When he was working in the White House as assistant counsel to President Barack Obama, Justin Ehrenwerth left a meeting one day in the Roosevelt Room, across from the Oval Office in the West Wing, with a special mission.

“He called me and said, ‘Dad, I just left a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, and I have to deliver chicken soup for one of the guys on our team, but I have to hurry. I have another meeting in half an hour.’ He was in a hurry, but he always made time to talk,” recalled his father, David Ehrenwerth, a partner at the Downtown law firm of K&L Gates.

“Justin never turned anybody down. He was a great friend. He ran out and delivered the soup and ran back, and nobody knew the difference.”

Taking a few minutes out of his important day to check in with his father and see to the well-being of a sick colleague — that, in a nutshell, was Justin Ehrenwerth.

“He just took care of people,” said longtime friend Cameron Kerry, brother of John Kerry, the former senator from Massachusetts and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate.

Ehrenwerth was chief of staff to Cameron Kerry when Kerry was general counsel and acting secretary of commerce.


“He had an extraordinary way with people and, as a result, a lot of people really adored Justin,” he said.

A native of Squirrel Hill who had been living in New Orleans for the past several years as head of The Water Institute, Justin Ehrenwerth died May 11. The father of two small boys, he was 44.

“He was a Pittsburgh guy. He was just genuine and real and he cared about his friends and loved ones,” said University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, who previously worked with Mr. Ehrenwerth in the Commerce Department. “He was one of a kind.”

Growing up, Ehrenwerth lost his mother at the age of 13. It was a traumatic experience in his young life and one that propelled him to be the best man he could be, said his father.

“It was a real shocker,” his father said. “Not long after his Bar Mitzvah, his mother was killed in a car accident. He told me, ‘I want to be accomplished — somebody that Mom can be proud of.’

“He started at Shady Side Academy and right away he went to the top of his class and they elected him class president. He pulled himself back together and kept on going, doing wonderful things. He did so many things that I never would have dreamed of.”


In his senior year, Ehrenwerth was co-captain of the tennis team at Shady Side, from which he graduated in 1997.

His son’s love of nature led him to Colby College in Waterville, his father said, where he competed for the Colby Woodsmen, throwing a double-headed ax at targets 15 feet away.

“He was always an outdoorsman,” his father said. “He loved hiking and fishing. He could have gone just about anywhere, but he went to Colby and he became the national champion of the United States and Canada in ax throwing.”

On his first day at Colby, Ehrenwerth met Louisiana native Dana Dupre, whom he would marry in 2013.

He made friendships that endured a lifetime, his father said.

“He had so many friends and supporters that they elected him president of the student body when he wasn’t even there,” he said. “He was abroad at (the University of Oxford in England), where he spent his junior year.”


Ehrenwerth took up the mantle inspired by his late mother, litigator and civil rights activist Kandy Reidbord Ehrenwerth.

“As president of the student body, he called the other two small liberal arts colleges in Maine — Bates and Bowdoin — and they put together an annual diversity conference,” his father said. “He convinced Danny Glover to come as keynote speaker.”

His father still has a poster promoting the conference, signed by the actor: “Great job Justin! Keep up the good work.”

After graduating summa cum laude in 2001 with a degree in philosophy, Mr. Ehrenwerth attended Brasenose College at the University of Oxford, where he started another diversity conference and earned a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economy.

Mr. Ehrenwerth came back to Pennsylvania, where he decided to pursue a career in politics. He attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania and was active in civil rights law, his father said.

Mr. Ehrenwerth volunteered for the 2004 presidential campaign of John Kerry and met Cameron Kerry, a senior adviser to his brother’s campaign.


“(Mr. Ehrenwerth) became a standout of a great group that supported my roles in the campaign,” Cameron Kerry said. On a bus tour through South Florida, Mr. Kerry recalled, “I could see he had a special way with people in dealing with a number of high-powered politicians and celebrities.”

When Kerry was appointed general counsel at the Commerce Department in the early days of the Obama administration, his first call was to Ehrenwerth.

“He was the first person I hired when I was appointed … and I soon made him my chief of staff,” he said. “His work in my office drew the attention of the White House counsel office, and we continued to work alongside each other when he came back to the Commerce Department in other capacities.”

At the White House, Ehrenwerth served as assistant counsel to Obama, who assigned him to take the lead on litigation involving the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which 134 million of gallons of oil was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ehrenwerth also joined the oversight and litigation group representing the White House in congressional investigations and advising federal agencies on oversight matters.

Mr. Ehrenwerth shone in his new roles — so much so that Obama next appointed him as the inaugural executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council, an agency charged with distributing billions of dollars in penalties to restore the Gulf Coast’s economy.


“You don’t get hired by White House counsel unless you are a good lawyer,” Kerry said. “I hired good people, but he stands out as one of the best.”

Last month, Ehrenwerth was recognized for his efforts in organizing the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Award for Excellence.

In 2017, he took over as president of the Louisiana-based The Water Institute, where he broadened the scope of the nonprofit and its international reach.

“He hired engineers, experts and scientists and grew it to become an international player,” his father said. “It went from like 30 people to a staff of 80. He traveled all over the world and met with leaders in places like France, Singapore and the Netherlands and he developed a collaboration — a pact — with local universities. He just did so many wonderful things.”

“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,” Kevin Reilly, chairman of The Water Institute board, said in a 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.”

“Justin’s passing touches so many people who knew him well and respected his intellect and boundless enthusiasm for his work,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement. “He embodied the essence of what service to one’s state, community and neighbors is all about and made a powerful and positive impact on Louisiana and the entire Gulf Coast. His presence and his work will be sorely missed.”


The friends he met early on in life remained dear to Ehrenwerth through the years, said Pitt’s Mr. Gallagher, who was acting deputy secretary of commerce and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology before he joined Pitt in 2014.

“Justin was one of the most engaging and bright people you ever met,” he said. “He was like a lamp — people were just drawn to him. It’s one thing to be a smart person, but the magic in government is, you’ve got to get people together, and people wanted to do things for Justin. He was just very genuine and he wasn’t transactional with friendships. He maintained these relationships with friends and colleagues, even after his work in government ended.”

Kerry agreed.

“It was an extraordinary career, but Justin was also extraordinary on a human level,” he said. “I have been on the phone and email with a lot of people about this terrible loss, and there has been such an outpouring of love and respect from people who worked with him across the government.”

His son cherished his time in New Orleans, David Ehrenwerth said, especially long walks exploring local levees and sharing his love of music with his sons, Louis, 3, and Charles, 5.

In New Orleans, Ehrenwerth served on the board of Touro Synagogue as well as the board of the Anti-Defamation League, where he was an active voice on the Civil Rights Committee.


David Ehrenwerth will remember his son — the son who took him to the White House bowling alley one year for his birthday — for his humbleness.

“Some people are very successful in the sense of business or scholarship or athletics or things that we’d call accomplished, but other people are warm and friendly and empathetic,” he said. “Justin was both. He was a mensch.”

Along with his father, wife and children, Ehrenwerth is survived by his stepmother, Judith Ehrenwerth, and a sister, Lindsey Ehrenwerth Herman, a child therapist from Squirrel Hill.

A private funeral was held last week. A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. June 4 at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill.

Memorial donations are suggested to the Anti-Defamation League.

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