Charles Susskind, professor and author, dies at 82

When Charles and Teresa Susskind strode out of the synagogue on their wedding day, they were confronted with newspaper boxes revealing the day’s historic headline: “Hitler Dead.”

“My husband always said that was the best wedding present he could have wished for,” recalled Teresa Susskind with a laugh.

Charles Susskind had done his part to make this great wedding gift possible, helping to develop the radar technology that gave the Allies a leg up on the Axis powers.

A U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus, pioneer in microwave technology and widely published author, Susskind died Monday, June 14, in his Berkeley home following a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82.

A native of Czechoslovakia, the 17-year-old Susskind escaped his homeland just ahead of the Nazi invasion on one of the last possible Kindertransport shipments in 1939.

Susskind’s father, Bruno, died shortly thereafter during an appendectomy — five Jewish men died under the knife that week in the hospital, in fact — while mother Trudie Susskind went on to survive several concentration camps.

Young Charles Susskind had hoped to join his older brother, Walter, in America, but found himself marooned in England for the duration of the war. He became one of the few men to join the U.S. Army without ever having set foot in the United States, and was put to work on the radar program. He met Teresa (who hailed from an Orthodox British family) in London, where she worked for Project Enigma, breaking German codes.

The Susskinds settled in California in the late 1940s, “which was marvelous after six years of being in the war with bombs and all,” said his wife.

Susskind turned his scientific acumen to the burgeoning field of microwave technology, accepting a professorship at Stanford in 1951. Four years later the family moved across the bay to Berkeley, where the bulk of Susskind’s scientific work in both electrical engineering and bioengineering would be undertaken.

Susskind had a tremendous rapport with students, and became a well-known professor at U.C. Berkeley via his “Technology in Society” course, which was taken by thousands of students through the years, most of them non-science majors.

The course rubbed former Berkeley assistant Professor Theodore Kaczynski the wrong way, however. Kaczynski, aka The Unabomber, planted two bombs in Cory Hall, where Susskind had his offices, maiming two other men. When Kaczynski was captured, it was discovered that Susskind was on his list of potential targets.

In addition to his studies, Susskind founded The San Francisco Press and authored or co-authored 15 books for both general and scientific audiences. He also was appointed to the scientific advisory committee of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1974, which he considered his crowning achievement.

Away from the lecture hall or laboratory, family and friends recall a quiet, kindly and extraordinarily witty man who took joy in helping others.

“When my younger sister, Amanda, was at Cal, a lot of homesick kids came to my parents’ house for lunch or dinner. He was like everybody’s father,” recalled son Peter Susskind.

“All the students really loved my dad. And one thing I remember is that he would never push himself in on a conversation, he never showed off.”

Added daughter Amanda Susskind, now the Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, “He wasn’t the typical sort of absent-minded scientific type. He was a history buff and he spoke five languages … I cite him as living the American Dream.”

Charles Susskind is survived by his wife Teresa; son Peter of Kensington and daughters Pamela Pettler and Amanda Susskind of Los Angeles; and grandsons Andrew Susskind and Michael Pettler. Donations may be sent to Sutter VNA and Hospice, 1900 Powell St., Emeryville, CA 94608.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.