Dr. Joseph Ashcroft, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania (ESU), died on August 12 at Massachusetts General Hospital after a brief illness. He was 68 years old. The cause of death was complications of lymphoma.
Joe was characterized by a love of learning and teaching. From his earliest years he enjoyed being the first one to tell others something new that he had discovered or learned. His interests were widespread. His early goal was to become an astronomer. His siblings recall him setting up a telescope outside their family home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania and charging friends, neighbors, and family members five cents to look at the rings of Saturn or the craters on the moon.
He began his undergraduate studies at the University of Scranton as a physics major. As he got more involved in the activism and politics of the ‘60s, particularly the anti-Vietnam war movement, he decided to shift his major to philosophy, graduating with a BA degree in 1969.
After graduation, he volunteered to work in an all-black Catholic high school in Louisiana, teaching students science and mathematics. But as Joe was always open with his opinions in all areas, he was soon asked to leave after he raised some philosophical challenges to the teachings of the Catholic church.
Joe returned to his home in Pennsylvania and worked as a political organizer for various state and national campaigns. He worked only for the candidates he supported philosophically, so often these jobs were short-lived since few of the candidates were elected.
Joe met his future life partner, Mollie Whalen, in 1975 while playing bridge at a club in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. It was not long before they formed a relationship based on mutual love, interests, and life views. While Mollie was pursuing her undergraduate degree in psychology, Joe enrolled in the Political Science master’s program at ESU. He obtained his MA in 1977 and accepted a position as professor in the Upward Bound program at ESU in the fall of that year.
Dr. Ashcroft built his career at ESU over the next thirty-six years. He transferred to the Department of Communication Studies in 1984 and simultaneously enrolled in the Media Ecology doctoral program at New York University, completing a PhD in 1990.
Dr. Ashcroft moved up through the professorial ranks at ESU, reaching full professor status in 1992. During his career he presented numerous academic papers and published many articles in academic journals and presses. But even beyond his academic specialty of media and communication, Joe was able to engage in information sharing and debate on virtually any subject that was raised — from cosmology to nuclear physics, from economics to world politics, from wine appreciation to the arts.
In 2001 Dr. Ashcroft was named Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies. Upon his retirement in 2013, he was granted status as Professor Emeritus. He positively influenced the lives and careers of thousands of students and scores of colleagues during the course of more than 30 years at the university.
Throughout his teaching career, Joe maintained an active interest in electoral politics, and consistently supported liberal candidates. Dr. Ashcroft ran for the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1982, losing in the primary election. He was delighted when Obama won the presidency in 2008 and was looking forward to a Hillary Clinton victory in the fall 2016 election.
Among Joe’s many interests was competitive bridge. He and his principal bridge partner, Mollie Whalen, earned Life Master status in the American Contract Bridge League. While they often traveled to national and regional bridge events, they primarily enjoyed playing at the local bridge clubs in Martha’s Vineyard. In an article published in the Vineyard Gazette many years ago, Jim Kaplan referred to the pair as the “bridge demons of Martha’s Vineyard.” Playing bridge in the local community established a network of friendships among many of the players here, both year-round and seasonal.
Joe and Mollie began summering in the Vineyard in the early 1980s and purchased a house here in 1984. Following retirement the Vineyard became their permanent residence, and they spent winters in San Diego — both wonderful places to enjoy Joe’s passion for food and wine.
Joe is survived by his wife Mollie and her daughters Erin, Nicole, and Kelly Peterson, all of whom were able to be near his bedside at the end. In addition, Joe’s survivors include his grandchildren Chelsea Varkonyi, Troy Verway, and Ty Verway, all living in Oregon, and Walter Malsch of Martha’s Vineyard; his brothers, Frank Ashcroft of Albuquerque NM, Richard Ashcroft of Palm Desert, CA, John Ashcroft of Atlanta GA, and Pat Ashcroft of Bethlehem PA; his sisters Theresa Ashcroft of East Stroudsburg PA and Maggie Green of Reno NV; and scores of nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents Frank and Anne, his brother Ed Ashcroft, and his sister Maryanne Ashcroft Field.
In the final weeks of his life Joe and his family decided that upon his death they would make an anatomical gift of his body to Tufts Medical School. The family felt this was a fitting tribute to Joe’s love of teaching and educating, and would continue his life’s work beyond death. A memorial celebration of Joe’s life will be held at a future date in Martha’s Vineyard, as well as East Stroudsburg PA.