Remembering Professor, Emeritus, Gerald Lesser

09/24/2010 1:02 PM

lesser_web.jpgHarvard Graduate School of Education Professor, Emeritus, will be remembered not only as a visionary on the role of the media in shaping a child’s educational and emotional development, but also for the impact he made on many among the students and at the Ed School. Lesser died yesterday at the age of 84.

“As a young assistant professor, I assigned Gerry Lesser’s work to my students because it illustrated the power of applied developmental science,” says Dean Kathleen McCartney, the Gerald S. Lesser Professor in Early Childhood Development. “The first time I met Gerry Lesser, he joked that he was sorry to have saddled me with the name ‘Lesser Professor’; he also told me how proud he was that the dean of the school was serving in a chair that honored him. But I am the one who is proud to carry his name along with mine.”

Lesser earned his Ph.D. in child development and psychology from Yale University in 1952 where his research focused on child development, the effects of visual media on children, and the design of education programming. He was appointed professor of education at HGSE in 1963 and taught developmental psychology and its application to education until his retirement in 1998. He also served as the chair of the Human Development Program for 20 years, recruiting several generations of developmental psychologists and cultural anthropologists to Harvard whose work reshaped the face of child development and education across the country.

Lesser is perhaps most well known as one of the scholars who – during his time at the Ed School – developed the curriculum for the acclaimed PBS series , a show unparalleled in the history of television. Throughout his 30 years at HGSE, he continued to work on Sesame Street where he served as chairman of the Children’s Television Workshop’s board of advisors from 1969 through 1996. Lesser was determined to ensure the show’s value as a learning experience, establishing a strong culture of assessment and writing the 1974 book, Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street.

The impact of Sesame Street over the past 40 years is undeniable. In 2007, Time magazine named Sesame Street one of 17 shows that changed television, observing, “Along the way, kids have learned about friendship, cooperation and even (through Mr. Hooper) death. The show’s format has evolved over the years, but Sesame Street remains one of the savviest things ever brought to kids by the letters T and V.”

A champion of television as an education tool, Lesser often spoke around the world about how television could enrich children’s lives and teach them, much like stories, poetry, art, music, and theater. In 1983, at a symposium on children’s culture in Japan, Lesser said, “Television can bring them sights they have never seen, sounds they have never heard, people and ideas they have not yet imagined. It can show our children how things work, how other people use them, what goes on in the world, and how to think about it.” However, he cautioned that it was up to humans to determine how to use the “instrument” to the best of their ability to engage, entertain, and teach children.

Beyond Lesser’s impact in the world of television and children’s learning, he also greatly influenced many at HGSE including Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program. In Blatt’s course Informal Learning for Children, students are given the opportunity to work with researchers, creative talent, and senior executives from Sesame Workshop. “Gerry Lesser was a teacher, mentor, friend, and above all an inspiration to me and to other students across three decades at HGSE,” says Blatt. “He taught us that researching, designing, producing, and testing learning materials for four-year-olds requires every bit of creativity, dedication, and wisdom that we could muster – and that the work is more rewarding and more fun than we could have imagined.”

Lesser earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University. Throughout his academic career, Lesser achieved many accolades including being named a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies in 1988 and 1990, a visiting professor at the Institute for Communications Research at Keio University in Japan in 1986, and a Guggenheim Fellow in 1970. He also received a Distinguished Contribution Award for Applications in Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 1974 for his “sophisticated and imaginative use of psychological research to help develop a new kind of human significance for television.”

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  • Mark Hager, EdM ’92

    Gerry was one of my favorite prof’s. He challenged me to move beyond my stereotypes of television and embrace its educative potential. I will always be grateful to him.

  • Ted Lesser

    I want to thank the Graduate School for this gracious remembrance of my father. I want all of his colleagues to know he did not suffer at the end and had his entire family at his side at the end. My mother,sister and myself loved him with all our hearts and miss him more than I can express. I can not imagine a better or more caring father.
    Thank you all for your kindness and support during this sad and painful time for my family.

