Otto L. Stein, 89, professor emeritus of botany, died June 17 in his Amherst home. His demise came after many months battling multiple complications that resulted from breaking his arm last December.
Born in Augsburg, Germany, his family moved to Berlin when he was 8 years old. On Kristallnacht in 1938, the family was protected by a policeman who guarded their apartment all night because he respected the Steins’ work with disabled children. The family was able to enter the United States in January 1940. Their entry was only achieved after a Canadian relative provided enough money for their visa on the condition that they never contact him again lest this connection reveal the relative’s Jewish heritage.
He briefly lived in a farming community for Jewish refugees, the Van Eeden Settlement in Pender County, N.C., and subsequently graduated from the National Farm School, now Delaware Valley College. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in September 1944 at the age of 19 and served in the infantry for six months before his ability to speak German was recognized. He was then assigned to divisional headquarters. There he helped set up new governments in conquered German towns. After the war, he served as an interpreter for the United Nations War Crimes Commission and for the first four U.S. War Crimes Tribunals at the former Dachau concentration camp.
Upon his return to the U.S., he attended the University of Minnesota through the G.I. Bill, obtaining a doctorate in botany. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Brookhaven National Laboratory, participating in some of the early studies on the effect of radiation on plant life. After his postdoctoral fellowship, he joined the botany department at the University of Montana at Missoula.
In 1964, he moved to Amherst to join the botany department as an associate professor. In 1969, he was appointed acting department head and a year later was promoted to professor and department head.
In 1971-72, he held a NATO Senior Research Fellowship at Imperial College in London.
He stepped down as department head in 1974. He retired in 1990 but continued to teach part-time until 1995.
Stein was an active member of the Faculty Senate for many years.
He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the world’s oldest biological society, in 1983. His research papers are in the Du Bois Library.
He was a member of the Amherst Town Meeting from 1969 to 2013 and also served on the Town Meeting Coordinating Committee and for nine years was a member of the Amherst Conservation Commission, as well as their representative to the Public Shade Tree Committee. He was a founding member of both the Amherst NAACP and the Amherst Jewish Community.
He leaves his wife of 56 years, Diana Borut Stein, his children Deborah Stein and her husband Mike Lubrano, Judith Stein, Suzanne Stein, and Jonathan Stein and his wife Kate Stein, and nine grandchildren.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Amherst Survival Center, the Hitchcock Center or the North Amherst Community Farm Sustainability Campaign.