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Colleagues Remember Matilda White Riley

Part of the Executive Office from the Beginning

Matilda White Riley had a special relationship with the ASA Executive Office. After all, she was the first ASA Executive Officer in 1949 (through 1960). She would regale us with stories about “those old days” when the membership files were a recipe box filled with index cards, sitting on her family’s kitchen table. She would speak of Annual Meetings with several hundred attendees, most of whom brought their families and drove in the proverbial family station wagon. The first meeting “out west” was in Denver, and the Riley family camped along the way with the Talcott Parsons family. We laughed with her about the possible camp songs that would come from that grouping!

Because Matilda and Jack lived in Washington, DC, for many years, they were frequent visitors to the office. They were co-Presidents of the District of Columbia Sociological Society and focused their monthly programs on sociological couples. Matilda became ASA President in 1986 and that role only intensified her contact with ASA. She crafted an ambitious program, which included a restructuring of open submission processes that remains in effect to this day and reached out widely to the scientific community.

At the National Institute on Aging (NIA), she was founding Associate Director for Behavioral and Social Research (1979-1991), Senior Social Scientist (1991-1997), and, finally, Scientist Emeritus (1998-). She developed the blueprint for and implemented a visionary extramural program in the behavioral and social sciences. Under her guidance, the multidisciplinary program grew to become one of the larger funders of behavioral and social science research at the NIH, emphasizing the interplay between social, behavioral, and biological factors in the aging of individuals and societies. She would call the Executive Office and give us advice, sometimes pointed, about how to support and advance social science research under less than hospitable U.S. presidential administrations.

Matilda and Jack showed a keen interest in the Executive Office staff and certainly were dear friends to us. Earlier this year, we—the “old timers” still on staff from her presidential year—enjoyed Matilda’s enthusiastic e-mails about her plans to help ASA celebrate its centennial in Philadelphia. It is hard to believe she and Jack are gone, and what a void that brings to us, both personally and professionally.

Carla B. Howery, Karen Gray Edwards, Janet L. Astner, American Sociological Association


I often tell the story that my father, Henry Quellmalz, always told about Matilda. The first time he met her was in her garage in 1950. She was running ASA from the trunk of her car! She handed him an issue of American Sociological Review, and the rest is history. My parents, Marion and Henry, became good friends with Matilda and Jack. I had the honor of first meeting Matilda in 1981, as I was being groomed to become Boyd’s president. She was so warm, friendly, and very supportive. She loved the fact that a woman was taking over. The world of sociology has lost a great leader and an even greater person. Matilda will be missed by everyone who was fortunate enough to have her touch their life.

Jane Quellmalz Carey, President & CEO, Boyd Printing Company, Inc.


My relationship with Matilda began with two important experiences—serving as TA for her methods course during her final year of teaching at Rutgers, and being part of her first Sociology of Age seminar. She was a foundational pillar of Rutgers sociology, legendary for her demanding and sophisticated methods course. But she also was exceptional in less formally recognized ways: She almost single-handedly constructed a welcoming social reality for graduate students, organizing regular events like brown-bag lunches. And each year, she and Jack hosted an elegant dinner for the new “methods” cohort.

When Matilda left for Bowdoin, I expected that our contact would attenuate. I could not then guess that the brief years at Rutgers were incubating a relationship that would continue and that was, for me, a transforming experience of mentoring and colleagueship that would last for three decades.

Passing years deepened my gratitude to and admiration of Matilda—for her tough yet encouraging critiques, her openness to new ideas, her disciplined consistency in applying the aging and society paradigm, her awesome wisdom—informed by a unique knowledge of both people and organizations, within and beyond sociology. Matilda had worked for Sorokin in the 1930s, and counted the likes of Parsons and Merton among her close friends, yet in her 90s she was still keenly interested in and supportive of innumerable young social scientists. Perhaps it is not surprising that a membership composed largely of the latter voted this past year to rename the Aging and the Life Course Section’s Distinguished Scholar Award, the Matilda White Riley Distinguished Scholar Award.

