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Robin M. Williams, Jr. (1914Ė2006): A Sociologist for All Seasons

by Phyllis Moen, University of Minnesota

Wisdom, defined by the dictionary as the knowledge and experience needed to make sensible decisions and judgments, or as the “good sense” shown by the decisions and judgments made, is no longer a commonly used word. Perhaps this is because it has so few contemporary exemplars. Robin M. Williams, Jr., was the most intelligent, informed, and wise person I have had the good fortune to know as a friend and a colleague. His research fostered understanding of some of the most difficult problems of American society. He devoted much of his career and writing to studies of intergroup tensions, race relations, war and peace, ethnic conflict, and altruism and cooperation. Robinís ability to reason about and understand the complexities of the human condition was rivaled only by his talent for conveying these intricacies with such straight-forward clarity that those of us less gifted could comprehend. His family, friends, colleagues, and students would all testify to his extraordinary good humor and good sense.

Robin Murphy Williams was born on October 11, 1914, in Hillsborough, NC, son of Robin M., Sr. (a farmer) and Mabel (a homemaker). He received his BS in 1933 from North Carolina State College; his MS in 1935 from North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina; his MA in 1939 from Harvard University; and his PhD in 1943 from Harvard University. He died on June 3, 2006, at Irvine Regional Hospital in Irvine, California; the cause of death was complications from emergency surgery. He was 91. His son, Robin M. III, was born in 1942 and died in 1984. Williams is survived by his beloved wife and life partner, Marguerite; his daughters Nancy Elizabeth OíConnor of Santa Fe, NM, and Susan York Williams of Binghamton, NY; his sister Helen Coble of Mebane, NC; and grandchildren Julia, Tara, Tyler, and Robin OíConnor, as well as nieces and nephews.

For much of his long and distinguished career, Robin M. Williams, Jr., was a member of the Sociology Department at Cornell University (from 1946-85, then emeritus 1985-2003). He served as chair of that Department from 1956 through 196l, and was appointed the Henry Scarborough Professor of Social Science in 1967. Robin continued full force at Cornell until 2003, belying his “Professor Emeritus” status, and continued full force at the University of California-Irvine (UCI) until his death. By “full force” I mean an active program of teaching, research, and publishing. At his death, Williams was a distinguished visiting professor at UCI where he had spent much of the last 16 years of his academic career; during the 2006 spring quarter and just prior to his surgery, he was teaching a course entitled “Altruism and Cooperation.”

Robinís exemplary record as a scholar, teacher, and citizen of his times was enriched and facilitated by the companionship, care, and common sense of his beloved Marguerite York, formerly of Cary, NC, whom he married in 1939. She closely collaborated in his early work as a rural sociologist: a field work project for the University of Kentuckyís Agricultural Experiment Station. Throughout Robinís long career, Marguerite played important roles as his advisor, sounding board, and editorial critic as well as companion.

What I have appreciated most about this charming and gracious southern gentleman is his blithe transgressing of conventional academic divides: between “research” and “teaching”, for example, or between “basic” and “applied” scholarship, and certainly between “active” and “emeritus” professorial ranks. He refused to be categorized, or to play by the conventional rules of the academic game. Robin and Marguerite are certainly role models for the new 21st century retirement; more of a moving on to new challenges than a passage to leisure.

Anyone who spent time with Robin would never view teaching and scholarship as anything but two sides of the same coin. Every conversation, lunch, or dinner was an occasion for learning by osmosis. His lively blend of anecdotes (apocryphal and real), questions, observations and one-liners revealed a man enamored with, but not blinded by, a blend of sociological imagination, a broad knowledge base, and good sense. I was never in his classes, but my daughter Melanie Moen was, and she described them (and him) as engaging as well as enlightening.

A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Robin was highly respected for his scientific scholarship. But he saw sociological analysis as socially as well as scientifically useful. His was a scholarly agenda tracking some of the most challenging social issues of the times.

His long and distinguished scholarly career began in rural sociology, but took a different tack in World War II, when Robin served in the Special Services Division of the U.S. War Department in Washington, DC, and the European Theater of Operations (1942-46). As an Army researcher on the frontlines, he was a contributor to the classic work, The American Soldier.

