Erna Viterbi, philanthropist, joint namesake of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and wife of USC trustee Andrew Viterbi, died in San Diego on Feb. 17. She was 81.
“For well over five decades, Erna was Andy’s beloved wife and trusted partner as they built an extraordinary life together,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “She earned the affection and admiration of everyone in the Trojan Family, and we take comfort in knowing that her remarkable life story will inspire generations of Trojans to come.”
Life during wartime
She was born Erna Finci in 1934 to a Jewish family in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia. During World War II, Erna, her brother and parents fled the city as the German army moved in.
Heading for the Italian army in Montenegro, the family reached the army’s positions at the same time as partisans blew up a troop carrier. In reprisal, the Italians arrested many civilians. Among them were Erna’s father, Joseph, her grandfather and two uncles. Seeing them in handcuffs, she burst into tears.
“Let them go,” she recalled an Italian officer saying. “I don’t want to see this little girl cry.”
The family found shelter for a time with a sympathetic family in Parma, Italy, before waiting out the war in Switzerland. They settled in California in 1950.
She would meet her future husband in 1956, when Andrew Viterbi was working in the communications research group at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena. Mutual friends and Andrew’s cousins encouraged Erna and Andrew to go out on a date.
“And I guess they were right,” Erna recalled in an interview years later.
Andrew said Erna “was destined to be my wife.”
They married in 1958, a year after Andrew began his association with USC by pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering while continuing his research at JPL.
Andrew realized the solution to his now-famous Viterbi algorithm, which made possible error-free digital wireless transmission, while he and Erna sat on the beach and watched their two small children, Audrey and Alan, playing in the sand.
Erna would be at Andrew’s side through the wireless revolution, which for the Viterbis culminated with the founding of San Diego-based Qualcomm, the first wireless communications company to incorporate the Viterbi algorithm. Qualcomm’s superior technology helped it become a world leader in digital communications.
Legacy at USC
In 2004, Erna and Andrew decided to make a naming gift to the institution where he earned his doctorate: USC’s School of Engineering.
“I immediately endorsed his idea of giving it to USC, because I felt it had done great things for his career,” Erna said.
Thanks to the couple’s historic $52 million gift, at that time the largest for any engineering school in the nation, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering took its new name on March 2, 2004.
The Viterbis continued to support the school and university over the next 10 years, giving $2 million in 1999 to endow a chair in communications at USC Viterbi, and another $15 million in 2014 to support scholarship in engineering and genocide studies, including five endowed chairs and five graduate student fellowships at USC Viterbi.
Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi, said her legacy would live on through the engineering school. “She was a wonderful human being, with great heart, generous spirit, full of optimism, humility and grace,” Yortsos said. “We are all that much better because our paths in life crossed with hers.”
The gift also created the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair at the USC Shoah Foundation — The Institute for Visual History and Education, part of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Erna Viterbi held leadership roles at philanthropies around the world, in addition to her unwavering support of USC Viterbi and the USC Shoah Foundation. Together with Andrew, she gave generously to educational institutions, health sciences research, veterans’ causes and arts organizations.
Erna is survived by her husband, Andrew, of La Jolla, California; son, Alan, and daughter, Audrey; and numerous grandchildren.
USC will host a celebration of her life in early May.