November 2013 Issue • Volume 41 • Issue 7

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Emeritus Profile

A Rural Sociologist for Almost Eight Decades: Olaf F. Larson

Olaf Larson

Julie Zimmerman, University of Kentucky

Two years ago, Olaf F. Larson saw his fifth and sixth books come out in print—one from the University of Wisconsin Press and one from Penn State Press. At the time, he was 101 years old.

Born in 1910 on a farm in Rock County, WI, Olaf graduated from a one-room school. Ever the sociologist, he writes about his rural and farm life at the turn of the last century in his most recent book, When Horses Pulled the Plow.

Leaving the farm in 1928, he attend the University of Wisconsin. While he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in agricultural journalism, it was through working with J. H. Kolb that Olaf discovered rural sociology. In 1934, he completed his preliminary exams to earn a PhD.

Olaf entered the professoriate in 1935 at Colorado A&M (Colorado State University) and in two years was promoted to Associate Professor. During this time, Olaf attended what would be a momentous meeting of the members of the ASA Section on Rural Sociology. A year after establishing their own journal, section members voted to form the Rural Sociological Society (RSS) separate from the ASA.

In 1938, Olaf left Colorado when Carl Taylor (ASA President in 1946) hired Olaf to work in the USDA’s Division of Farm Population and Rural Life. The Division, as it was called, was the first unit of the federal government devoted to sociological research. (It would also become a key focus of Olaf’s post-retirement research.) While at the Division, Olaf worked in several regional offices as well as in Washington, DC, and in 1941 he completed his PhD in rural sociology.

Seeking more stability for his young family, in 1946, Olaf left the Division to join the faculty at Cornell University. Olaf was promoted to full professor in 1949 and served as department chair for 11 years. While at Cornell, Olaf was twice a Fulbright Scholar and became the first Director of the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development. In 1954, he was voted into the elite Sociological Research Association. In 1957-58 he was president of the Rural Sociological Society, and in the early 1960s he served as Vice Chair of the committee that organized the first World Congress of Rural Sociology—to name but a few of his accomplishments.

So-Called Retirement

After working at Cornell for nearly 30 years, Olaf retired in 1975. Nevertheless, Retirement did not mean an end to work. Instead, as he once told this author, being retired freed him to pursue research in areas that interested him. With Minnie Brown, he worked on a manuscript on black farmers and in 1990 he was co-edited the book Sociology of Agriculture, which was produced for the 50th anniversary of the Rural Sociological Society. In 1985, Olaf was recognized with the Society’s highest award—Distinguished Rural Sociologist.

In the late 1980s, together with Edward O. Moe and an advisory group of six former Division members, Olaf embarked on a project to document and assess the work of the USDA unit he had once been a part of. Supported by the ASA, the Division’s successor unit, the USDA’s Economic Research Service, and the Department of Rural Sociology at Cornell, Olaf set about collecting what turned out to be the voluminous work produced during the Division’s 53 years. It was also during this project that Olaf adopted (albeit informally) his final student—this author.

In 1992, the first stage of the project was completed with the publication of a bibliography containing more than 1,500 citations of the Division’s work. In 2003, delayed in part by a change in publishers, came the unit’s analysis and history in Sociology in Government: The Galpin-Taylor Years in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1919-1953, published by Penn State Press. Both books were published in cooperation with the ASA and are part of the RSS Rural Studies Series.

About five years later, Olaf again joined forces with this author to write a third book to consider the Division’s work. Also part of the RSS Rural Studies Series, Opening Windows onto Hidden Lives: Women, Country Life, and Early Rural Sociological Research focuses on the unexpected inclusion of women in the unit’s body of research. Published by Penn State Press in 2013, it was nominated for the ASA History of Sociology Section’s Distinguished Scholarly Publication Award.

Last of a Generation

Olaf is the last of his generation of rural sociologists and the last remaining person who worked in the first unit of the federal government devoted to sociological research. Many of the big names familiar to rural sociology, Olaf either knew or met. Today, it is not just Olaf’s students, but the students of his students who are now being counted among the senior rural sociologists. And, he continues to support students through various funds he has set up at both the University of Wisconsin and Cornell. In 2010, for his 100th birthday, the Rural Sociological Society renamed the graduate student paper award in his honor, and in 2012, a video welcome from Olaf opened the Society’s 75th Anniversary celebration. 

At last count, Olaf has been formally interviewed more than a dozen times and informally an innumerable number of times. He has been a source of invaluable information on people and events that would have otherwise been just names and places in the histories of sociology and rural sociology. But Olaf is not done yet. Never one to sit still for very long, at 103 years old and nearly four decades since his retirement, he is already planning his next project.


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