A Life Well Lived

My father died peacefully at his home near Seattle this morning, before dawn, at 91 years of age. Gerhard Emmanuel Lenski, Jr. was born (1924) and raised in Washington, DC. His father went by Gerhard, and my father went by “Gerry” (pronounced like Gary) his whole life. My father did his undergraduate and graduate studies at Yale University, with his undergraduate years interrupted by three years of service with the US Army Air Forces during World War II, most of which was spent in England as a cryptographer at a joint USAAF-RAF airbase.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1950, my father joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, where he rose through the faculty ranks. In 1963, he moved to the University of North Carolina, where he was Alumni Distinguished Professor and served as department chair for several years. He retired in 1992. He wrote several important books including “The Religious Factor: A Sociological Study of Religion’s Impact on Politics, Economics, and Family Life” (1961), “Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification” (1966), “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications” (2005), and “Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology” (1970), now in its 12th edition (2014). He served as vice president of the American Sociological Association, and as president of the Southern Sociological Society. His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship, election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Sociological Association.

In 1948, my father married my mother, the former Jean Cappelmann, a poet, and they had 4 children. They were active together in working for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. They were married for 45 years before my mother passed away in 1994. In 1996, my father married the former Ann Blalock, who was a close family friend and whose late husband Hubert “Tad” Blalock, had been a colleague of my father’s at both the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

After moving to the Seattle area, my father enjoyed visiting northwest sites and cities including the Olympic National Park, Mount Baker, Portland (where my son lives), and Victoria; cheering on the Seahawks and Mariners; watching the ships on the Puget Sound; and talking with his children and grandchildren, always full of questions and ideas about technology and life.

My father was beloved by family and friends for his storytelling and humor – who can forget the story about the time he and a childhood friend gave their chewing gum to monkeys at the National Zoo? – as well as his deep knowledge of and appreciation for human history.

My father was fortunate to have lived a good and full life for 91 years, and I was very lucky to have him for almost six decades. I was also lucky to spend Thanksgiving with him, and we had the chance to share many stories that spanned his life—from baseball trivia to meeting his newest great-grandson in my father’s first-ever Skype.

Dad and Me on Dad's 90th

My father and me on his 90th birthday

ADDITION 1: Click here for a picture of my father from his days at UNC.

ADDITION 2: My son Daniel wrote a wonderful tribute to his Grandpa here.


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29 responses to “A Life Well Lived

  1. Ah, Rich. Such a bittersweet essay. I am sorry for your loss, but buoyed by the contributions your father made in your life (and the lives of others). Rilke wrote “Death is large,” and its shadow falls across us all. As my own father has increasing medical difficulties, I think of the positive…and hope I can live a life as he did, helping others, and living with, honor.

    Your father did these things, and they live on in you and yours.

    Deepest condolences and best wishes.

    Mark Martin

  2. Marjorie Spencer

    My heartfelt condolences, Rich. An impressive man, your dad. The conversation must have been lifelong.

  3. I am nearly speechless.

    Gerry was much more than a colleague and mentor; he was a dear and treasured friend somewhere between an older brother and a father figure.
    We met in the late 1970s and formed a bond and later coauthorship that continues today, even after his passing. I have a folder of e-mails with his suggestions and ideas for the 13th edition of Human Societies.

    He helped and supported me through both personal and professional difficulties,

    I was blessed to have the opportunity to know and work with him.
    I don’t know which I admired more: his keen intellect that could cut through all the fluff and discern the critically important elements of a problem/issue, or his awe-inspiring integrity and character.

    It will take me some time to come to grips with his loss.

  4. Sorry about the alias in the post above; I am Patrick Nolan.

  5. Sorry to hear this. Interesting he moved to the other coast in retirement. My daughter is a sociologist so maybe they have crossed intellectual paths. No wonder you fell in love with the world of ideas and experiments!

