July/August 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 6

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Emeritus Profile

A War Veteran Recounts His Journey to Becoming a Sociologist

Craig Schaar, ASA Membership

Ursula LeGuin wrote, "It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end." Lincoln Grahlfs took an atypical journey along his sociological career.

Grahlfs is a fourth-generation New Yorker and son of a World War I veteran, who became a copyeditor at the New York Times for 40 years. Grahlf’s mother taught in the New York City public school system for 25 years.

From the time he was eight years old, Lincoln Grahlfs said he wanted a maritime career, but, during high school, he discovered a passion for mathematics, which eventually led him to sociology. Following his boyhood ambitions, Grahlfs enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. After the conclusion of the war, Grahlfs served three more years in the navy. "Those three years in the navy after World War II had more to do with the rest of my life than anything else," said Grahlfs in a recent interview.

Grahlfs was assigned to a rescue tugboat at the Bikini Atoll region in 1946 for the atomic bomb tests. After the defeat of Germany and Japan, the U.S. military invested significant resources in researching, developing, and testing atomic weapons as a deterrent against a possible geo-political threat from the Soviet Union. Grahlfs explained that he did not volunteer for this dangerous assignment despite what was indicated by the U.S. government at the time. Grahlfs and his men comprised a salvage unit; the unit would put out fires about four hours after a bomb explosion.

After the summer of 1946, Grahlfs was sent to San Francisco for shore-duty assignment. Around this time, Grahlfs married his first wife and looked forward to civilian life after his military commitment. However, he developed a serious illness during the spring of 1947. Exposure to the atomic bomb tests was suspected in causing an abscess on the young navy man’s face and a low white blood cell count. Eventually, Grahlfs recovered and was sent by the navy to the Micronesian islands in the South Pacific to provide logistic support to the local population. During this assignment, Grahlfs was "horrified" by the U.S. influence on the local island culture. It was then that Grahlfs decided to study sociology.

After his military service ended, Grahlfs got his bachelors degree in sociology at Hofstra and he went on to earn his master’s degree in East Asian studies and sociology at Columbia University. He joined the American Sociological Association in 1953 while completing his graduate studies. At this point, Grahlfs decided that he wanted to take a "short" break from his studies.

Teaching Sociology

In 1955, when Grahlfs was completing his master’s degree, he spent one year teaching at Wilkes College in Pennsylvania. While at Wilkes College, Grahlfs developed a passion for teaching sociology. After his one-year commitment at Wilkes College, Grahlfs taught at Flint Community College in Michigan for nine years.

Robert Angell, a former president of the ASA, offered a position to Grahlfs to evaluate sociological teaching materials for use in high school social studies classrooms. The project was managed by the ASA with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Grahlfs accepted the offer and worked on this ASA project for three years. He would travel around the United States observing classrooms and interviewing administrators about their high school sociology materials.

At the beginning of the Nixon administration, funding was reduced for the NSF budget leading  Grahlfs to return to teaching. He spent a few years teaching at Washington College in Chestertown, MD, 13 years at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County, and then retired from teaching. He married his second wife, Joan Grahlfs, who was teaching mathematics at a local college. Joan was told that she would never advance in her career unless she earned a higher educational degree. After Grahlfs retired from the University of Wisconsin, his wife was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. With that, Gralfs decided it was time to earn his doctorate in sociology.

40 Years Later

Grahlfs would complete the doctorate program at the University of Michigan some 40 years after he earned his master’s degree. In 1996, he published a book based on his dissertation called Voices from Ground Zero: Recollections and Feelings of Nuclear Test Veterans. In this book, veterans share a sense of betrayal regarding their involvement in the atomic bomb tests. The book notes that the U.S. military did not educate military personnel regarding the dangers from the testing. Grahlfs recalls one incident after an atom bomb explosion in the Bikini Atoll when his group of navy personnel noticed radioactive particles hovering in the air and they were breathing in the material; Grahlfs and his mates did not even have protective clothing or gear to guard against the radioactive fallout.

Michael Hirsch, a professor of sociology at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, TX, attended a conference where Lincoln Grahlfs gave a talk about the atomic veteran experience. Hirsch recalled, "I have found his work to be particularly interesting because it addresses the experience of a unique population, veterans who have had to address the life consequences of being exposed to radiation as a result of their involvement in the military during early nuclear weapons testing. It reminded me of the importance of taking advantage of the unique opportunities we have as scientists to observe, record, and share rare social occurrences. That he has done this in face of criticism from skeptical ‘patriots’ is a testament to his courage."

The Grahlfs currently reside in a senior living facility in the Madison, WI area. Grahlfs is active with the Veterans for Peace organization and he serves on the board of the National Association of Atomic Veterans.

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