At an age when most people would have retired, University of Minnesota social work professor Esther Wattenberg launched what would become the defining legacy of her long career: She co-founded the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare (CASCW), a training and research program at the U that helps prepare students to work with children and families.
She was 72 at the time, but Wattenberg never liked to talk about how old she was.
“For her, age was not an accomplishment,” said Wattenberg’s daughter, Betsy Wattenberg.
An accomplishment was transforming the policies that shaped child welfare in Minnesota and beyond. Wattenberg died July 19 at age 99.
Born in 1919 in London, Ontario, Wattenberg grew up during the Great Depression. She was attuned to hardship, which later became the bedrock of her commitment to social service.
During WWII, she was haunted by reports of the M.S. St. Louis, a refugee ship of European Jews that was denied entry by Cuba, the United States and Canada. The ship was sent back to Europe and many of those on board perished in the Holocaust.
“She was acutely aware of this type of suffering and injustice, which was a driving force in her life,” her daughter said.
Wattenberg graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1941, then earned a master of arts from the University of Toronto in 1944 and another master of arts in social services from the University of Chicago’s prestigious social work school. It was there that she met her husband of 70 years, University of Minnesota cancer researcher Lee W. Wattenberg, who died in 2014.
In 1964, she joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work. Later she began a joint appointment with the U’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, a position she used to synergize the policy, practice and research strands of her field.
“She understood policy from a big perspective, but she knew exactly what that was going to look like day-to-day in the lives of kids and families,” said Traci LaLiberte, executive director of CASCW. “It was her life’s work to be able to keep all of those moving parts connected.”
In the early 1970s, she worked with then U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., on what would become the first federal child protection legislation. (Wattenberg was an acquaintance of Mondale’s as well as a prominent DFL fundraiser.) By the 1990s, she had turned her focus to diversifying the child welfare workforce.
With Jean Quam, now the dean of the U’s College of Education and Human Development, Wattenberg won a grant from the Bush Foundation to launch CASCW. The center has served more than 1,000 students since its founding.
“One of her favorite phrases was, ‘We shouldn’t sit back and admire the problem,’ ” Quam said. “She was always asking what the next step was.”
Small and formidable, Wattenberg was “this bullet of a person,” LaLiberte said. She would often burst in late to meetings. One time, Quam recalled, Wattenberg took to a podium with no notes, unsure of the theme of the conference, and yet spoke so knowledgeably that she received a standing ovation.
Before she retired at age 96, Wattenberg wrote a blog on social work practice. Her colleagues called it “Notes from a Cluttered Desk,” an homage to the piles of papers perpetually littering her workspace. Wattenberg renamed it “Notes from a Cluttered Mind.”
In addition to Betsy, Wattenberg is survived by children Mark, Anne and Binks, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Services have been held.