Matilda’s seemingly straightforward aging and society paradigm is deceptively sophisticated. Known for its articulation of cohort flow and social change, it also made the unique contribution—still not well understood—of explicating age as a feature of social structure with destructive normative power over individual lives. More soundly than some who have written in trendier sociological jargons, Matilda thereby laid the foundation for a critical analysis that recognizes both social structure and ideology (“the power of ideas,” in her words) as undue constraints on the human possibilities of living and aging productively.

Of course, Matilda herself was an exemplar of those possibilities in so many ways, from her physical rigor (taller colleagues found it taxing to keep up with her walking pace; young male protégés could not match her zest for swimming in Maine’s shoreline waters) to her gift of generating useful new ideas and insights; her knack for bringing people together, creating new colleagueship; and her ability to transcend the “normative power” of age segregation. She engaged with teenagers as comfortably and authentically as with centenarians; and her generative, lifelong relationship with Jack was proof of the aging possibilities. So intellectually vibrant, so unflappably energetic, so gracious and encouraging, so fit, so keenly aware, she seemed superhuman—and it was sometimes remarked that “she’ll outlive us all.” Although that did not happen, she has given us a powerful and inspiring model of how to live, on the frontiers of sociological scholarship and the frontiers of aging.

Dale Dannefer, Case Western Reserve University


I first met Matilda some 40 years ago when, as a rather green “returning” student, I enrolled in her graduate methods course. I was unsure about sociology; but I got hooked. Matilda had us read extensively from classic studies (e.g., Street Corner Society, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, The People’s Choice, Suicide, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) to show us the underlying methodological principles and the interconnections between theory and methods. It was an intellectually stimulating experience. Soon after, I became her graduate assistant.

She was an inspiring and caring mentor. I learned both from her practice of giving her assistants free rein to work independently and from her insightful feedback. She was also sensitive to the fact that many of us working with her, women in particular, had multiple responsibilities, giving us—ahead of her time—what amounted to flex time and flex place. And, we could always go to her with our personal concerns, valuing her interest and wise advice. She made a difference in our lives.

Matilda was known for her intense focus on her work; but it wasn’t all work. True, much of my own time with Matilda was work time—in addition to “regular” work hours, there were working lunches and work on the train ride we took together. But we often talked about other things—family, politics, or cultural events. I recall that right before the book party marking the publication of Aging and Society, Volume I, we even discussed what we were going to wear.

Matilda and her sociologist husband Jack were generous hosts, entertaining students, friends, and colleagues frequently. One memory I have is of a weekend that my husband and I spent at their Mere Point home in Maine. In addition to enjoying swimming, boating, and walks, my most vivid recollection is of being taught to eat lobster the “Maine” way.

Over the years Matilda and I exchanged early drafts of work in progress. Just this last year she sent sections of a truly sociological memoir, The Joint Lives of a Sociological Dyad, John and Matilda Riley 1926-2002. Matilda pursued her calling to the end.

Anne Foner, Rutgers University


Matilda White Riley has been my role model, colleague, and, ultimately, cherished friend for more than half of my life. I was 23 when I knew that the study of aging and human development would be my life’s work. Before entering graduate school, I asked my undergraduate mentors how to best prepare for a career in aging. They referred me to the three-volumes of Aging and Society as the best place to start. I was awed by the vast information presented in those three volumes and by the organization and conceptual context that allowed the reader to fully appreciate what we knew about aging and what we needed to know. From that time on, Matilda was a key intellectual mentor. I first met Matilda soon after finishing graduate school at a professional meeting. I was awe-struck. She was bright, quick, and highly opinionated. She brushed my awkward tribute to her away, telling me that she’d seen my work, thought it was promising, and told me a “secret”: Life course research would be the key to future advances in aging. She whispered that I should get in on the ground floor of this promising enterprise. So far as I can tell, she shared this “secret” with anyone who would listen, but it was the right advice at the right time. For the next decade and a half, we transformed our relationship in many ways: from advisor to colleague, from one-sided sanctification to mutual appreciation, from professionals to friends. Ten years ago, while I was ill, Matilda and Jack sent me the largest bouquet that I’ve ever seen and a large, lovely piece of quartz. When the deliveryman brought the flowers, he said, “Somebody really loves you.” He was right. They’d picked up the quartz on their beloved Maine shore and wanted me to have something that would let me know that they were always with me in spirit, if not in person. They are with me in spirit and always will be. Linda K. George, Duke University


