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Peter H. Rossi (1921–2006)

Peter Henry Rossi of Amherst, MA, died peacefully at home on Saturday, October 7, 2006.

Born December 27, 1921, in New York City, he was Stuart A. Rice Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Son of Italian immigrant parents, he was a graduate of Townsend Harris High School and the City College of New York (1943). He obtained his PhD in Sociology from Columbia University on the GI Bill in 1951. He held faculty positions at Harvard University, University of Chicago (Professor), and Johns Hopkins University (Professor and Department Chair) prior to his appointment at the University of Massachusetts.

Author of more than 40 books and 200 scholarly journal articles, he was highly regarded for his work on evaluating social programs. He was elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was past president of the American Sociological Association and former director of the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago. His textbook, Evaluation: A Systematic Approach, now its 7th edition has become the classic text in the field of evaluation of social programs.

His work on the evaluation of social programs has earned him world-wide recognition. Included in this work are his controversial studies of the homeless problem in America (Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness, University of Chicago Press). In this research, he made Sociological Research on Health Disparities Is Core of NIH Conference the first systematic attempts to count the homeless, finding dramatically smaller numbers than claimed by advocates for the homeless. He found that homelessness is largely a temporary rather than permanent problem and, therefore, that short infusions of aid could make a large difference. Most recently, he focused on federal food programs (Feeding the Poor: Assessing Federal Food Programs). His work on assessing the severity of crimes via surveys of the American public (Public Opinion on Sentencing Federal Criminals and Just Punishments: Sentencing Guidelines and Public Opinion Compared) has influenced the U.S. Sentencing Commission. His studies of how cities in America responded to the riots of the late 1960s (The Roots of Urban Discontent) grew out of work for the Kerner Commission. His efforts on evaluating public welfare and anti-crime programs was highly influential and was frequently cited by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and other policy makers.

He has received numerous awards. These include election into the Townsend Harris Hall of Fame (1998), the Common Wealth Award for distinguished contributions to Sociology (1985), Distinguished Career Award for the Practice of Sociology (1999, ASA), and the Paul F. Lazarsfeld Award for contributions to research methodology (1995, ASA), and the Chancellor’s Medal at the University of Massachusetts.

In addition to his scholarly works, he was a valued colleague and mentor to generations of doctoral students in sociol-ogy, many of whom went on to lead distinguished careers in academe and public service.

Highlights of his academic career, spanning four institutions and six decades, include his stewardship of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and the Social and Demographic Research Institute at University of Massachusetts. As director of the National Opinion Research center, he brought the center to national prominence and promoted the development of many top scholars in the field of sociology.

He served in the United States Army in World War II as a forward artillery observer and as a military policeman.

He leaves behind his wife of 55 years, Alice S. Rossi, as well as his three children Kris, Nina and Peter and six grandchildren, Ben, Emily, Jon, Nick, Nina and Will.

* * *

Peter Rossi was a great and complicated man. He had an edge that could be terrifying and endearing. He was never easy in life, and his nature is not easily captured in a few 100 words.

I met Pete when in graduate school at Johns Hopkins. He arrived from the University of Chicago and proceeded to offer a research seminar on poverty in America. This was during the nation’s War on Poverty and popular sentiment was for the underdog. Pete ran the seminar like a boot camp where data dominated. “Good politics” by itself got you the equivalent of 50 push-ups; you were of no help to the poor unless you could bring the facts to bear. Facts led you to the politics, not the other way around.

Soon after, Pete took on a major research initiative with the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders to understand the causes of the recent urban unrest. Several of us from the poverty seminar readily accepted his invitation to join and promptly learned that the primary audience was not other academics but active stakeholders. Although Pete sometimes joked that we would do well by doing good, the point was to have a direct and constructive impact on the most pressing social problems of the day.

Shortly after the research got underway, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and the control group almost literally went up in smoke. But Pete readily accepted the challenge and even relished it. The result was a series of innovative and important analyses that would not have been done had the original comparison design remained intact. These analyses were challenging and initially beyond the technical skills of any of us. We worked together to gain control over the required statistical procedures. Pete became a student, which meant retooling when he was at the top of the profession. When other mentors might have delegated the statistical analyses, he was a full partner, learning by doing and unafraid to show ignorance.

These incidents from four decades ago reveal how Pete approached his work. Just as facts trumped politics, facts trumped theory. He knew when he had Colleagues Remember the Expansive Interests and Wit of Peter Rossi done a good piece of empirical research because everyone was mad at him. His attachment to facts meant that he was endlessly searching for them, and the more challenging the setting the better. One of his favorite aphorisms was “If you know it can be done, it is not worth doing.” One important consequence is that he never stopped improving his technical skills because finding facts meant having the right tools. He cared little about findings that would amuse or impress his academic colleagues. He cared deeply about facts that would make a real difference in people’s lives.

