J. Mark Schuster PhD ’79

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The March 4, 2008 obituary for J. Mark Schuster PhD ’79 said that Professor Samuel J. Keyser performed in the First Day Parade. It is actually the First Night Parade.

J. Mark Schuster PhD ’79, a professor of urban studies and planning who helped develop the field of urban cultural policy and who earned the respect of his peers, died on Feb. 25 as a result of complications from melanoma, according to the MIT News Office. He was 57.

According to Lawrence J. Vale SM ’88, professor and department head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, “Mark had a special love for cities in times of festival.” He also studied the public policy behind urban cultural events.

In 1976, Schuster was a member of the committee that planned Boston’s bicentennial celebration. The committee founded First Night, an annual family-friendly Boston-wide cultural festival which takes place on New Year’s Eve. First Night has since expanded, with over 111 celebrations planned for First Night 2009, according to the First Night International Web site.

Samuel J. Keyser, professor emeritus of Linguistics and Philosophy and Special Assistant to the Chancellor, was a close friend of Schuster’s. In an e-mail, he described his experience playing in a dixieland band that performs for the First Day Parade every year. “It is a marvelous experience riding up Boylston Street on a fire engine playing dixieland to a crowd of sometimes as many as a million spectators, cheering, laughing, being together without the slightest hint of man’s inhumanity to man.” “Life offers those people few such occasions,” he said. “I would guess that none of them know that the giver of that gift included Mark Schuster.”

Schuster was first diagnosed with metastatic melanoma four and a half years ago, but he confronted his illness “very bravely,” according to Bishwapriya Sanyal, a professor in Schuster’s department who became an associate professor with him in 1994. Schuster continued to regularly attend faculty meetings and allowed himself to be photographed even as his condition continued to deteriorate. John de Monchaux, also a DUSP professor, said that “he scarcely dropped any work here.”

He was “the most demanding critic of any idea,” said de Monchaux, who taught classes with Schuster. “He taught me an enormous amount in terms of rigor and logic, in terms of how you challenge conventional wisdom.” Although he could be very critical of others’ work, he challenged ideas so that “those who were supporting them would be able to hone them,” said de Monchaux. Offering his “laser-like capacity to detect flaws,” Schuster taught a Masters defense class for graduate students.

Schuster was also known for his excellence in teaching. In 1983, he won the Graduate Student Council Award for Outstanding Teaching, and in 2006 he won his department’s award for Excellence in Teaching, according to the News Office.

Benjamin P. Solomon-Schwartz G, took two classes with Schuster and was his advisee until January. He said that “[Schuster] cared deeply about students in a way that took their work and interests seriously.” Solomon-Schwartz also added that, “Underneath his serious demeanor, he had a great sense of fun.”

Ben J. Stone G had Schuster as his master’s thesis advisor. Schuster “had very high expectations for his students,” according to Stone. He said that occasionally students were frustrated with Schuster’s high bar, but those students eventually found Schuster’s rigor to be well worth it­ — their theses were much stronger. According to Stone, students other than Schuster’s advisees often talked with him to discuss their theses; Schuster was known for being very accessible.

Schuster was actively involved in the Institute’s curriculum policy. He served as a member of the Task Force on the Educational Commons since 2004. He was also Chair of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program from 2003 to 2005.

Schuster enjoyed seeing plays with Keyser — they went out less than two days before he died. Keyser said that, “it was evident to everyone, Mark especially, that time was running out.” “But he spent that Saturday afternoon the way he would have had cancer not eaten away at his life.” “He lived until the light went out.”

J. Mark Schuster is survived by his wife, Charlotte Harrison; his son, Luc; his daughter, Leigh; his stepdaughter, Alison Watkins; his brother, Neil; and his former wife, Devon Davidson.

Memorial services have not yet been announced.