Goldwassers celebrate a lifetime together - and more

Goldwassers celebrate a lifetime together - and more

To give you an idea how long Lizie and Ned Goldwasser have been married, consider this.

Their first date came the same day World War II broke out in Europe. On their wedding day, Franklin D. Roosevelt was about to be elected to his third term. Their marriage has spanned 13 presidents, five U.S. wars, the McCarthy red scare, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Internet.

The Urbana couple marked their 70th anniversary on Oct. 29, and they celebrated in style, with a fancy dinner at an elegant restaurant. In Paris. Then they went to Rome.

He is 92. She is 91. Just try to tell them to slow down.

“As you grow older, you will find a lot of people will tell you that when you’re 70, you can’t do this, and when you’re 80 you can’t do that, and when you’re 90 you can’t do anything,” Ned says. “I think it’s extremely important to resist that.”

If his name sounds familiar, it should. Ned Goldwasser is a former University of Illinois vice chancellor (1978 to 1986) and a world-class physicist who co-founded the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill.

His research on subatomic particles helped solve puzzles about what holds a nucleus together and why there were so many neutrons in cosmic rays coming to Earth. He’s met with presidents and served on prestigious national and international scientific committees.

But family has always been at the center of their life.

A native New Yorker, Goldwasser studied physics at Harvard University, where he was also on the swim team. He was in college when he first met Liza Weiss through his close friend, and her first cousin, John Weiss. The two men went to New York for a World Series game in 1937, and afterward had dinner with Liza, whom he called Lizie, a freshman at Vassar. She and Ned had grown up within 10 blocks of each other on the west side of Manhattan but had never met.

They saw each other periodically after that, but their first real date came in September 1939, when Ned invited Lizie to take a spontaneous drive to Maine. By the time they arrived, war had been declared in Europe.

They were married Oct. 27, 1940, a few months after he graduated from Harvard. They took a short honeymoon trip to the South in a car his parents bought him as a graduation present. The only stipulation was that they return to New York in time to vote (for FDR), though Lizie, just 20, was still too young to vote.

Ned’s mother, and Lizie’s entire family, were staunch Democrats, with legal and political ties to leading politicians like Roosevelt and, later, Adlai Stevenson and the Kennedys. Pete Seeger, a Harvard classmate of Ned’s, sang at the memorial service for Lizie’s grandmother, Alice Pollitzer, a tiny but mighty Democratic activist who lived to be 102.

Ned’s first job out of college was as a civilian physicist in the Navy. He was assigned to the San Francisco Bay area to install defensive devices on ships to protect them from powerful magnetic mines developed by the Germans.

After the war he decided to get his doctoral degree in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, working with cosmic rays. Though his interest was in nuclear physics, and he was invited by two professors to join their research team, he didn’t pass the security review required to use the particle accelerator lab at Berkeley.

It was the McCarthy era, and the work was considered top secret. Ned had given money to an anti-fascist committee and worked with a group of scientists — some with communist ties — who had donated their expertise to small factories supplying U.S. forces with war materials.

“They thought I was a radical,” he says, despite his previous top-secret work with the Navy. “Communism was the new enemy, and I looked on my record like a communist sympathizer.”

Later, as a postdoctoral researcher, Goldwasser was offered a faculty position at Berkeley after a number of professors left in protest over a state loyalty oath required of faculty. With three children, he needed the job, but decided to see what else he could find.

He contacted the University of Illinois, where he had turned down a job the previous year, and was told a position was still available. The physics department was “very welcoming,” no loyalty oath required, and he accepted. The couple fell in love with Champaign-Urbana and stayed 60 years, aside from his 10 years as deputy director at Fermilab (1968 to 1978).

“It’s a wonderful place to live,” Lizie says.

They raised five children here — Mike, a Peace Corps alum and now a cattle farmer in Virginia; John, a math professor at the University of West Virginia; Kathy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis; David, a veterinarian in upstate New York (whose son, Ben, co-founded the rock band MGMT); and Rick, a tennis instructor and photographer in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Diverse occupations, none of them physics. That pleases Ned.

“It confirms the fact that we let our kids do what they like," he says.

The children, whose photos cover the Goldwassers’ refrigerator, say their parents never judged their choices and taught them to enjoy life to the fullest.

“More often than not if you call them on a weeknight they’re not home, which is a lot more than I can say for myself,” Mike says.

An important part of their lives has been an annual trip to the Berkshires in New York, where Lizie’s family has gathered every summer for decades. Lizie’s mother wanted a place big enough for all the grandchildren, so she built five cabins, one for each family, and a main house with a big deck overlooking the countryside where they would gather for meals and socializing. The Goldwassers still go every summer to what is now a huge family reunion.

Ned’s work with an international high-energy physics union — and their love of travel — has taken the couple around the world and back, to the former Soviet Union, China, Africa, the Middle East and many parts in between.

One of their favorite times was the year they spent in Rome (1957-58) while Ned was on sabbatical, to help scientists set up a new particle accelerator. It wasn’t finished in time, so he agreed to lecture throughout the year instead — in Italian, he’s proud to say.

What’s kept them together for seven decades? Lizie Goldwasser attributes much of it to sheer good fortune, saying “we’ve been very lucky, with our health, with our children.” They also have the same basic outlook on life, and were blessed to come from stable families with strong values.

When they met, Ned was struck by her beauty, and “she had ideas similar to mine,” he remembers. “We soon learned that wasn’t always true. But we learned to live with differences, too.”

He doesn’t like coffee; she does. He doesn’t drink; she does. He doesn’t smoke; she did, for awhile. “She doesn’t ride a bike, and I do,” he adds, prompting her retort, “I used to ride a bike.” “That’s nonsense,” he replies fondly.

There have been “bumps in the road” over 70 years, Ned says, but the time they’d invested in the relationship is so much more important.

Last year, Ned bumped his head in a fall, and about a month later — after he’d driven to Virginia for Lizie’s 90th birthday party — he began losing his speech and movement in one arm. Doctors discovered he had bleeding on the brain. He had two brain surgeries in three days, then suffered a stroke during rehab.

He didn’t speak until the day Lizie came to take him home last June, during the French Open. His first words, according to son Mike: “Serena Williams is playing now, and Federer is playing next.”

Even the surgeon was stunned by his recovery. Within a week Ned was on the Internet making reservations in Paris, “to show he wasn’t giving up,” Mike says.

Ned and Lizie had gone to Paris, Rome, Florence and London five years ago on their 65th anniversary, but scaled back their trip last fall. They still used the subway and took in some sights, but mostly ate at great restaurants and sat in their favorite cafes.

The trip “symbolizes so much about the way they want to live and the way they feel about things,” Mike says. “They’ve had an amazing life.”


For more on the Goldwassers' remarkable story, go to this blog entry. You can contact Julie Wurth at 351-5226,,, or leave a comment below.

Photos: Ned and Lizie Goldwasser in their Urbana home on March 23, 2011, top. Robert O'Daniell/News-Gazette.

At bottom, the young couple stands in front of their home in San Francisco with their first son, Mike, in 1944. Goldwasser family photo



Login or register to post comments