Pete’s approach to his work life characterized much of his personal life. It helped us become close friends as well as close colleagues. Over his last several months, questions about how he was doing were answered with “pretty well ... adjusting for age, ethnicity, and life style.” As his health began to fail him, he spoke of the “race between each of my vital organs to see who will get the chance to kill me.” This was brave talk, minimizing the pain of those who cared about him, and always eliciting a comforting chuckle. Pete will be sorely missed.

Richard Berk, University of Pennsylvania

In the post-WWII period, a small number of the new crop of sociologists were concerned with methods and statistics to bring the field into the modern world. Peter Rossi was one who had little tolerance for living in the past, and we happened to be on a government committee to review graduate programs. He did a site visit to a department long established but living in the past, and the chair of that department went to Washington to complain about the review. He complained that I was prejudiced, not Pete, in the review when I had not been involved at all. The point here is that having Pete confused with me made my day, as I thought that in that generation of sociologists, Pete was as good as was possible. I never have wavered from the opinion he was a great scholar and sociologist!

Edgar F. Borgatta

* * *

I met Pete Rossi at the 1961 ASA meeting in St. Louis, MO, where the ASA Council threatened to leave the hotel if the hotel did not make the swimming pool available to all attendees. The hotel conceded, Chuck Willie became the first African American to use their swimming facility, and Pete chaired a session at which I made my first ASA presentation.

When Bill Form and I finished Influentials in Two Border Cities, we sent it to Pete for a critique. Generous with his time and his criticism, he declared it a first-rate comparative analysis and told me not to waste time trying to enrich the theoretical part. I can still hear his voice today: “Look, you have a very good empirical study; be happy! Don’t mess with it.”

My years at Notre Dame overlapped with his at Chicago, so we saw each other frequently. As our friendship deepened, he greeted me with “Eh, goombah.” We talked regularly on social and academic matters of family, ethnicity, religion, and Italian cooking. We discussed ethnicity and religion—sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously. When it came to Italian cooking, we agreed that our wives, Alice and Lorraine, were unmatched in their abilities to create gourmet Italian dinners.

When Alice and Pete moved to Amherst in 1974, and I was chair at the University of Connecticut, I invited Pete to give a talk on some hot topic of the moment, and he agreed on the condition that his honorarium would be an Italian dinner prepared by Lorraine. Fair enough, Lorraine prepared the dinner, and our two youngest daughters served us in a hilarious spoof as the very obedient Italian daughters. He was delighted, and promised to return for a replay.

In 1984, as ASA Executive Officer, I was coming to grips with the new world of office computers. At the suggestion of Alice, who was on Council at the time, Pete agreed to help with the computers, again on the condition of a dinner at Galileos, the best Italian restaurant in DC. His advice was well worth the price, and Council was easier to deal with, given the proposal from the computer company. Of course, the new system would allow us to reduce staff and paper usage. In retrospect, that was a small step for ASA, but it seemed huge at the time.

From 1979-91, The Common Wealth Trust and the ASA (with six other associations) honored outstanding scholars/ leaders in their professions. Among the sociologists honored were Peter (1985) and Alice Rossi (1989). Pete received his award at the ASA meeting as part of the ASA awards ceremony. While the award was distinctive, it was simply part of the overall ASA event. There was some dismay among attendees at the length of the introduction by the Common Wealth official. By the time he got to Pete, people were getting anxious, so Pete barely had time to say “thank you.” By 1988, the Common Wealth Trust hosted its annual awards weekends in the Wilmington Hotel DuPont. When Alice Rossi received her award, Pete was bubbling over with enthusiasm, reminding me in a variety of phrases what a smart, talented, and brilliant woman she was. Alice was the only awardee to receive a standing ovation upon the completion of her remarks. Standing next to Pete and seeing him beaming with pleasure and pride at that moment remains as a fitting way to remember Pete.

William V. D’Antonio, Catholic University

* * *

The youngest of three sons of Italian immigrants, Pete Rossi’s educational beginnings were not auspicious. He spoke so little English in Queens kindergarten that one teacher recommended him for a school for the retarded; in elementary school, his seeming deviousness made him a (usually innocent) suspect for organizing disruptive behaviors—though not for running the successful numbers game that was an early portent of the career to follow. Four turning points marked his early years: a move to a new elementary school and later an elite high school that discovered and nurtured his potential; attending CUNY, where his mostly socialist and later distinguished classmates included his best friend throughout high school and college, Marty Lipset; three years as an Army enlisted man, which persuaded him he could be a leader; and, while at Columbia, a research assistant offer from his exemplar Paul Lazarsfeld that came as a life preserver while he was thrashing in Mertonian waters. His subsequent career speaks for itself. With no competing passions or avocations, sociology was truly his life. After retiring in 1992, he remained productive until the end. A computer-nik of the first order, his home office was a virtual scholarly factory.

