December 2001


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Written by
Robert Mendelson

Photograph provided by family

An Obsession with Culture |

The credentials of University of Pittsburgh senior Matt Brady were impressive. As an athlete, he was ranked among the top 40 IM (individual medley) swimmers in the world, and he was the University’s swim team captain. As a student, he made the Dean’s List in his freshman, sophomore, and junior years. He was also a member of the student environmental action coalition and he co-founded swimming clinics for local children.

Such a well-rounded collegiate performance hadn’t gone unnoticed. His name appeared in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities, and he reigned as the University’s homecoming king. It’s no wonder that Alec Stewart, dean of the Honors College, thought Brady would be an excellent candidate for a 1995 Rhodes Scholarship. He urged Brady to apply. Brady did. It turned out he was the only Pitt student to survive the local cut that year.

That meant he would be one of 12 Pennsylvanians interviewed by the state's Rhodes Scholarship committee. To prepare for that session, Stewart arranged a mock interview for Brady before a handful of academicians, including a former Rhodes scholar named Wesley W. Posvar.

Brady was a little nervous. Posvar had some impressive credentials of his own:

During his nearly 24 years as the 15th Chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Posvar had been credited with preventing Pitt’s financial collapse, and then turning the University into one of the nation’s leading academic research institutions. In the US Air Force, he rose to brigadier general, and as a combat pilot he took part in the 1948 Berlin Airlift; he also flew 50 combat missions in Vietnam. He held an MA in public administration and a PhD in political science from Harvard University, an MA and BA in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford, and a BS in engineering from West Point Academy, where he graduated first in his class. He also sat on numerous boards, councils, and associations for corporations, charitable organizations, and the military.

If that background wasn’t enough to intimidate Brady, he remembers some words of caution he received from Stewart: “Dean Stewart had forewarned me that Dr. Posvar was a very intense individual and that I should expect extremely pointed questions from him. The other thing that he said—and I didn’t understand what Dean Stewart meant when he said this—was regardless of what Posvar is doing, when he is asking you questions or when he is sitting in that room, understand that he is focused on you and that he will hear the questions and hear your responses.”

During the mock interview held in the University of Pittsburgh Honors College classroom on the 35th floor of the Cathedral of Learning, Brady sat at one end of the oval conference table. Posvar and the others sat at the other end. Brady remembers fielding questions from all but Posvar: “It seemed like he was doing 3,000 things at the same time. I think he was reading and reviewing articles for publication. Sometimes he would lift his head and respond to something I had said, or he would respond to one of the other interviewers. A couple times he got up and walked out of the room to make a phone call, and then he came back in.”

After Brady answered one of the panel member’s questions about his training regime for swimming, Posvar stopped writing and looked up. “What do you know about the Great Compromise of 1787?” he asked.

Brady paused for a moment before answering. “I know absolutely nothing.”

“Well you should probably read up on it, because they might ask you a question about it.” Then he lowered his head to resume his writing. Before he did, though, he looked up again and talked a bit about the Great Compromise, and its significance in American history.

“It was my first introduction to Dr. Posvar’s political theory,” says Brady. “He also showed me in asking the question that I didn’t know as much about American history as I thought I did.”

Brady knows more now: “The Great Compromise enabled the ratification of the constitution by the Continental Congress because of an understanding that the Bill of Rights would follow. That was the great compromise. Until that point there were 13 states with a capital S; they were independent countries. The Great Compromise created one country. I think that Dr. Posvar would argue that the Great Compromise was one of the most significant events in American history.”

That question not only made Brady search for an answer, it eventually led him toward a MS degree from American University in political theory with a focus on Colonial American political thought.

Posvar had one other piece of advice for Brady during the mock interview—don’t wear the earring he had in each ear. Weeks later Brady ran into Posvar just outside the Cathedral of Learning. Posvar recognized him instantly. He asked how the interview went.

Brady informed him that the committee didn’t select him.

“Did you wear the earrings?” he asked.

“I did,” he answered.

Posvar smiled and shook his head.

Their paths would meet again. Brady in his senior year took an honors college class in international studies that Posvar periodically taught after his 1991 retirement as chancellor. Brady relished the chance to learn more political insights from the man who personally knew every living US president.

Brady graduated magna cum laude in 1996. He received—earrings and all—a Fulbright grant in 1999, and will enter the University of Pennsylvania School of Law next year. He hopes to have a career in politics. For now, he still lives in Pittsburgh. Last summer, he read in the local newspaper that Posvar, 75, died July 25 from a heart attack. In that article he noted the visitation time. He went to the funeral home to deliver a simple message to Posvar’s widow Mildred, and the rest of the family:

“Dr. Posvar influenced my life.”

Robert Mendelson is editor in chief of this magazine.

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