Philanthropist Erna Viterbi dies at 81

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February 25, 2015

Andrew and Erna Viterbi attended a dinner at MIT last year to celebrate faculty who have held or are holding Viterbi chairs. Seated (l-r): Viterbi Professor Dina Katabi, Andrew Viterbi, Erna Viterbi, Viterbi Professor Scott Manalis. Standing (l-r): Douglas Lauffenburger, head of the Department of Biological Engineering; Ronald Rivest, who held the first Viterbi Professorship; Viterbi Professor Daniela Rus; Dean of Engineering Ian Waitz; Anantha Chandrakasan, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Eric Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement.  Photo: Rose Lincoln
Erna Viterbi, a warm and gracious philanthropist who with her husband, Qualcomm co-founder Andrew ’56, SM ’57, gave generously to MIT and a variety of other institutions, died Feb. 17 in San Diego.

“In the long adventure of their lives together, Erna and Andrew were terrific partners — curious, generous, thoughtful, and creative in everything they did,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif says. “Erna brightened every encounter and enriched every conversation. It was a delight to know her, and I am deeply grateful for her friendship and for everything she did for MIT.”

At MIT, the Viterbis established endowed professorships and fellowships for graduate students in the departments of electrical engineering and computer science and biological engineering. Four faculty members and more than 40 students on campus have benefited directly from their generosity. Together with her husband, Viterbi has also given generously to undergraduate scholarships to help MIT maintain its need-blind admissions policy. [Photo above: Andrew and Erna Viterbi attended a dinner at MIT last year to celebrate faculty who have held or are holding Viterbi chairs. Seated (l-r): Viterbi Professor Dina Katabi, Andrew Viterbi, Erna Viterbi, Viterbi Professor Scott Manalis. Standing (l-r): Douglas Lauffenburger, head of the Department of Biological Engineering; Ronald Rivest, who held the first Viterbi Professorship; Viterbi Professor Daniela Rus; Dean of Engineering Ian Waitz; Anantha Chandrakasan, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Eric Grimson, Chancellor for Academic Advancement.  Photo: Rose Lincoln, courtesy MIT News/Resource Development]

“We are deeply sorrowful for Erna’s passing,” says Douglas A. Lauffenburger, the Ford Professor of Bioengineering and head of the Department of Biological Engineering. “She had a magnificent spirit and was a wonderful partner with Andrew in their extraordinary support for the faculty and students of our MIT biological engineering program.”

“Andrew and Erna Viterbi have given us a tremendous opportunity to honor the very best faculty and graduate students,” adds Anantha P. Chandrakasan, the Joseph F. and Nancy P. Keithley Professor of Electrical Engineering and head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Their support also allows our faculty and students to explore new research directions that are perhaps not as easy to fund in other ways.”

Daniela Rus, one of three current Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professors at MIT, says the family’s support has helped her to explore new ideas at the intersection of communication, control, and computation. “Erna was always so warm. I am so grateful I had a chance to know her,” says Rus, who is also the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

The Viterbis have also been involved in other aspects of MIT community life. For example, last November the two attended MIT Hillel’s “Leading Jewish Minds @ MIT” faculty luncheon program, at which Andrew Viterbi spoke about the evolution of technology over his career; the couple had the opportunity to interact with the many Viterbi scholars and fellows who attended the event. “Erna was such a gracious person,” remembers Rabbi Michelle H. Fisher, executive director of MIT Hillel, which the Viterbis have also helped to support. “At another event I attended with her, I remember how interested she was both in sharing her own story and in hearing mine.”

According to published accounts of her life, Erna Finci Viterbi was born in Sarajevo, a descendant of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain. In 1941, during World War II, the Finci family fled German-occupied Yugoslavia for the Italian-occupied zone from which they were deported and interned in the Parma region of Italy. In 1943, when the Nazis occupied Italy, the family was saved from deportation to extermination camps by the people of Gramignazzo di Sissa, the village where they had been interned. Other Italians helped them escape to Switzerland, where they waited out the war.

In 1950, the Finci family resettled in California, where Erna met Andrew Viterbi; the two were married in 1958. “She became his equal lifetime partner, sharing in all major decisions and she was usually by his side as he scribbled notes on communication theory at home or at family gatherings,” according to the Andrew J. and Erna Viterbi Family Archives at the University of Southern California.

Erna Viterbi is survived by her husband, Andrew; son, Alan; daughter, Audrey; and five grandchildren.