Luckily, Matilda Riley decided to move back to Maine in 1973, leaving Rutgers to become the first senior female faculty member in the 180-year history of Bowdoin College. I like to think that her first act was to hire me, a 25-year-old awe-struck by this dynamo.

I don’t think Bowdoin knew what it was getting. She came to a modest three-person sociology department, which she promptly set about turning into a major force on campus (the department now counts 11 full-time members and is one of the most popular majors on campus. Appropriately, it is lodged in the Matilda White Riley House). Students were bowled over by this high-flying scholar who showed such dedication to her teaching. Most of all, Matilda was able to communicate her love for sociological research, turning her students into eager apprentices. I’ve never seen a more inspirational teacher.

Her enthusiasm ensnared her colleagues as well. I was a typical example. The last thing I could have predicted, as a new anthropology PhD who had just finished a dissertation on Italian politics and religion, was that within a year I would be immersed in a large project on age stratification. But Matilda’s powerful intellectual example and her eagerness to nurture a young colleague conspired to lure me into her Russell Sage Foundation working group. It was an experience that had major consequences for the course of my subsequent career.

The lessons I learned from Matilda are too numerous to list here. But among them surely is the example she set with Jack Riley. It was on Jack’s retirement that the two of them decided to make the move back to the coast of Maine, and build the house on the ocean that would be the emotional center of their lives for the last 30 years. Jack would modestly present himself as “Mr. Matilda.” Their ability to combine their swims in the Maine ocean and non-stop salon-like entertaining (lobster being a favorite) with flying around the world, in tremendous professional demand, was head-turning for more than one junior colleague.

Matilda and Jack loved to sing, and, typically, through their joie de vivre, succeeded in getting even the stodgiest and most tone-deaf of their colleagues to join in. Their voices are going to be missed.

David I. Kertzer, Brown University


What an incredible life! As a graduate student, I learned all about aging from the three-volume series on Aging and Society she edited in the 1960s, and especially the first, which was all her work. When I was appointed Director in 1992 of the Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy at Florida State, I invited Matilda to deliver the inaugural Pepper Lecture aimed at putting the Institute on the map locally. Though then in her 80s and suffering from shingles, she and Jack hopped on a plane and came down. They arrived fully briefed on the research of everyone in the unit from the most junior to the most senior. They had done their homework.

Thinking they would be tired from their travel, I asked if they would like to have a quiet evening on their own. I was rebuffed. Jack insisted we have a “symposium” which, he explained, was an exchange of ideas with wine.

Unlike many distinguished visitors who want to know what you will do for them, Matilda’s first question was to ask what they could do for us. “Who should we speak with to advance your agenda? What are the main messages you want us to deliver?” How astute! What a great, generous, lady!

In 1994, my family and I were hidden away in a French farmhouse in Provence. Few people knew where we were and fewer still knew how to contact us. The phone rang. It was Matilda asking if I would take part in a seminar in Washington on aging and the life course. What a formidable lady!

My condolences to her near and dear.

John Myles, University of Toronto


My personal and professional life has been enriched dramatically by my interactions with Matilda White Riley. I had the honor of working closely with Matilda starting in the 1980s when she directed the Behavioral and Social Research Program at NIA. Matilda was on her fifth-plus career, and I was just embarking on my first aging career. I recall being in total awe of the aging facts and theories Matilda had at her command—and wondering how I’d ever master all the knowledge needed to be successful in my new program administrator role. Even after I became more familiar with key literature in the aging field, I remained in awe of Matilda—recognizing that it was her vision that created a new way of viewing aging processes and structures.

