David Ehrenwerth always knew his oldest child and only son was special.
“From his early days, the bar mitzvah days, junior high school, he was always seen as a leader,” he told the Chronicle. “Some people are very well known and recognized for what you’d call their accomplishments — certainly Justin did all that.
“But then there are people who are kind, who are a mensch, and Justin did that, too,” he added. “He met with the president at the White House but he hand-delivered soup to the sick, too.”
Justin Ehrenwerth, a Pittsburgh Jew, son, father, brother and friend who ascended the political ladder to serve as legal counsel to President Barack Obama, then found his calling protecting the Louisiana coastline, died May 11. He was 44.
Born Sept. 5, 1978, Ehrenwerth grew up in Mt. Lebanon and became a bar mitzvah at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. His early life was marked, however, by tragedy; his mother, Kandy Reidbord, died in a car accident when he was just 13. He channeled many of the feelings about her loss into his studies and his work, his father recalled, and excelled at Shady Side Academy. A captain of the tennis team, he also became a star student, graduating in 1997. He wanted to make his mother proud.
Next was Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where Ehrenwerth was elected president of the student body in his junior year — during a semester when he was studying at the University of Oxford, no less, his father said. During this time, he also took up competitive axe-throwing and excelled at it, winning titles. He graduated summa cum laude in 2001 from Colby College with a degree in philosophy. Afterward, Ehrenwerth returned to the University of Oxford, where he received a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economy. After returning to Pennsylvania, he attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania and became a confidante to many friends and family.
“It was amazing,” David Ehrenwerth said, “how people would call him and ask him for advice.”
A good tennis player who never had enough time to master his golf game, Ehrenwerth also was talented at playing the harmonica, friends remembered. He would sometimes sit in with live bands at bars when living and working in Washington, D.C.
During the 2004 presidential race, Ehrenwerth did Jewish-related outreach for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic Party nominee. Cameron “Cam” Kerry, the senator’s Jewish brother, remembers a bus tour through Florida where Ehrenwerth had to wrangle and lead a group of Jewish celebrities and politicians.
“That’s really, to me, the moment I realized Justin had something special,” Kerry told the Chronicle.
During “a very vivid moment,” Ehrenwerth’s tone for dealing with the situation was pitch-perfect, something “respectfully gentle but authoritative,” said Kerry, now a distinguished visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution, an American think tank founded in 1916.
That tone continued to serve Ehrenwerth well.
“Everybody really loved Justin,” Kerry said, “out of respect and out of affection.”
When Cameron Kerry took an Obama-era job at the Department of Commerce, his first call went to Ehrenwerth; he quickly named Ehrenwerth, his first employee, as his chief of staff.
At that job, Ehrenwerth made fast friends with then-Deputy General Counsel Geovette Washington.
“Justin was always a ray of light,” said Washington, an Oakland resident and the chief legal officer at the University of Pittsburgh. “He was happy. He was cheerful. And he created community … it feels like I’ve known him forever.”
Mostly, the two talked. And talked. And talked.
“We talked about our passion for our families, and we had a battle over who would be closer to my mom,” she laughed. “I don’t think there was anything we didn’t spend hours and hours talking about … he and I talked about almost everything all of the time.”
In 2013, Ehrenwerth wed the former Dana Dupre, a Louisiana native and fellow attorney. The two, who met on Ehrenwerth’s first day at Colby College, started a family and were raising two boys — Louis, now 3, and Charles, now 5. Washington said Ehrenwerth lovingly referred to his sons as “my North Star.”
In the meantime, Ehrenwerth migrated to the White House, where he served as assistant counsel to Obama. The president tasked Ehrenwerth with leading the legal fight over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident, where more than 130 million gallons of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ehrenwerth served the cause well, and Obama appointed him executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, which was responsible for distributing billions of dollars to restore Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.
In 2017, he went to The Water Institute, a Louisiana-based nonprofit, where, as president, he nearly tripled the size of the organization’s staff.
