Section on Aging and the Life Course

Helena Znaniecki Lopata (1925-2003)

Helena Lopata, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Loyola University Chicago, died in Wisconsin at the age of 77 on February 12, 2003. She was a faculty member at Loyola University from 1969 until her retirement in May 1997. Her husband, Richard Lopata, died in 1994. Her children, Theodora Menasco and Stefan Lopata and three grandchildren survive her. Until her death she remained an active member of the department and the profession, teaching, participating in national and international conferences, and writing.


Photo Helena LopataHelena was born in Poznan, Poland, on October 1, 1925, and lived there until the age of 15. Her father, Polish sociologist Florian Znaniecki, was in the United States when the Nazis occupied Poland on September 1, 1939, and, as part of their campaign to weaken the resistant Polish intelligentsia, sent the teenage Helena and her mother, Eileen Markley, to a concentration camp. In her column for "My Turn" (SWS Network News, October 2001) she wrote a compelling story of this time:

"Upon seeing the cattle cars, mother decided to act. Having been trained as an American lawyer, she marched to the camp commander demanding to be released.

She claimed American citizenship, which she did not have because she had married a foreigner before the 1924 act that allowed American women to retain their citizenship after marrying a national of another country. Speaking English, she claimed that she had come to Poland to visit her sister and family. She explained that her sister and her sister's husband had been killed by the bombs and that I, the niece, was with her now. She said that she did not understand what was going on but that she had important friends in America who could cause trouble. This was before the United States entered the War. The Commander became frightened and let us go. The Poles standing outside the fence threw stones as we left, thinking that we had claimed to be "Volksdeutsch" or Germans, so Mother yelled in Polish (which she was not supposed to know) that we were Americans. With that, the crowd carried us on their backs to the streetcar, and we returned safely to Poznan."

From Poznan, Helena and her mother made their way, with difficulty, through Austria and Italy to the United States, joining Znaniecki who had accepted a teaching position at the University of Illinois.

Helena finished high school in Champaign, Illinois, and received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Illinois. She received her PhD in 1954 from the University of Chicago, where she studied with Herbert Blumer, Everett Hughes, and Louis Wirth. From 1965 to 1969 she taught at Roosevelt University in Chicago. In 1969 she moved to Loyola University, where she chaired the department from 1970 to 1972 and was Director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Social Roles from 1972 until her retirement. She was also Visiting Professor of Sociology at the Universities of Southern California, Minnesota, Guelph, Victoria, and Boston College.

Helena published 20 books (often with colleagues and graduate students) and numerous articles. She edited the series, Current Research on Occupations and Professions (formerly Research on the Interweave of Social Roles) for JAI Press, which resulted in ten edited volumes. Her articles and book chapters covered a variety of topics, including social roles, the life course, time, grief, loneliness, family support networks, and women's employment. At the time of her death she was working on a series of papers on "the cosmopolitan community of scholars," an interest originating in her own extensive international connections and experience.

Helena was active in a vast array of professional organizations. During her career she was elected to the presidencies of several organizations, including SWS and SSSP, and chaired numerous ASA committees and sections. An internationalist and world traveler, she was a 30-year member of the International Sociological Association, and participated actively in its seminars in family and in its sociology of work and sociology of aging research committees.

Helena drew on and elaborated her father's theoretical approach to social roles as comprising "social persons" embedded in "social circles." In her empirical work she applied her concept of roles first to the study of housewives and later to employed women and to widows, showing how expanding and contracting social circles shaped women's options in the context of wider societal shifts. Her portraits of women buffeted by a changing American landscape and, more recently, by global forces, also show in detail how these women navigated, improvised, and innovated strategic responses to changing worlds.

Helena was an internationalist long before studying globalization became important to American sociologists. To those of us who worked alongside her, Helena was a wonderful colleague and mentor. For many years, faculty and graduate students made pilgrimages to the Lopata's beautiful home on the shore of Lake Delavan in Wisconsin, where we were treated to lavish Polish meals and good conversation. Always ready for the next meeting, seminar, dinner, or party, she lived as well as studied the sociability that enlarges our lives. We will miss her.

Judith Wittner, Loyola University,
ASA Footnotes, April 2003