Matilda taught me many things. I’d like to highlight just a few. It was a blessing to have a role model like Matilda—to see first hand the potential of successful aging. While there might be a structural lag between longer lives and supportive social structures, Matilda managed to stay productive throughout her full and enriched life. With this legacy, instead of trying to minimize my age, I look forward to every birthday and even cheat sometimes by rounding up. She helped define aging for me—”it’s not chronological—but when you can no longer work 14-16 hours a day on things in which you feel passionate.”

Along with Jack, who often served as informal editor-in-residence, she taught me how to hone in on the essence of an issue and communicate it clearly. At first I was devastated when report after report I had labored on came back with mark overs everywhere. Matilda was incredibly giving of time and guidance, and I finally learned to think and write more critically—skills that will last me a lifetime.

I left NIA after 20 years, with an understanding of the complex interactions among aging, health and behavior processes and an appreciation for the translation of research into practice, which forms the basis of my current line of inquiry in Texas. We would often walk and talk in the early days—a presage to my Active for Life program. Having touched my life in many ways, Matilda also gave me the confidence to start a new career in midlife in a new place, knowing that I could look forward to many more productive years.

Born in the beginning of the last century, Matilda’s long life enabled her to experience personally many of the social and technological changes she wrote about so eloquently. After leaving NIA, she was an active email correspondent who kept in touch with the many friends and colleagues she had generated throughout life over time and space. I always looked forward to news of her latest activities from Maine. At meetings I’d see a cadre of folks similarly touched by Matilda and we would pass along Matilda stories and share news of the latest projects on which she was working.

I will miss her terribly—but will carry her positive spirit and energy with me. She was a mentor to me—and in honor to her I try to mentor others in similar ways.

Marcia Ory, Texas A&M University System Health Sciences Center


Matilda and I met in Cambridge in the mid-1950s when I was collaborating with Talcott Parsons on Economy and Society. She and Jack were closest friends with Talcott and Helen. I took to her immediately as a person of intelligence, warmth, loyalty, and kindness. My sense of these qualities only deepened over the decades that followed. We had a beautiful relationship that included some collaboration on aging and life-cycle research during her Russell Sage years in the 1970s, working thereafter on many assignments in the ASA, and meeting personally whenever we were near one another. I was a most cheerful loser to her in the 1972 election for the ASA Vice-Presidency. We were always stationed at opposite ends of the continent, but Matilda had that exceptional capacity to sustain and renew, and whenever I would see her it was always as though time and space had never intruded on our friendship. Matilda was a totally dedicated sociologist, restless and irrepressible in her scholarly pursuits. Her contributions to age-stratification and the life course stand as permanent legacies to the field. To me she showed only the greatest generosity, respect, and love. Among the thousands of those whose lives she touched so positively, I am honored to be among the few to be asked to pen my sentiments and thanks to Matilda on the occasion of her passing.

Neil Smelser, University of California-Berkeley


If I had never known Matilda Riley personally, her work would still have greatly influenced my thinking and writing. But I did know Matilda, and I count her friendship as one of the best things that ever happened to me. She is at the top of my list of people who encouraged me in my work. We first met in the early 1970s when she invited me to visit her at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York to discuss ideas. What a thrill it was for this new assistant professor to be invited to meet with Matilda Riley, and it turned out even better than I could have imagined because I also got to meet her exceptional husband Jack. She reached out to me, gave me the opportunity to participate in several panels she organized at professional meetings, and always gave me encouragement. For someone who has very little self-confidence, this encouragement was the kindest and most helpful thing anyone could have done. I was blessed to know and interact with Matilda over the last third of her long life.

Some of the most rewarding parts of our relationship for me came in the last decade. When she was almost 90, I had the privilege of working with her on the topic that she felt most strongly about at the end of her career—age integration. She had papers written by participants in two sessions on age integration that she had organized, and she wanted to see them edited and published. It was an intellectually exhilarating time that I spent working with her on this (they were subsequently published in The Gerontologist). She cared deeply about increasing age integration in our society, and she had great optimism that social forces were pushing us in that direction. Matilda not only taught us, she also showed us how to age.

Peter Uhlenberg, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill