Kermit T. Wiltse

1915 – 2009

Grassroots scholar devoted to improving child welfare

Kermit T. Wiltse, a professor emeritus of social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley, was a North Dakota farm boy who devoted his life to improving the lot of disadvantaged children. By using insights gained as a grassroots social worker, Wiltse published numerous studies on child welfare, foster care and welfare programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

The youngest of ten children, Wiltse was born in 1915 on a farm in Lisbon, North Dakota. He was raised in a small two-story house where his siblings slept three or four to a bed. According to his autobiography, he was among only a handful of his classmates to make it to college. Wiltse financed his education at the University of North Dakota by working for the National Youth Administration, a Depression-era program that helped give young people a college education. Growing up poor and with first-hand knowledge of the needs of disadvantaged youth, he was drawn to a career in social service.

After receiving his BA in 1937, Wiltse took a position as a child welfare worker on a Sioux Indian reservation. Before going on to earn his MSW in 1940 from the University of Chicago, he met Jane Nesset, who was to become his wife of 67 years. They married just before Wiltse was drafted into the Army and shipped out to France, where he served four years fighting in World War II.

Upon returning from his tour of duty, Wiltse earned his PhD in Social Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1950, he was recruited to U.C. Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. His first publication as Berkeley faculty was Social Casework in Public Assistance, a 32-page pamphlet published by the California State Department of Social Welfare. Wiltse went on to publish and co-author numerous articles, pamphlets conference papers and books. The topics of greatest interest to him included public assistance, social work in schools, child welfare, and social policy and administration.

Wiltse served as associate dean of the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare from 1965 to 1971. Among his many accolades are the San Francisco Foundation’s Koshland Award in 1961, the California Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers’ Social Worker of the Year Award in 1987 and the University of North Dakota’s Alumni Achievement Award in 1995.

After retiring from UC Berkeley in 1982, Wiltse traveled around the country with his wife and continued serving in-need youth through his volunteer work at the nonprofit organizations Adopt-a-Special Kid and Coleman Children and Youth Services.

Wiltse passed away at age 94, just hours after his wife of nearly seven decades.

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