  6. Richard Cramer

    Gerry was first my teacher, then colleague and friend. A dear and caring friend. We were in touch a lot in the past year as he contributed to the UNC Sociology Department’s history reminiscences website; and Jane and I fondly recall our visit with him and Ann a few years ago when we returned from an Alaska cruise. We join in extending our condolences to the family.
    Richard Cramer

  7. I wrote an essay, “Ecological Evolutionary Theory: A Reanalysis and Reassessment of Lenski’s Theory for the 21st Century,” for a special edition of Sociological Theory edited by Bernice McNair Barnett (2004, Vol. 22, No.2). It was titled: “The Life, Career, and Social Thought of Gerhard Lenski – Scholar, Teacher, Mentor, Leader. In it, I included a brief account of our first meeting.

    Although I had taught with Human Societies for several years as a graduate student, I first met Professor Lenski in the summer of 1978 when I came to Chapel Hill to put the finishing touches on a paper I was writing with Jack Kasarda, whom I had met some months before when he lectured at Temple University. Apologizing for being homebound by air conditioner repairmen, the two of us spent a hot summer afternoon and an early evening, on his porch, discussing sociology and how it should be taught to introductory students. This highly-improbable meeting spawned more than a quarter of a century of collaboration and friendship.

    • Wonderful story, Patrick. We were wondering how you and my father had first met. I look forward to reading your article in its entirety in the weeks ahead.

      On another level, just thinking of that screen porch brings back many memories. It wasn’t very many years before you met my father that air conditioning was non-existent, both in homes and at the university. Window fans and screen porches were the solutions of the day.

    • I was stunned and intimidated by the invitation arranged by Jack Kasarda, but after a few minutes talking Gerry and I made such a connection that only approaching darkness and my expected arrival in South Carolina forced us to break off the conversation before heading to the Carolina Inn for dinner. The relationship was furthered when we spent nearly a week together at a retreat on evolutionary theory in Kampsville, IL and formulated ideas for two Social Forces articles. Kasarda invited me to teach Gerry’ s classes in 1983-1984 at UNC when he was on a grant, and in 1988 Gerry asked me (on a trial basis, with the possibility of moving up in authorship if it worked out) to be the third author of the sixth edition of Human Societies.

  8. Pingback: Gerhard Lenski, 1924-2015 | Department of Sociology

  9. I only knew Dr. Lenski indirectly through Patrick Nolan, my main doctoral professor at The University of South Carolina. As an archaeologist who became a sociologist, I found Lenski’s, Nolan’s, and Lenski’s Human Societies spot on. I have taught many hundreds of university students out of subsequent editions of the text, including some here in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific. I was saddened to hear that Dr. Lenski had passed, but, wow, what a legacy he has left behind!

    Marilyn Dudley-Flores

  10. Speaking on behalf of our congregation, Kehillat Israel in Lansing, Michigan, I offer our deepest condolences to the Lenski family. Regrettably, few if any of our members beyond the family had the opportunity to know Gerhard Lenski. From what we read on this blog, he must have been quite a mensch, a person we would have all valued knowing as a human being, a scholar, and a friend.

    In reading about Gerhard Lenski’s groundbreaking research into the sociology of religion in the United States, I am struck by how timely his research, conducted nearly 60 years ago, remains for us today. The distinction he addressed between associationalism (religious status measured by participation in services and congregational activities) and communalism (religious identity measured by interactions with members of one’s religious group) has profound implications for the well-being, sustainability, and mission of our congregations and religious organizations. Also, his definition of religion as “a system of beliefs about the nature of the force(s) ultimately shaping man’s destiny, and the practices associated therewith, shared by the members of a group” was sufficiently flexible to accommodate not only traditional Jewish perspectives, but also Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist theology and 21st century approaches to spirituality.

    We acknowledge the memory of a man who touched many lives among family, friends, students, and colleagues, and whose legacy as a meticulous scholar and a bold and original thinker has impacted countless others. May his memory be a blessing.