  • Christine Capota

    His life and work is an inspiration. He touched the lives of millions. My sincere condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues.

  • Mignonne Pollard

    He was a wonderful professor. He was an inspiration. I am fortunate to have known him as a teacher. Sending love and light to his family and friends.

  • David V B Britt

    As a long time Workshopper, my memories of Gerry are of his impact as teacher, ambassador and colleague. His role in the creation of Sesame Street is well documented. His leadership of the continuing evolution of the curriculum has been equally crucial and innovative – - always eager to change, adapt and move on. He led the curriculum development of later projects, engaged and inspired hundreds of researchers and producers all around the world, and always, always radiated the joy of learning of Big Bird and Grover and the joy of Cookie Monster. I took his contributions too much for granted – - they were, and remain incalculable.

  • Howard Gardner

    Gerry Lesser had a memorable effect on younger colleagues as well as on peers and students. As a young researcher and then faculty member, I looked to Gerry for his rare combination of good sense, knowledge of the academy, and worldliness– in the best sense of that term. It is well know that he was for many years the skilful Chair of the Human Development Program, less well known that he also chaired the Steering Committee of the Project on Human Potential (known then as the Van leer Project) In that capacity, he had to herd a lot of very difficult cats from all over the world (and all over Cambridge!) and did a tremendous job in that important but often thankless role. I have especially vivid memories of traveling to China with Gerry in 1980- said to be the first official Harvard trip to Post Cultural Revolution to China. By far the most worldly of our group, and already in contact with Chinese Television (via his Sesame Street work), Gerry made a challenging trip especially lively and productive. I’ve missed him in recent years– will never forget his generosity to younger colleagues, without any expectation of recompense. Thanks, Gerry!

  • Terry Tivnan

    Gerry welcomed me to HGSE when I was a student, and his work and his thinking was very influential. But what I recall most fondly was the quiet way in which he would support his students and colleagues, often without their even knowing. He brought so many scholars and students and creative ideas to the fourth floor of Larsen Hall. He created a wonderful learning environment, and he shared his ideas with the world. He helped us all learn about being a teacher and researcher, and I still feel his influence in the courses I teach now.

  • Aimee Tanon

    Your dad was a great man, even though I have not studied or known him personally, his work transcends Harvard. I was wavering on where to apply for Graduate school for education, after reading this, I would love to pursue a degree in Education at the very institution Gerry Lesser made such a remarkable impression on. My condolences.

  • David Kleeman

    Just a month ago, I posted an article on the “Kidscreen” site, citing “Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street” as one of five indispensable books for children’s media professionals. Gerry’s insight into the potential and the challenges of creating educational media remains as fresh as when he wrote the book.
    It is rare that you can trace your career to a single day, a single hour, but I can. I came to Harvard as an undergraduate looking to become a preschool teacher — odd for a male in the 1970s, and odder still for Harvard. I heard Gerry speak to my education survey course just a month later, and instantly refocused on teaching via television.
    Gerry was incredibly generous in allowing — encouraging — me to take HGSE courses, and became my advocate and mentor. To this day, I collaborate with the friends I made in the Practicum.
    His thoughtfulness and generosity became embarrassingly apparent several years ago, when Gerry invited me to come speak to his class. He introduced my by holding up a paper I’d written as a freshman in that very survey course, on use of music by (then) Children’s Television Workshop (complete with drawings by my roommate on the title page!). It moves me even as I type this to think he’d kept that rough paper by an enthusiastic but raw undergrad, for more than 20 years.
    Peace to Gerry’s family, and thank you so much for sharing him with the school, the industry and the world.
    David Kleeman
    President, American Center for Children and Media

