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Sherman Wu, inspiration for Pete Seeger song, dies

Sherman Wu was “depledged” from a fraternity, sparking the Seeger ballad.

Special to the Times

Sherman Wu was “depledged” from a fraternity, sparking the Seeger ballad.

CLEARWATER — Around 1960, Pete Seeger was leading an auditorium through songs like Sweet Betsy From Pike and labor-movement ballads. Then someone yelled something that brought a smile to the singer's face.

"Sherman Wu is in the audience!"

A few years earlier, Seeger had penned a song about Mr. Wu, a man he had never met, when the latter faced discrimination at Northwestern University.

He called it The Ballad of Sherman Wu.

Seeger asked Mr. Wu to stand. The peace-loving crowd cheered lustily, and had no way of knowing that the man who smiled and waved back to them would go on to design guidance systems for tactical missiles.

Seeger launched into his ballad: As I roved out on the streets of Northwestern/I spied a young freshmen dejected and blue/I said, "Young man, why are you dejected?"/He said, "I'm Chinese, and I can't join Psi U."

The crowd's adulation offered further proof of a growing certainty within Mr. Wu: that in America, he had finally found a home.

Mr. Wu, once a reluctant symbol for civil rights, died May 11 of complications from esophageal cancer. He was 72.

The son of K.C. Wu, a former governor of the Taiwan province, he fled to the United States as a teenager to escape his father's political enemies.

As a 19-year-old freshman in 1956, Mr. Wu pledged with the Psi Upsilon fraternity at Northwestern — but was then "depledged" by other fraternity members, who cited Mr. Wu's ethnicity as the reason they were expelling him.

Time magazine, which on Aug. 7, 1950, ran a cover story on Mr. Wu's father, picked up the story. So did Seeger, penning The Ballad of Sherman Wu in 1958.

Mr. Wu pledged with another fraternity and dismissed Psi Upsilon's actions as "just one of those cases that are based on a few people's ignorance and prejudice."

"He wasn't as upset about it as other people were," recalled his wife, Julie.

Perhaps the anxieties Mr. Wu had already faced had something to do with that. He was born in China, as Hsiu-huang Wu, and was influenced by the uncertain winds brewing from his father's offices, including the mayorship of Shanghai. K.C. Wu was a staunch anti-communist and a favorite of Chiang Kai Shek, head of the Chinese Nationalist government defeated by communists in the late 1940s.

K.C. Wu was dismissed from his post as governor of Taiwan in 1953. After avoiding two assassination attempts, he found refuge in the United States. Authorities in China held Sherman Wu, then a teenager, under house arrest for 13 months before letting him go overseas.

Mr. Wu joined his family as a high school student in Chicago. He took an extra year of high school to adjust to the English language. He changed his name to Sherman H. Wu, after Sherman Avenue in Evanston, Ill., where Northwestern is located.

Controversy aside, he enjoyed his time at Northwestern. He went on a blind date with classmate Ann-Margret Olsson, who later dropped her surname as an actress. He never lost sight of his goals, and earned a Ph.D. at Northwestern in electrical engineering and computer science. For the next 30 years he taught at universities, including 27 years at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

He worked as a consultant developing the internal guidance systems used in spacecraft, including the Apollo missions, and in missiles and airplanes.

"Sherman was a theorist. His forte was the theoretical analysis of control systems," said Robert Lade, Mr. Wu's department chairman at Marquette. "He was one of the top people in that field."

Control systems are the means by which an airborne object — anything from a lunar module to a Boeing 747 or an intercontinental ballistic missile — navigates by the stars and makes adjustments in flight.

As part of an interdisciplinary team of consultants, which included psychologists and theoretical physicists, Mr. Wu also designed robots for factories, using the same principles of navigation learned on the Apollo missions.

Mr. Wu retired in 1992, and moved to Clearwater the next year. He enjoyed skiing, gourmet cooking and traveling the world with his wife of 17 years. Julie Wu, a journalist and former St. Petersburg Times correspondent, said she and her husband were both strong-willed personalities.

"Once in a while we had a clash," said Mrs. Wu, 70.

Mr. Wu never returned to Taiwan. Nor did he mention his experiences at Northwestern or the Seeger song to his colleagues at Marquette.

"What we knew was Sherman the scholar," Lade said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or


Sherman H. Wu

Born: Aug. 21, 1937.

Died: May 11, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Julianne; stepsons Daniel Agnew, Peter Agnew, Thomas Agnew, Paul Agnew and his wife Rachel, and Philip Agnew and his wife Terri; brother H.K. Wu and his wife Kathleen; sisters Eileen Yu, Edith Li and her husband Tingye; six grandchildren; and four nieces.

Service: 11 a.m. June 3 (9 to 11 a.m. visitation); Schmidt and Bartelt Funeral and Cremation Services, 10121 W North Ave.; Wauwatosa, Wis.

Sherman Wu, inspiration for Pete Seeger song, dies 05/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 10:21pm]
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