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Irmgard Rosenzweig Wessel (1925 - 2014)

The Obituary, The New Haven Independent

Irmgard Rosenzweig Wessel, a clinical social worker and long-time New Haven resident, died Saturday (Sept. 20, 2014) at home. She was 88 years old, and had lung cancer.

Irm, as she was widely known, Wessel was born in Kassel, Germany, on Nov. 12, 1925. After Kristallnacht in November 1938, her parents, Louis and Grete Kaufmann Rosenzweig, sent her to England on the Kindertransport, which brought nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany and neighboring countries to safety. When her boat docked in England at 6:30 AM on a cold morning, a group of ladies handed all the children metal cups of English tea and dry biscuits. In Irm's words, “I don't remember much, but it hit me at that moment that there must be a better way to help kids who were used to hot cocoa and freshly baked hard rolls. I think this was the start of my becoming a social worker.”

It was a calling that lasted for more than 75 years, and a life that touched uncounted numbers of clients at Family Counseling of Greater New Haven, scores of friends for whom she was a constant confidante and counselor, a community that she sought tirelessly to change for the better, and her loving family.

After a 19-month separation, Wessel was reunited with her parents in 1940 in New York, sheltered by the American Friends Service Committee in Scattergood, Iowa, and eventually resettled in Eureka, Illinois, through the generosity of the members of the Eureka Christian Church (Disciples of Christ.) Irm attended Eureka College on a full scholarship, and graduated in 1947. She and another Eureka alumnus, Ronald Reagan, both received alumni awards of merit on the 50th anniversary of Reagan's graduation. She later earned a Master's in Social Work at Smith College School of Social Work, a degree of which she was very proud and an institution to which she was very loyal. In 2004, Smith recognized her with the Day-Garrett Award for distinguished service to the school and the profession.

After a 10-year break from the workforce to be at home with her four children, Wessel returned to the practice of clinical social work in 1964 at Family Counseling of Greater New Haven, where she was on the staff for nearly 40 years. During that time, she served as president of the AFSCME Local 39 and was a trustee of the New Haven Central Labor Council. She also was active in several professional organizations, including the Connecticut Society for Clinical Social Work and the Council on Social Work Education and in various local community organizations including Aging at Home, the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project and the Greater New Haven Labor History Association.

“In every conceivable way,” her social work colleagues Barbara Berger and Anne Segal; write in a 2003 profile published in Clinical Social Work Journal, “has brought strength to those needing representation, increasing their power to be heard and effective. To “never to let it happen again,” to mediate oppression when it does happen and to relieve the suffering of others are the driving forces in Irm's life. ”

Wessel is survived by her husband, Morris Wessel, a retired pediatrician, whom she first encountered when he was riding a bicycle down the corridors of the Mayo Clinic where they were both working. After a long engagement, they were married on June 1, 1952, at the Jewish Museum in New York where her uncle was a curator. They lived in New Haven, CT, for their entire marriage, nearly all of that time in the same house in Westville. Irmgard Wessel is survived by her husband and their children – David of Washington, DC; Bruce of Santa Monica, CA.; Paul of New Haven, CT., and Lois of Takoma Park, MD — and eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her brother, Ernst Rosenzweig, died in 2011.

Contributions in lieu of flowers may be made to the New Haven Community Soup Kitchen, the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, or the Morris and Irmgard Wessel Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which recognizes unsung heroes who are creatively and compassionately serving New Haven area families.

~ Maria Tupper, New Haven, CT

Those of us who worked with Irm Wessel in the federation will recall many things. One was her solid identification with unions when some of us were trying to create one for clinical social work. Her obituary describes someone who practiced social work at the highest level of the profession.

~ Denny McGihon, Denver, CO.

Dear Friends,
It is with sadness that I write to inform you of the passing of one of our most humane and hardworking colleagues.