  • Betsy Blosser

    Even though my year at Harvard was a year in which Gerry was on sabbatical, he influenced me tremendously! He was around for the “practicum course,” in which we immersed ourselves in the thinking behind “3-2-1 Contact.” He thought with us – he leaped in with all four feet to think about how to reach girls and children of color – and he placed no limits on our thinking. Because that was the richest course I have ever taken at any university, I have tried to replicate it in my own teaching. I have probably taught it about 25 times, and students still love it – with a fresh topic and target audience for each new semester. (We’re doing ‘Let’s Move’ for 6- to 8-year-olds this fall.) If you could see my copy of Gerry’s book on “Sesame Street” – marked up with comments on every page – you would understand that Gerry affirmed for me that television could, indeed, be used as a force for good. That belief has shaped my career. Gerry lives on for all of us who see ourselves as his students – and for the millions of children who were lucky enough to benefit from his influence. Viva, Gerry!

  • Dina Borzekowski

    In the late 80s, while attending Columbia (and studying with Gerry’s wonderful protege Dr. Carla Seal-Wanner), I read and then reread many times Gerry’s book “Children and Television.” That book was completely instrumental for me and many others. Gerry’s words helped me realized exactly what I wanted to do and with whom I wanted to study.
    I had the opportunity to have Gerry serve as my mentor and advisor; I think that I was one of his last doctoral students before he retired. Incorporated into my own research work and teaching of students will be is spirit and devotion to making the world a better place.
    My thoughts go out to his family, friends, and students. He will be greatly missed.

  • Nina Lesser Duprey

    Like my brother, Ted, I would like to thank everyone for all the kind words and support at this time. My father and I always shared a very special bond. People always remarked at how much I looked like him which always made me happy. I’m so proud of my dad in many ways–from all he achieved in his career to what a kind, caring, gentle person he was, and an unbelievable father. I will miss him so much. (My son, Sam, his grandson, will miss him too. My dad loved to share his basketball and tennis pointers with him.)

  • Sue McCann

    A huge loss… Dr. Lesser always encouraged me when I worked with him at Sesame Workshop. My thoughts are with his family…

  • Barbara Glass Wyman Curtis, EdD ’85

    Gerry was a truly wonderful teacher. I learned about being a researcher, and I still feel his influence in my work today.

  • Erik Gregory, ’95

    Dr. Lesser set me on my path to create educational content for children’s TV. He was a scholar, creator, and most importantly a very kind and supportive man. I remember telling myself as a student that the type of person I wanted to be one day, but there is only one Gerald Lesser. My appreciation and thoughts are with him and his family.

  • Renee Cherow-O’Leary

    In my almost ten years at Sesame Street, I remember Gerry Lesser fondly. He led workshops with great joie de vivre and was always committed to bringing education to children in a significant, substantive and lively way. Of course, Children and Television is on my shelf too. Taking it down this afternoon, I find a folded up, yellowing piece of paper with a planned show for Sesame Street in Swahili! And I see Gerry’s quote from Antoine St. Exupery’s The Little Prince that led into Section Two of his book: “Grownups never seem to understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” Rest in peace, Gerry, and thank you!
    Renee Cherow-O’Leary, Ph.D, President
    Education for the 21st Century
    New York City

  • Joan Bersin Ziff

    I remember well my Thursday morning seminars with Dr. Lesser, back in the Spring of ’85. We were a small group of no more than 10, meeting in a board room at the School of Ed.on Appian Way. We were all beginners, yet Dr. Lesser, with his warm smile and inquisitive manner, allowed each one of us to voice our ideas without any judgment. His respect and enthusiasm for whatever we presented was a good part of the lesson for me. He also taught me several highly important skills of planning out and describing through discussions-our give and take conversations allowed our imaginations to fly! It is hard for me to express how grateful I am for the opportunity I had to have taken classes with him in the field of children’s television development, and now, the sadness I feel at his passing on. For me, Dr. Gerald Lesser is representative of everything great that Harvard stands for.
    My deepest condolences to his family and close friends. May you all be comforted with the knowledge and pride that you were part and parcel of such a wonderful educator and brilliant man of the world.