Pete’s public persona was not as a paragon of sweetness. He spoke truth to powerful and powerless alike; never flinched from controversy and woe betide the fools that crossed his path. A hall of fame punster with a barbed tongue, Pete often seemed a giant among dwarfs—in part because his saber-like wit cut so many of us off at the knees. But there was deep loyalty and affection awaiting those who persevered into his private world. Most of his jibes were puckish, and I have yet to hear of one student whose PhD diploma was actually stamped as threatened: “Null and void for teaching and research in the continental United States.”

Pete met his surviving wife, Alice, at Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, and their 55-year marriage was among the most luminous in sociological annals—a true model Of Human Bonding, the title of their one book together. A founding member of NOW, she too was President of the American Sociological Association. At an as-yet-unscheduled memorial service for him next spring, Alice, their three children, and six grandchildren will no doubt be joined by a far larger community of devoted intellectual kin and progeny to celebrate his dedication, achievements, and punchlines.

Jay Demerath, University of Massachusetts- Amherst

* * *

Peter Rossi was a tough guy, tough on himself and tough on others. He was reared in a city where you have to look after yourself, but was lucky to attend schools where his talents were recognized. His toughness had to be challenged before you could become his friend. Once when Peter spoke on community power at Michigan State, I challenged his findings. After a heated exchange, he stared down at me and said, “My data are better than yours.” End of discussion. Quality of data was the first essential. Without it, theory was useless speculation. The tighter and sparser the theory, the better. The more difficult and prevalent the problem, the greater the need to investigate it. When he testified before Congress, he provided data rather than vague talk on the importance of sociological research. He taught colleagues how to do research on public policy. Why do people move? Who owns guns? How many homeless men live in the central city? Moreover, he demonstrated that applied research was a good way to test and improve sociological theory.

It mattered little where Peter worked—Columbia, Harvard, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, the University of Massachusetts. If necessary, he traveled to get the data first hand. Wherever Peter was, sociological research was there.

When I first tried to get close to Peter, he would test me. When I told him about my research, he asked tough questions. He mellowed when he decided that I knew what I was up to. I once casually mentioned that my parents were Italian immigrants. Looking at me doubtfully, he said, “When do you peel eggplant?” “Never,” I replied. He smiled and grunted, “Okay, you’re in.” When writing a piece on C. Wright Mills, I learned that Lazarsfeld sent Peter to Decatur as Mills’ research assistant. Mills was pursuing his own interests rather than directing Lazarfeld’s project; Mills’ reports did not satisfy Lazarsfeld. Peter ultimately wrote the report that Lazarsfeld incorporated in his book with Elihu Katz.

The autobiography that Peter wrote for his children and grandchildren revealed a warm and sensitive person, a person who was just as tough on himself as he appeared to be on others. His influence will be with us for a long time.

William Form, Ohio State University

* * *

I met Pete shortly after I started teaching at the University of Massachusetts. I still hear his voice, making some key argument (with fewer words but more insight than his more talkative colleagues), offering a terse but helpful comment, or making a witty remark with a gleam in his eyes. His few words could show his impatience with an unproductive senior colleague or his amusement as he promoted a junior one, for Pete did not heed standard hierarchies but gave generously of his time and skills to those far younger than he—without a hint of arrogance or pomposity.

One day soon after I arrived, I was in the elevator with Pete after attending a graduate student’s comprehensives exam. He asked me what I thought about the exam, and I stuttered something about there not being an adequate theoretical frame, hoping I sounded sophisticated. He chuckled, saying something like, “That would be a waste of our time.” I trembled. I later came to hear far more about his commitment to applied sociology and the evaluation of social programs, his belief that sociology had to matter and that we were wasting our time if we did not think out the policy or practical consequences of our research. His work did matter.

Sometimes when I would ask him a question, he would say—with great pride—“Ask Alice; she knows better than I do.” And then Alice would say something like, “Ask Peter; though you might not realize it from his gruff demeanor, he is nicer than I am.” Many of us did see below that exterior. His style was tough (maybe because of his childhood in New York neighborhoods and his stints in the army, Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard). But he was always interesting, witty, and generous. I laughed a lot when Pete was in the hallway. I cherish the memories.

