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Obituary: Murray Comarow, helped launch Antioch School of Law

MURRAY COMAROW (Age 91) Lawyer, public official, and professor, died of cancer at his home in Bethesda on September 23, 2011. He spent more than 70 years and his entire professional life as a resident of the Washington, D.C., area, serving two Presidents and playing a critical role in reshaping the postal system and significant parts of the federal government.

Born in 1920 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary, Murray Comarow spoke only Yiddish until he was five years old. He graduated from Boys High during the Great Depression. Sixteen percent of the labor force was still jobless, among them his father, a furrier. The new graduate managed to find work sorting dirty diapers in a commercial laundry, hefting iron ingots in a foundry, and hawking household glue and personalized neckties in several small Pennsylvania cities as a "demonstrator"" for Woolworth 5 and 10 Cent Stores. A year of such jobs was enough.

He moved to Washington, D.C., where he thought his prospects would be brighter, but he had only a high school diploma and a ferocious work ethic to offer. His first job when he arrived in 1939 was as an assistant messenger in the War Department, which paid $41.54-before taxes--every two weeks. He began taking night classes at the National University School of Law (later absorbed by George Washington University), enrolling during the last year high school graduates in the District of Columbia were permitted to go to law school, and graduated in 1942. Enlisting in the Army that year, Comarow received reserve training and entered active duty in the Army Air Corps at Warner Robins Field in Georgia. He was a drill sergeant, and years later, men he had trained recalled the last quarter-mile of their 25-mile hikes, when their pitiless drill instructor spurred them into a full run into camp, wearing full packs and singing loudly. He went to Officer Candidate School, was commissioned as a Captain, and served in a judge advocate's office.

Following World War Two he was an editor for the Military Air Transport Service. In 1951 he moved to the Pentagon as a lawyer in the general counsel's office of the Air Force and became an assistant general counsel (as well as office touch football team quarterback, nicknamed the Gray Ghost for his ability to sidestep onrushing opponents). His problem-solving assignments involved bases around the world, from France and Greece to Guyana and Libya. In 1965 Comarow was legal counsel to a special committee charged with unearthing the roots of a major cheating episode at the Air Force Academy. It was difficult for him to accept that many young men at a service academy had routinely and systematically cheated; he later called the investigation the most painful professional experience of his life.

In 1966 longtime friend Lee White, chairman of the Federal Power Commission, named him executive director of the agency, which at the time regulated interstate electric and gas utilities. (Comarow called the appointment "pure nepotism.") The next year, President Lyndon Johnson tapped him as executive director of the President's Commission on Postal Reorganization, which a year later handed Congress a detailed blueprint for a self-supporting, patronage-free federal corporation. Three years of congressional deliberation culminated in the creation of the United States Postal Service that resembled the commission's version; Comarow worried that the differences could jeopardize its long-term viability. To be proven right decades later did not bring him satisfaction.

Following Richard Nixon's election, Comarow joined the consulting firm Booz, Allen and Hamilton, where he played a key role in the launch of a Washington, D.C.-based School of Law for Antioch College. He was then drafted by the White House to run the President's Advisory Council on Executive Organization. The council's recommendations included new agencies such as the Environmental Protection Administration. After a brief return to Booz-Allen, Comarow joined the Postal Service as Senior Assistant Postmaster General, overseeing retail operations and mail delivery.

Teaching administrative law at Antioch in 1974, Comarow discovered the appeal of the classroom, and in 1975 he accepted American University's offer to teach law-related subjects to students majoring in political science and public administration. He was distinguished adjunct professor in residence for 20 years, including one year as acting dean of the College of Public and International Affairs. He liked to inform his students in the first session that he didn't have a college degree, let alone a Ph.D, so he was a ""ake professor" or "fake dean" who should never be addressed as "Dr. Comarow."

In 1974, Comarow was elected a Fellow and served as a director of the National Academy of Public Administration. He participated in studies of intelligence activities and prison reform, among others, consulted for the Brookings Institution and other think tanks, and contributed two chapters on government in books published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and NAPA.

Comarow strongly resented the routine denigration of government workers by politicians looking for easy scapegoats. He felt that it discouraged top graduates and highly talented people from seeking government careers, and he wrote and lectured repeatedly on this issue. His Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post in 1981 decrying the "War on Civil Servants" were reprinted in the Congressional Record by Sen. Patrick Moynihan and Rep. Patricia Schroeder.

His honors include commendations from Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Distinguished Service Awards from the Department of the Air Force and the Federal Power Commission, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association for Postal Commerce. He was president of Temple Emanuel in Kensington, MD, and later a board member of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. He attended services at Sixth & I Synagogue and was a longtime member of the Cosmos Club. And he took up tennis at age 59, laying down his racquet more than 20 years later when his damaged rotator cuff could no longer be repaired.

His first wife, Dena Blitz, died in 1978. Survivors include Donna Duhe, his wife of 31 years; a son, Avery, of Potomac, MD; a daughter, Beth, of Reston, VA; stepchildren Mark Duhe of Kansas City, MO, Marie Elaine Aronson of Virginia Beach, VA, and Elizabeth Stohr of Temple, TX; a sister, Helen Lipson of Glen Oaks, NY; two grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and a great-grandson. Services will be held on Wednesday, September 28, 10 a.m. at JOSEPH GAWLERS SONS CHAPEL, 5130 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Interment private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the American University School of Public Affairs, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington DC 20016-8060, to Montgomery Hospice, 1355 Piccard Drive, Suite 100, Rockville, MD 20850, or to a favorite charity.