  • Carla Seal-Wanner

    Our mentor and friend has passed– leaving us with all that he taught us to pass on to others who want to improve children’s lives through media.
    I arrived at HGSE in 1976 to study cross-cultural psychology with Beatrice Whiting and Robert Levine (having been an undergraduate student of Mike Cole’s). I wanted to save the world by understanding the developmental and cultural differences that contribute to the intellectual, social, emotional and creative potential of the child. Gerry was instrumental in
    directing me to use media as the educational vehicle to contribute to leveling the playing fields. I was honored to be able to support my doctoral years by being his research assistant, teaching fellow and occasional speech writer. He was a demanding dissertation advisor, but always delivered his advice with humor and wit. Many of us in the field of children’s educational media share this legacy and gratitude for his mentorship.
    My love goes out to Stella and his beloved children and to Joe Blatt who is carrying on… xxxCarla
    Carla Seal-Wanner
    Director of Education and Curriculum, FlickerLab.com, NYC

  • Celia Morris, Ed. D. ’89

    I was speaking to my daughter only last week about what wonderful a support Gerry had been to me during a difficult time in my Harvard career–and I know he brought the same understanding to all the student fortunate enough to be in his classes. To my amazement, since then he always seemed to remember me whenever our paths crossed. He changed many lives and will be sorely missed. My condolences to the family.

  • Susan Marion, Ed. M ’92 Ed.D. ’04

    Gerry was my advisor when I first came to HGSE, and I loved to hear him talk about the politics of children’s television, off-the-cuff in the student cafeteria. Throughout the years his work has inspired me as a teacher and media artist, and it still inspires my public school students.

  • Joseph Thomas

    What I remember most about Gerry was his graciousness, humility, and humor. As the saying goes, “He was no respecter of persons.” And because he never put on airs (nor was he ever impressed by anyone who did), he was actually a respecter of all. Thank you, Gerry. May you rest in peace.

  • Nobuyuki Ueda, Ed.D.’89

    Gerry, thank you so much for your inspiration and enthusiasm for creating innovative media. After I graduated from HGSE, I joined a research group in Japan and developed new television segments targeted for 2-year-old children. This program was filled with your heart and the playful spirit you taught me at Ed School. I will never forget you and your aspiration for “making learning playful.”

  • Barbara Schieffelin Powell

    I remember when Gerry brought Big Bird to the Science Center. Our kids Ben and Allie were in the front row, in fact virtually the only children in a sea of students and professors. They finally realized that Art did something important, because he worked with a man who knew Big Bird.
    In 1976 we traveled with the Lessers and others to Greece to help open a Greek primary school. Gerry, as others have said, (and Stella, too) was a delightful traveling companion–curious, friendly, and up for adventure. He combined a seriousness about academic research with a irrepressible sense of fun: a rare combination.
    Our hearts go out to Stella, Ted and Nina.
    Barbara Powell EdD ’70

  • Linda Pack Butler

    Like many students who passed through Gerry’s classroom, I found him to be an engaging teacher, to say the least. At the time, I was producing commercial television, a very different animal from his beloved PBS. The discussions Gerry invited always were full of the enthusiasm of an open and dynamic mind. He saw possibilities and he was able to communicate this enthusiasm to his students. Most of all, perhaps, I will remember Gerry as a teacher who taught me – throughout my professional life – of the pragmatism that can be rooted in the new. He will be missed … but remembered.

