December 6, 2021

Retired SUNY professor dies from virus complications

Joel Shatzky always tried to make people laugh, his daughter said, even through his Parkinson’s disease. But he had to face coronavirus by himself.

Shatzky, a retired SUNY Cortland professor of drama and writing, died Friday of complications related to COVID-19. He was 76.

In one of Judith Shatzky’s most recent memories of her father, she took him in December to see “The Fiddler on the Roof” in Yiddish.

“He was still cracking jokes in Yiddish,” she said. “He was very good at charming people even when he was advanced in his illness.”

“He was like a brother,” said Sam Kelley, a retired professor who taught communications studies, including a course on Spike Lee films.

Shatzky, who taught at Cortland for nearly 40 years, saw a play Kelley wrote at SUNY Cortland and the two met, going to a playwriting class at the Salt City Center for the Performing Arts in Syracuse, Kelley said.

Every year, they’d go to the Shaw Festival and Stratford Festival in Ontario.

Shatzky was also a big supporter of the gospel choir that Kelley helped found.

“Joel’s unflagging support of the SUNY Gospel Choir by establishing the Dorothy Shatzky Scholarship Fund is just one example of his generosity,” SUNY Cortland President Erik J. Bitterbaum said in a letter to the campus. “He was also a leader in establishing the original SUNY Cortland African-American Studies Department.”

“To those who knew him, Joel was a special person — full of life, observant, kindhearted and a gifted chronicler of the human condition,” Bitterbaum added. “His writings on education, politics, and Holocaust history have appeared in The New York Times, Studies in Jewish American Literature, and Players. He was an activist and artist to the end.”

“He was just somebody that was always active and involved and engaged,” said Karla Alwes, a distinguished teaching professor at SUNY Cortland’s English department. “He was somebody who you wouldn’t think would easily pass” from something like COVID-19.

She recalled how Shatzky showed her around the campus in 1989, when she was hired, then taking her to lunch. “He was just so much a person of action and this idea of him being gone, this idea is shocking,” she said.

Shatzky was born Nov. 30, 1943, in Vancouver, Wash. His family had moved there from New York City as his father helped build Liberty ships during World War II.

When he was 2, his family returned to New York, where Shatzky grew up in the Bronx. He studied music at the High School of Music and Art and received degrees at Queens College in New York, the University of Chicago and a Ph.D in dramatic literature from New York University.

While at Queens College, he became involved in politics and civil rights advocacy, joining the school’s Congress of Racial Equality group, Judith Shatzky said.

He brought that passion to SUNY Cortland in 1968.

“Anytime there was a protest, he was usually involved in that,” she said, about the Vietnam war, U.S. involvement in the nations of central and South America, in particular..

He wrote on many topics, including the Holocaust, education and a memoir with his wife Dorothy, who died in 2004, on dealing with multiple sclerosis. Shatzky was also a frequent writer of letters to the editor of the Cortland Standard.

After retiring in 2005, Shatzky moved to Brooklyn where he taught literature and writing at Kingsborough Community College until 2018.

He was admitted to a hospital March 11 for symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 2013. He was moved to a rehabilitation facility, where he contracted coronavirus.

“The saddest part was that he wasn’t able to get any emotional support while he was going through that,” Judith Shatzky said.

Shatzky is survived by his wife Ilana Abramovitch, their children Ben and Judith Shatzky, two grandchildren and several cousins.

Services will be offered after the threat of coronavirus has subsided, Judith Shatzky said.