Robinís 1947 monograph on The Reduction of Intergroup Tensions (reprinted in a 1999 book honoring his work) is as relevant today as it was almost 60 years ago. Next came his study (with Margaret Ryan) of school desegregation published in Schools in Transition in 1954 and then What College Students Think in 1960. His famous study of racial and ethnic relations in Elmira, NY, as well as other cities culminated in a book (with John Dean and Edward Suchman) called Strangers Next Door (1964). Another important book on racial issues, Mutual Accommodation, was published in 1977. But, my personal favorite is the one I have next to me now, his great overview of our nation, American Society: A Sociological Interpretation (1951, second edition in 1961, and a third in 1970).

After this lifetime of productive engagement came “retirement,” which Robin apparently took to mean “second wind.” He took on the chair of the National Research Councilís Committee on the Status of Black Americans, publishing with Gerald David Jaynes in 1989 a major report on its findings: A Common Destiny. That same year came the first publication of a paper based on data he collected in the 1950s in Elmira on womenís roles, the only study he had left uncompleted, as a result of a collaboratorís death. These wonderful data were revived by Donna Dempster-McClain, then a student in his class. Together Donna and I launched a “catch-up” study, finding and reinterviewing these women and their daughters 30 years later, collaborating with Robin in the writing of the results.

As if his “retirement” was not busy enough, Robin and his plucky wife Marguerite took on a bicoastal life: fall semesters at Cornell and spring semesters teaching at Irvine, driving between the two through December snows, sleet, and fog, stopping on the way to visit daughter Nancy and family in Santa Fe.

Along with this bicoastal arrangement, Robin simultaneously moved on to promote understanding of ethnic conflicts within and across national borders. The result was his 2003 masterpiece, The Wars Within: Peoples and States in Conflict, aptly published by Cornell University Press.

Robin Williams was generous with his wisdom, his “good sense,” offering invariably sound advice. When I became Director of the Sociology Program at the National Science Foundation, he encouraged me “to keep your back to the wall and your hands in both pockets.” He was right.

Robin also led by example. I recall when he went to administrators across the Cornell campus with, as he called it, his “tin cup,” seeking additional funds for the Sociological Forum (the journal he founded for the Eastern Sociological Society). One dean confronted him with his own words: “You said, Robin, that last time would be the LAST time!” Robin simply responded, “I lied.” His was always a vision transcending departmental, college, and other administrative boundaries. It is no accident that when we held a symposium at Cornell in his honor in 1996, two deans and the provost contributed generously and Cornell University Press published the resulting papers.

In addition to the American Philosophical Society and the National Academy of Sciences, Robin M. Williams, Jr., was also a member of the National Research Council, the Pacific Sociological Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others. He was a President of the American Sociological Association, the Eastern Sociological Association, Founding Editor of Sociological Forum, and Co-chair of the Committee on the Status of Black Americans. His many awards and honors include the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service, the ASAís Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, and the Robin M. Williams, Jr., Distinguished Lectureship Award established in his honor by the Eastern Sociological Association. A wonderful blend of the professional and personal can be found in Robinís chapter for the 2006 Annual Review of Sociology: “The Long Twentieth Century in American Sociology: A Semiautobiographical Survey.”

My favorite mental picture is of a picnic my husband Dick Shore and I shared with Marguerite and Robin on their “farm” (land purchased for their daughter Susanís horses long ago). With the impending permanent move to Irvine in 2003 came the need to deal with loose ends in Ithaca. Right before this piece of their past was sold, Marguerite, Dick, and I walked to a beautiful spot where she laid out a wonderful spread. Emphysema had by then taken its toll, so it was impossible for Robin to walk even half the necessary distance. Undaunted, he drove up on his well-worn 1966 Simplicity lawn tractor. This is Robin and Margueriteís gift to all of us touched by their public and private lives: lessons about making a contribution to knowledge and understanding, but also about how to “move on” and to “manage,” and to do so with grace, humor, and good sense.

Phyllis Moen is coeditor, with Donna Dempster-Mc- Clain and Henry A. Walker, of A Nation Divided: Diversity, Inequalilty, and Community in American Society, a book compiled and published in 1999 in honor of Robin M. Williams, Jr.