  • Beth R Barth

    I have counted on Gerry and Stella as inspirations, role models and kind friends. Gerry brought child development into the real world. What an amazing accomplishment.
    Together they were able to help me laugh at the absurd and rail against the unjust. I just loved Gerry and send Stella and their family my best.
    Beth R. Barth

  • Don Pierson

    I was fortunate to be one of Gerry’s first advisees at HGSE. He was a wonderful mentor for applying psychological research to educational practice. He responded to the interests of several students to develop and chair a Ph.D. in Education program. Beyond the classroom, we had great fun playing tennis and basketball. In fact, he usually scheduled his frequent trips to NYC not only around his classes, but also around the games. I hold Gerry as a model in my relations with students and colleagues. My sincere sympathies to Stella, Ted and Nina
    Don Pierson Ed.M’65, Ph.D.’70

  • Jennifer Frutchy Dord

    Stella and Nina-
    I only just learned of Gerry’s passing. He was one special guy when he befriended not me, but Susannah at age four, fetching her Sesame Street figurines from the bottom of the pool at Peacock Farm. From there a friendship flousihed between the two of them, when Susannah invited Gerry to dinner, and he accepted her invitation. And so he was her friend, our friend, always asking about our kids, their travels, and each other. He is permanently etched in all our minds and we send all our love,
    Jenny Frutchy Ford M Ed ’82

  • Kristen Westhoven

    Hey Ted,
    So Sorry to hear you lost your father! Glad to know you’re still around though ~ I still have your records. Good thing I stashed them for you because WNEC was turned upside down. Contact me for details: catscradle@metrocast.net
    My condolences to you & your family,
    Kristen Westhoven

  • Maureen Hunter-Bone

    I remember Gerry fondly from Children’s Television Workshop. The world of children around the world is richer for his work.

  • Luda

    A memorial site was created for Gerald S. Lesser! Honor his memory by contributing to his memorial site http://geraldslesser.people2remember.com/

  • Linda Rath, EdD ’94

    Gerry was also a key advisor for the PBS/Sirius TV series “Between the Lions.” His dedication to education was profound, but he delighted in the playful and silly ideas of writers and producers of the series. With diplomacy and warmth, he constantly nudged the team to aim high, respect our audience, and reach our educational goals.

  • Priscilla Wyman Schultheis

    Mr. Lesser was special to me as an icon in the neighborhood. At the end of each day his red Volvo would arrive over the crest of Tower Road where his daughters Julie, Nina, and I were playing softball in the street with the rest of the neighborhood kids. Mr. Lesser used to walk me home at night and I’ll always remember his gentlemanly manners. I was there in his sunroom with Julie and the family to watch the very first airing of Sesame Street where he interviewed Kermit the Frog. He happily greeted me many years later when I returned to the neighborhood with my 6 year old son. Gerry immediately bonded with him and gave him a personal tour of the neighborhood. Mr. Lesser is woven into the fabric of my life and I will always be grateful for that. Love, Priscilla Schultheis

  • Pauline Parker Brannigan

    Dear Ted,
    I am sorry to hear of your father’s passing. I know what deep respect you had for him as a father and educator. My deepest sympathies to your mother and sisters as well. Please reach out to reconnect.
    With Deepest Sympathies from your fellow Saycian,
    Pauline Parker -91 NEC

  • Ted Lesser

    Another and, to me, outstanding quality my father had was the quickest and keenest sense of humor of any man I’ve ever known. One of my fondest memories is of sitting at the dinner table with him and batting jokes back and forth at breakneck pace. I won’t swear to their quality but they certainly amused my mother. I’m told I have a good sense of humor and, if so, that’s where it comes from.
    He was unashamed of his love of corny puns and jokes. He couldn’t overhear someone speaking in an unfamiliar language without inevitably responding ‘That’s easy for you to say’ (I have gone on to annoy countless people from faraway lands with the same gag). If I were going swimming I’d take great pains not to tell him or I’d be sure to hear the stern admonition ‘Don’t get wet!’ In his difficult last year I’d often read him long sections of dialogue from the Marx Brothers (our favorite) for the satisfaction of hearing his unrestrained laughter.
    Thanks again for all your comments and kindness. My understanding is that Harvard will be holding a memorial for my father in February. I hope to see you all there.

  • Frances Forde Plude

    In addition to taking his classes, Professor Lesser was an advisor on my doctoral dissertation on what policies we should have on direct broadcast satellites. This was a little afield from his work but he kindly agreed. As I focused on new technologies (around 1980) neither of us could dream of cell phones, Google searches or Facebook platforms. We were lucky to have his insights as we all probed new communication frontiers.