    • Rabbi Zimerman, I believe Gerry would have been most gratified by your comments. I also think he would have been greatly interested in your thoughts about Chapter 8 of his book “Ecological-Evolutionary Theory: Principles and Applications,” on the origins and early development of Israel. As he writes there, he derived great satisfaction from the fact that biblical scholars found answers to puzzling questions about Israel’s origins in his ecological-evolutionary theory.

    • Thank you both for these wonderful thoughts about my father’s work and legacy.

      I might add, too, that my father attended all three of our kids’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs some years ago.

  11. Alexander Riley

    I unfortunately only very recently discovered Lenski’s work, which I should have known 25 years ago and I’d have wasted a lot less time with nonsense. And now weeks after the fact, at a time when I was contemplating writing him to thank him for the gift of what I now consider one of the most powerful bodies of social theory we have today, I learn that he is no longer with us. LIfe is cruel, but what other options do we have?

    I intend to do my humble part to keep his intellectual work alive in my own teaching and scholarship.

    Alexander Riley

  12. Wade Clark Roof

    Condolences to the Lenski family. I was at UNC from 1966 to 1970 and went there to study the sociology of religion with Gerry. So much about him I remember. He was a wonderful mentor and his influence on me continues.
    I recall when I was thinking about a dissertation topic he invited me over on a Saturday morning to the home where I got to know him in a more personal and family context. When Human Societies was published he invited me to write a teacher’s guide with test questions, and when prepared again he asked me over for us to read through it over coffee. He told me that his hobby was bird-watching and encouraged me to find a hobby — sometime you have to focus on something other sociology I remember he said, and how true! I am grateful for my memories and for the time I had with him.

  13. Edward Crenshaw

    I just learned that Professor Lenski passed away last December. I was (I suppose) one of his last graduate students (Ph.D. 1990 UNC), and I have many fond memories of hours spent in his office discussing sociological theory, anthropology, and the direction of our discipline. I remember one day in particular…I suggested that his EET theory and Amos Hawley’s Human Ecology were compatible theories, and I wondered why they had never pursued a synthesis (indeed, both being in the same department, it would have been quite easy). To my surprise, he picked up the phone right then and there and called Professor Hawley. While I don’t think they ever did pursue such a synthesis (Hawley was already retired), I was impressed with Professor Lenski’s unpretentious scholarship. They just don’t make professors like that anymore.

    I’m still using his theory, and perhaps I should synthesize the various ecological theories myself. Regardless, the world seems wrong without Gerry Lenski in it. I do wish his family all the best.

  14. Bob Althauser

    I basically followed Gerry to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1973, having visited him in Ann Arbor that spring and determined that he would be a perfect advisor for the dissertation topic I had in mind. (How indicative it was that we spent five hours talking and was then invited into his home for dinner, before he had to show the house later that evening!) He was always kind and unpretentious, led wonderful seminars and proved the essence of a mentor. Can you imagine trying to finish a dissertation in time to graduate in the spring, and being welcomed into his home at 4PM on a weekly basis to get his comments and suggestions on my draft chapters? And then telling me as I drove him back to his office from my defense what I needed to do to strengthen the work for publication? It was wonderful to see him and Ann again some years later around his retirement. He was a big part of a wonderful graduate student experience in Chapel Hill. My condolences and regards to Ann and the rest of his family.

    • Thank you, Bob, for these memories and good wishes. That would have been 1963 when my father moved from Ann Arbor to Chapel Hill, and you followed him. I remember many evenings and weekends when my father would be at home and talking with colleagues or students — in the living room in Ann Arbor and then on the screen porch in Chapel Hill.

      • Bob Althauser

        Thanks for the correction. Your father’s informality was very special, especially for this transplant from the Duke program. It was Dick’s wife Ida who pointed me to Gerry because of his Religious Factor book.