Naomi Gerstel, University of Massachusetts-Amherst

* * *

It was 4:30 PM in one of the small first floor classrooms in the Social Science Building at the University of Chicago or “the University” as we call it. A seminar had gathered to listen to Peter H. Rossi’s presentation of the themes of his book The Politics of Urban Renewal. “In social science,” he began, his face deadpan, “data tend to run from medium soft to mushy. For this seminar wear your snow shoes.” More laughter than that somber, stuffy room had heard in a half century. Pete loved it. He could, given the occasion, play the role of a stand-up comic. Once you caught that dimension of his very complex and occasionally morose character, you knew how to deal with him. Just feed him the lines so he could laugh at himself.

He said to me once when I was a day late in producing a chapter for The Education of Catholic Americans, “Get it done or it’s back to the parish for you. Parish or publish.” Again, given the right circumstances the puns would spill out of his mouth with reckless abandon. As he explained, there were always two tapes playing in his head, a trick he had learned when he mastered stuttering. He had also to master the English language since he grew up in an Italian-speaking household. One would never know of either challenge, unless he decided to tell you.

In my early days at National Opinion Research Center he wasn’t quite sure what to call me. He was too much of the Italian anticlerical to call me “Father” but too much the Italian Catholic to call me “Andy.” Finally I told him that the latter was quite acceptable. Even then he was uneasy and compromised. I became “Father Greeley” with a mocking emphasis on the first word. There was a lot of laughter in our odd couple team, laughter which I will always remember, which I missed when he left the University, and which I mourn now that the monthly phone calls have come to an end. Vale atque Ave.

Andrew Greeley, National Opinion Research Center

* * *

Peter Rossi was one of the hardest working sociologists I ever met. Though he had plenty of personal experience with urban ills as well as a highly developed sense of fairness, he never lost his conviction that social scientists should report what they found, not what they wanted to find. Advocacy and ideology ought never to trump science.

Probably best known for his research on the origin of homelessness, Peter’s life-long pursuit involved devising ways to evaluate federally-funded initiatives in education, health services, crime control, and housing, a field that he claimed was hardly out of infancy. Concern for large-scale evaluations originated during President Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s, but even as poverty slipped from public consciousness and Reagonomics and high stock prices came to dominate the American political scene, Peter demonstrated how to continue the fight against poverty in a highly rational and disinterested way. Systematic evaluation could highlight the effects of government programs on American lives and thereby enable policymakers, politicians, and voters to make better decisions.

To my knowledge, Peter has rarely (if ever) been given credit for his espousal of feminist ideas about fair play in labor market and family at a time when feminism was nearly unknown in academia. Happily married to a pioneer feminist sociologist (and one of the founders of NOW), Peter would be exposed on occasion to amazingly vituperative interruptions by angry colleagues, wellestablished sociologists who saw him as a traitor to his sex. That he was more or less amused by these outbursts bespeaks a person who was very certain of his command of the relevant data. You could always be sure that he knew how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Joan Huber, Ohio State University

* * *

Peter H. Rossi made fundamental contributions to our understanding of a prodigiously vast array of phenomena, centered on the big three sociobehavioral forces—status, power, and justice—and their unfolding: why families move, the power structures of American communities, urban discontent and civil disorders, sentencing norms governing convicted criminals, criminal victimization, sexual harassment, the prestige of people and occupations, justice judgments about earnings, homelessness, and behavior in disasters.

Whenever the task of answering a question demanded it, he did not hesitate to stop and learn a new tool or invent a new method. To me, the most dazzling of his methodological contributions, for its elegant simplicity and its far-reaching applicability, is his pioneering development of the factorial survey method. Rossi devised a procedure to construct vignettes describing lifelike persons and situations, and to use them to obtain respondents’ ideas of the way things are and the way things ought to be. Estimates of these ideas and the equations in which they are embedded pave the way to exploring a wide variety of new questions, including assessment of the intricate patterns of inter-individual agreements and disagreements and the exciting uniqueness of individuals.

Beyond his contributions to sociology, we will remember Peter Rossi for many things—the joyous clarity of his mind, his delight in reasoning, his utter devotion to social science. And his ideas and reasonings will remain an anchor and beacon as sociological knowledge grows.

Guillermina Jasso, New York University

* * *

Pete was a good friend as well as a mentor in many ways. A sometimes harsh critic of the work of others, he was equally hard on himself. I often seemed to follow Pete in ASA activities, as a Council member, Secretary, and President. He was a hard act to follow. We met occasionally on other projects and reviewed each other’s work, much to my benefit. It was always a pleasure to work with him. I admired his no-nonsense manner, his great sense of humor, and his pragmatic approach to life. He leaves a void in the lives of many.

Jim Short, Washington State University