  • Glenn Garvey

    Hello Ted,
    I was actually searching for some sign of *you* on the web but instead I came across the news that your father had died. I remember that you spoke with respect and admiration for him even through the rebellious fog of our NEC years. I am very sorry for your loss. I hope you are otherwise well and that you will take a moment when you have one to contact me down here in Austin, TX. I’ve missed your terrific sense of the absurd these many years.
    Glenn Garvey

  • Alan Lesser

    When and where will the memorial service for Gerry be held?

  • Muriel J. Nolan

    Gerry and I met in 1949 when we both worked with trans-orbital lobotomy patients @ Greystone Psychiatric Hospital in NJ. We have touched base occasionally through the years. Gerry, you were a bright light and the lights around the world have dimmed since your passing. You were such a caring man and so interested in people. Who could forget your sense of humor. I would recognize the sound of your laughter across a room. Gerry, rest in peace. I miss you. Muriel

  • Muriel J. Nolan

    Gerry, you were such a bright light and the lights around the world have dimmed since you’ve been gone. You were such a helpful, caring man and so interested in people. Who could forget your sense of humor. I would recognize the sound of your laughter across a room. Gerry, rest in peace. I miss you.

  • James Belcher

    Gerry was my hero in the educational research field. I first met him for an interview for my addmissions to Harvard’s educational research program. The program he ran on children’s formative research taught me life long lessons on how to formulate educational programs based on the results of testing small populations of children. The principles he and others taught me were used over 17 years in developing educational training programs for customers and employees at many high tech companies in the Boston area. Gerry gave me the skills and know how to develop very sound, and effective training programs. I just wanted to let his family and friends know he had very powerful, positive impact on my life. I learned from him how to develop a training program by first listening to the customer and then formulate objectives and content to answer those customers needs. What a great human being!
    James Belcher, EdM’76

  • Deborah Cherlin Levy Ed.M. ’93

    I was a student in the early years of the TIE program. Gerry was my advisor. My fondest memory of my HGSE experience is sitting in one of his classes one winter morning and having Frank Oz as Grover join us for class. Having a conversation with Grover remains one of the highlights of my career in education. Thank you, Dr. Lesser, for the great memories and invaluable lessons you helped me learn.

  • Barry Burdon

    Sad to hear of Gerry’s passing. I spent an early career sabattical from Australia at HGSE 1976-77 and took one of Gerry’s graduate classes – stimulating, challenging and encouraging. My youngest son (6 yrs at the time) took part in Barbara Flaggs research project into attention span when watching Sesame St – so loved Kermits comment to Jerry which he loved to relate.
    Vale Gerald Lesser, the world is richer for you having been with us – and will miss you lots.
    Dr Barry Burdon (EdM 76-77).

  • Susanreibelmoore

    Ted Sizer and now Gerald Lesser. We are, of course, poor wayfaring strangers. Here in Sydney we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Harvard Club in Australia. Each time I catch bits of Sesame Street I think of ‘my’ Harvard and, especially, Big Bird. Susan Reibel Moore, MAT ’62

  • Habib Khan, EdD (1993)

    Prof Gerald Lesser was a great institution in himself. It’s unfortunate that during 7 years as graduate student at Harvard I could not take a course with him but am glad that I always benefited from his philosophy in informal meetings and interacting with his student. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

  • Peter C. Murray

    Ted, sorry to hear about the passing of your Dad. This is Peter Murray (Or as it said on my NEC Arundel ID. Peter Murriay. I lost touch with you and stumbled upon Dave Shulman through someone on an Arundel Alumni site. I don’t know if you are on Facebook or not, but I’d love to get in touch as Dave and I were talking about NEC days tonight and you were a prominent part of that. If you have email this is how you can get in touch with me. petercmurray26@gmail.com. I hope all is well with you. Hope to hear from you soon.

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