“Justin had a tireless approach to working for a better Louisiana, a more resilient Gulf Coast, and bringing those lessons to communities around the country,” said Kevin Reilly, chairman of The Water Institute’s board of directors in a prepared statement. “His vision for The Water Institute is realized in the work the Institute does every day and his legacy will live on into the future.”
“From the oil spill to the Restore Council to The Water Institute, Justin fell in love with coastal Louisiana. It came out in his work,” said Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican from Louisiana, in a prepared statement. “His drive for the best coastal solutions was a result of his commitment to our people. While I’ve lost a long-time friend, colleague and advocate, Justin’s foundation and legacy will be impactful for generations. He will be missed.”
Jordan Fischbach is the director of planning and policy research for The Water Institute. Ehrenwerth personally recruited him for the role while Fischbach was a senior policy researcher at the RAND Institute.
“Justin was an incredible human being,” said Fischbach, a father of two who lives in Squirrel Hill and, since 2011, has worked remotely in Pittsburgh for The Water Institute. “He combined so many traits I admired into one package.”
Fischbach called Ehrenwerth “a visionary leader.”
“He was very mission-driven and encouraged, overall, this restoration path for the Louisiana coast,” he said.
Fischbach recently attended a memorial service for Ehrenwerth in New Orleans.
“Hearing those stories, and there are so many about him, I realized Justin … had a real impact on people’s lives,” he said.
In Louisiana, Ehrenwerth joined the board of his congregation, Touro Synagogue, and also served on the board of the Anti-Defamation League, his father said.
“He was doing a million things — it’s all true. His rise was so wonderful,” David Ehrenwerth said. “He was just a kid from Pittsburgh who grabbed hold of these things and kept climbing up the line.”
Jordan Strassburger, an attorney with the Pittsburgh firm Strassburger, McKenna, Gutnick, & Gefsky, met Ehrenwerth at Shady Side Academy when both were freshmen.
“He and I became best friends — we spent a lot of time together, we played sports and we hung out on the weekends,” Strassburger said. “We became very good friends very soon.”
The pair stayed close into adulthood, but Strassburger admitted he wasn’t well-versed on Ehrenwerth’s resume.
“What I’ve really come to realize is how modest he was with his accomplishments,” said Strassburger, who is Jewish and lives in Squirrel Hill. “He was very, very intelligent and he was very, very accomplished. But we didn’t talk about work. We talked about our children. We talked about our wives. He didn’t advertise his jobs or his accomplishments.”
Strassburger admits he’s “not a phone guy.” But, for Ehrenwerth, he picked up the phone.
“We just always stayed close,” he said. “He and I didn’t have existential conversations about life, though. He sure could have — he had the master’s in philosophy.”
Lindsey Ehrenwerth Herman is Ehrenwerth’s younger sister. She is a social worker for a small private practice who lives with her husband, Everett, a Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh staffer, and their three children in Squirrel Hill.
Herman said anytime her brother was in Pittsburgh, “it felt like home.”
“He made anywhere he lived home but there was a lot of coming back to Pittsburgh,” she said. “There was always a soft spot for Pittsburgh.”
“I think his relationship with my kids was pretty special,” added Herman, who said her brother always fawned over her daughter Hazel, 7, and twin sons Baxter and Wolf, 5. “My kids were utterly smitten with him. He was the life of the party … and a pretty big part of our household, as well.”
Herman said she and her brother spoke on the phone every day until he died. There was often a race to see who would call who first when one of “The Godfather” movies was playing on TV.
“He and I,” she said, “we were very, very, very close.”
Washington also spoke regularly with Ehrenwerth, right until the end.
“He was great with people,” said Washington, with whom Ehrenwerth lived for a while when between apartments in Washington, D.C. “He could see what people would be good at, in a way they could not see. He could get people on board to do the right stuff in a way where you thought it was your idea.”
“He was the very best of us — he was just the best person I’ve known,” she added. “I just feel privileged that I got to know him.”
“He was a huge part of my life. And I will miss him forever.”
A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. June 4 at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.