Irm, as she was known to us, was based in New Haven, CT., and was a staunch and tireless advocate for social justice, a woman dedicated to social work organizational work, particularly in the Federation of Societies for Clinical Social Work, and as devoted a clinical social worker as ever there was.

This past July, Irm's good friend, our own Barbara Berger, notified me that Irm had become quite ill. I sent Irm a letter and received one back, almost immediately. A quote from Irm's letter:

Hearing from you brought back many memories about meetings and parties, arguments, discussions and decisions. For me, the biggest challenge was to represent the Federation at the Council on Social Work Education.

Morris [her husband] and I are very fortunate to have four wonderful children, in-laws, and grandchildren whenever we need them. I am part of a group that believes that aging at home is the ideal place to be and with help we are managing nicely.  I tell my friends that I do not want flowers or candy, but I want them to give money to their local soup kitchen – I can still do social justice this way. Fondly, Irm

That was Irm, social worker fighting the good fight all the way to the very end.

Also, please see the very informative link to her obituary: The New Haven Independent

Best to all,
~ Bill Meyer, Durham, NC.

It made me a bit tearful to hear of Irm's death. She lived a good long life, and it was both honorable and illustrious. Still, the thought of her being gone is painful. It was always a lot of fun to hang out with Irm because even though she had seen a lot and endured a lot, she maintained a youthful energy that spread out to those around her.

~ Howard Snooks, Boulder, CO.

Excerpts from a speech when Irmgard Wessel was presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the CT Chapter of NASW:

Irm's professional persona was that of a sensitive and talented clinician, dedicated educator and determined activist. She was quiet and understated, but a constant force behind the scenes in efforts to improve clinical social work education and to enhance the field of social work in general. To know about Irm is to understand an all but invisible power, a source of energy generating significant change.

From 1981-82 Irm was the president of the CT Society for Clinical Social Work and simultaneously was appointed Education Chair for the Clinical Social Work Federation. Under Irm's guidance the Federation's Education Committee developed a Continuing Education Units (CEU's) program and the construction of a set of syllabi for teaching continuing education courses to new professionals. In 1991 Irm co-chaired the first National Clinical Social Work Conference that was held in Chicago, IL, accomplishing one of her a long-time goals.

Irm served for many years as the Federation's representative to the council on Social Work Education and was a member of the Commission on Practice. In this capacity, Irm was able to impact social work curricula with practice issues, particularly to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Stemming from this experience, Irm was appointed to the Liaison Committee of the American Board of Examiners, the agency that administers the Board Certified Diplomate credential for social workers.

During the years Irm was active with the Federation she was also active in work with NASW. As a member of both the Clinical Society and NASW, she was a part of meetings with the State of CT regarding social work credentialing, first certification, and eventually licensure for our profession.

Wherever Irm worked for social work, she was always working behind the scenes to identify newcomers who might have potential for leadership in various capacities in our professional organizations. With her antenna for talent, energy, and competence, Irm became one of social work's best talent scouts.

In 1997, for all of her many years of work in the profession of social work, Irm was elected into the National Academy of Practice as a Distinguished Practitioner, one of the highest awards in our profession.

Other awards and honors that have been given to Irm include NASW Social Worker of the Year in 1981, Lifetime Achievement Award from the CT Society for Clinical Social Work in 2000, Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern CT University Department of Social Work in 2001, and in 2004 the Day-Garrett Award given by the Smith College School of Social Work. This is an award that is given to significant members of the Smith School of Social Work community who have been deemed to personify in their lives and service to the community the highest purpose of professional service for which the school is renowned.

Irm has always been a quiet, hardworking woman, whose career in social work spanned for more than 50 years. Her work over and over again generated ideals that were inspirational to others. Irm brought strength to those needing representation, whether client, professional or community member increasing their power to be heard and effective. She worked to never let it happen again, to mediate oppression when it does happen, to relieve the suffering of others. These were the driving forces of Irmgard Wessel's life.

Maria Tupper
June 20, 2006