American Sociological Association

Obituary: Gresham Sykes

Gresham “Grex” M. Sykes

Gresham “Grex” M. Sykes, was a scholar, veteran, artist, and a natural leader. A former Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association, he was “the rare individual who could combine a keen academic and analytical mind with the eye and skill of an artist.” (David Toscano, 2010). Throughout his life he touched many lives from students and friends to his definitive sociological writings on crime and punishment.

Grex was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on May 26, 1922. To prepare him for college, his parents sent him to the auspicious Brooks Academy. Afterward he was immediately accepted into Princeton University in 1940. However, he would not stay long. In 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor ushering the United States into World War II. Grex, like many others of his generation, enlisted in the US Army where he entered the OCS (Officer Candidate School) and graduated as a Second Lieutenant.  

Two years later he and his company were sent to England for training and finally France after D-Day. With his company he participated in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and then crossed into the Rhine into the heartland of Germany. He quickly rose to the rank of Captain as he fought along with his comrades during his two years in Europe.  

After V-E Day (Victory in Europe), he returned to the states to help prepare for war in the Pacific against Japan. But the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought forth V-J Day (Victory in Japan), finally ending World War II. In that same year, Grex retired his commission to return to the civilian life in 1945.

Before returning to the states he gave himself a much deserved year-long holiday in Mexico. Upon his returned he married Cara Adelt in New York City. In the fall of that same year Grex was ready to return to school, but it took him a while to find a place where he felt comfortable. He first went to Hofstra in New York, then to Mexico City College in Mexico, and in 1948 he circled back to Princeton University where he received his BA, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1950. He then entered the graduate program in sociology as a Northwestern University fellow. He received his PhD in 1952 and, again, returned to Princeton, this time as an instructor.

He ascended to the Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton and published his first two books, “Crime and Society,” and “Society of the Captives,” which has become the classic text in criminology, the most cited book in the field, and gone through several editions since then, the most recent done in 2007. 

In 1958, he took another sabbatical year in Mexico, this time choosing to study art, at the Instituto de Allende in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. The study and practice of art would prove to be a lifelong passion of his. In 1959, Grex joined the sociology faculty at Northwestern University while also teaching at Dartmouth College.  

In 1963, Grex became the Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Two years later, he would return to teaching and research becoming the Director of the Administration of Justice Program at the University of Denver. He remained at the University of Denver until 1972. He continued to publish in his field also serving on review boards for the National Institutes of Health, and editorial boards of professional journals.  

Some of his major publications are Social Problems, The Future of Crime, and the aforementioned textbook, Criminology, as well as articles in professional and popular journals and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Grex joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1973 as their professor of sociology, serving as chairman of the Sociology Department for several years. He finally retired as Professor Emeritus in 1987.  

Throughout his prestigious academic career, Grex continued to study art and to pain. In Charlottesville, Virginia he was a renting member of the McGuffey Art Association until 2003, when he moved his studio to his home and became an associate member. His art has been shown locally and in galleries in New Hampshire; Denver, Colorado; Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. His last art show, a one man show, was a retrospective of his paintings from the 1980s until 2009. He held his last show in the gallery at Woodbery Forest School during September and October 2010. His work can be found in private collections throughout the world. For several years some of his art was displayed in several countries abroad by the U.S. State Department’s “Arts in Embassies program. Gresham “Grex” M. Sykes passed away October 29, 2010, ending a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.  

Grex was an individual who left a permanent impression on the world he left behind. His acute awareness of society and fascination with society’s problems such as crime, for example, gave him the insight he needed to write defining material still referenced today. Not only that, he was a gifted artist who used was able to express his understanding of the human condition through the swipe of his paint brush. He was one of a kind.

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