst friend and classmate, Marilee Huntoon, in 2011.
On a lighter note, when my girlfriend disclosed one night her Harvard Medical School application was due the following day and that she hadn’t even started writing it, Richard helped me craft a successful application. We gratefully named our cat for Richard. While I was in school, I was always welcome to stay with Richard’s family in their cramped Queens apartment; post-graduation, Richard came to Manhattan whenever I visited New York.
During law school, Richard was less than fascinated with the study of law. After he graduated, Richard was also less than fascinated by the practice of law. He found his true callings as a professor at City College of New York and scholar of early American history, authoring highly-regarded works concerning various founding fathers. He also posted a daily “Impeachment Teach-In” on Facebook during President Trump’s first impeachment proceedings. At his passing, he was about to begin work on a study of George Washington.
Many of the students in our class were unusual; Richard was unique.
David Quinto ’77