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OBITUARIES / Elspeth Rostow, 1917 - 2007

Public policy expert was dean of LBJ School, advised 2 presidents

December 17, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Elspeth Rostow, a public policy expert and presidential advisor who was a former dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, died Dec. 9 of a heart attack at her Austin, Texas, home, the university announced. She was 90.

With Rostow as dean from 1977 to 1983, the LBJ School, as it is popularly known, became one of the nation's best at teaching public policy, said James K. Galbraith, a professor there.

She accomplished this by refining the curriculum, giving the school an esprit de corps and recruiting professors such as former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, he said.

Rostow once noted that she had been teaching since World War II began. This fall, she was still teaching two courses at the school, on the American presidency and U.S. foreign policy -- subjects with which she had firsthand experience.

Her husband of more than 50 years, Walt Rostow, was a national security advisor for presidents Kennedy and Johnson. While he advised Johnson on the Vietnam War, she taught at American University and Georgetown University.

Under President Carter, she served on the President's Advisory Committee for Trade Negotiations and the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties. In 1987, President Reagan appointed her to the board of the United States Institute of Peace, and she later served as its chairwoman. "She was as vibrant and engaged at the end of her life as she had been through 70 years of teaching," James Steinberg, dean of the LBJ School, told the Austin American-Statesman.

Born Elspeth Davies in 1917 in New York City, she graduated from Barnard College in 1938. She received a master's degree in history from Radcliffe College in 1939 and another master's from Cambridge University in 1949.

While teaching at Barnard in 1939, she was among the founders of American studies as an academic discipline, said Robert Abzug, a history professor and former chairman of the American studies department at the University of Texas at Austin.

During World War II, Rostow analyzed dispatches from the French Resistance for U.S. government intelligence.

As a history professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, she gently but successfully pushed the school to open its faculty club to women, said her son, Peter Vaughan Rostow.

When the Johnson administration ended in 1969, Rostow and her husband joined the University of Texas.

In 1992, the couple helped found the Austin Project, which promotes educational and social literacy in local schools. Her husband died in 2003.

"She was sometimes perceived as an intimidating woman, regal and erudite," her daughter, Ann Lerner Rostow, wrote in a memorial. "Underneath that image was a woman who was somewhat shy, somewhat reserved, poetic, sensitive and wickedly funny."

In addition to her two children, Rostow's survivors include a granddaughter.

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