September-October 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 7

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Memories of J. Milton Yinger

Friends, colleagues, and family share their reflections

j. milton yinger

J. Milton Yinger

I once mentioned to Milt Yinger that I thought his decisions had been important for the development of the discipline. He looked puzzled so I had to explain what I meant. First, he spent almost his entire career at Oberlin. His involvement insured that sociology was an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum that was widely admired and copied by other institutions. Second, his own intellectual interests tended to focus on “neglected” areas. Neglect is in the eye of the beholder and time based, but sociology can often be subject to fads. So his work on racial and ethnic minorities and in the sociology of religion,had been critical in encouraging others to study these areas. Religious behavior had been slighted, perhaps in our quest for respectability. His work tied us back to our European ancestors, such as Weber and Durkheim. Milt’s work showed that knowledge insures respectability.

Milt also accepted responsibility in disciplinary organizations, even in difficult times. He was President of ASA l976-77 at the same time that I was the ASA Executive Officer. He was able to combine openness with a focus on resolving the issues of the time. We all benefited from his skill. He was a valued colleague. I’m glad I had the opportunity to tell him so.

Russell R. Dynes, University of Delaware


Professor J. Milton Yinger began teaching in Oberlin College in 1947, the same year Joann Finley and I enrolled as freshmen. Before Joann and I graduated four years later, both of us had taken several of Yinger’s classes, been in his and Winnie’s home, met their kids, Susan, John, and Nancy, and decided to major in Sociology.

Two years later Joann Finley, now my wife, and I were back in Oberlin after teaching in high schools in India under the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association. Both of us had gathered data in India that Milt Yinger helped us convert into our master’s theses. Milt convinced us that we needed to keep a file card on everything we read.

Five years later I was Milt Yinger’s colleague in the Oberlin College Department of Sociology and Anthropology. On the first day of a class we team-taught, Milt announced, “This class will be taught by Professors Yinger and Elder. This may be confusing because Professor Elder is younger than Professor Yinger while Professor Yinger is older than Professor Elder” (followed by a collective groan from the class).

My father was the kindest man
I have ever known. I don’t think
I ever heard him say a bad word
about anyone—just like I never
saw him make a bad call on
the tennis court.

— John Yinger

At the ASA meetings in 1976 I had the pleasure of introducing Milt Yinger as he became the new president of the American Sociological Association. In my introduction I stressed Milt’s view of a world full of conceptual continua that required one to be cautious about even data-based generalizations.

Twenty years later Joann and I enjoyed welcoming Milt to his PhD alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Milt returned to deliver a Distinguished Speakers lecture. Joann, as the Sociology-undergraduate advisor, became his hostess. Milt took us on a tour past the apartment where he had lived as a graduate student in the 1930s and to the Memorial Union where he had courted (and won) his wife Winnie McHenry.

After Milt retired from his teaching career in Oberlin, his apartment in Kendal at Oberlin became a visitors’ center for four decades of Oberlin’s sociology majors between 1947 and 1987 that included Joann and me. We will long remember Milt Yinger for the continuing interest he took in the two of us, for his friendship, and for his models of sociological imagination and sociological rigor.

Joseph W. Elder, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Professor John Milton Yinger, prior to and during his Presidency of the American Sociological Association, is noted for the following:  At Oberlin College, Milton served as a major force as a member of the collegial faculty in demanding and promoting as a colleague leader to work with the administration, the president, and the  Board of Trustees to find mutually acceptable policies and practices in maintaining a productive environment. I shared teaching and co-teaching with Milt and social psychologists in psychology and learned to appreciate what a deep and well-rounded experience interdisciplinary teaching can be for myself and the students.

Milton developed and maintained student instruction, both within and outside of the classroom, to stimulate the students to work to their best ability. He encouraged them to enjoy their strengths and their residential college, to partake of equality and equity in gender and color relationships. His contribution was to understand the social and cultural environment that affects the social psychology of  individuals and collections of groups and communities within their history and lives. Many of these students continue their interests as graduates and as participants in their future lives.

His work on religion and society led to supportive colleagues and election to state and regional societies. Combined with his major writing and thoughts and the individual in societies and cultures, election moved to the Presidency of the American Sociological Association. Milt enjoyed the Presidency and shared his thoughts and sentiments as President.

Kiyosh Ikeda, University of Hawaii at Manoa 


My dad met my mother while they were both graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. They were married for 61 years, until she passed away in 2002. So far as my sisters and I could tell, their love and devotion to each other only increased over the years. He was also a devoted father, with plenty of time for family summer vacations to all parts of the country, games of catch in the side yard, and answers to the endless questions that his children asked him. He had a professorial habit of rubbing his chin and looking up when he answered our questions, so one time my sisters and I pasted a lot of stock answers on the ceiling to tease him. You know, stuff like, Πr2, 250 million, 1941, and aluminum. He didn’t need our help of course, as his knowledge and wisdom far exceeded our own, but he laughed as hard as anyone at the joke.

My father was the kindest man I have ever known. I don’t think I ever heard him say a bad word about anyone—just like I never saw him make a bad call on the tennis court. As many of you know, he was by no means a milquetoast, and he would vigorously defend his point of view (and vigorously compete on the tennis court). But his arguments never became personal, and he went out of his way to be kind and respectful to his opponents—while demolishing their arguments or their serves. I know these things from personal experience.

My father was also a profound and prolific scholar. I have a box in my office that used to sit on my father’s desk. He typed out and taped to this box a quotation from the poet John Milton, after whom he was named, which seems to me sum up the way he thought about his scholarship. The quote is, “By labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life), joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to after times as they should not willingly let it die.” As it turns out, I think my father’s scholarly work will be around for a long time.

John Yinger, extracted from his eulogy delivered at First Church in Oberlin, August 3, 2011

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