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William N. Dember, 1928-2006: 'A Gentleman, A Gentle Man'

'Professor Emeritus William N. Dember’s incredible litany of contributions to the field of psychology stretches so far beyond the UC campus, it’s commonplace in cyberspace.

Date: 9/7/2006
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Professor Emeritus William N. Dember’s incredible litany of contributions to the field of psychology stretches so far beyond the UC campus, it’s commonplace in cyberspace.

A Google search for his name brings up around 20,000 hits and mentions of everything from research on the effect of peppermint oil on mental accuracy and studies of optimism and pessimism to Dember’s groundbreaking text, Psychology of Perception.

William Dember

Professor Emeritus William N. Dember

Yet, as family and colleagues celebrated Dember’s life after his Sept. 4 passing at age 78, the words used to describe the former Psychology Department head and A&S dean were more often very simple: A good and kind teacher. Gracious. Unassuming. Polite.

Dember was, admirers agree, a brilliant but humble man – one whose passing, for many, leaves a perceptible void on a personal and professional level.

At a Sept. 6 service attended by an amazing circle of family and friends, colleagues filled a minute part of that gap with loving tributes.

Professor Joel Warm, a colleague of Dember’s since the 1960s, called his friend “the greatest psychologist I have been privileged to know,” mentioning, among many other honors and accolades, Dember’s international renown for research in perception and motivation.

The first Ivy Leaguer (Yale) to join UC’s Psychology Department, Dember arrived in Cincinnati in 1959. He wowed colleagues and students from the start.

And over 47 years, Warm said, Dember “established a career that can be characterized as continuous excellence on a multidimensional plane.”

Dramatic testimony to Dember’s role as a teacher, Warm said, is evidenced by the fact that during his career, he supervised more than 63 master’s theses and 100 doctoral dissertations.

“Many of his former students, several of whom are with us today, have gone on to become outstanding scientists, award winning teachers and researchers, deans, department heads, and well-regarded professionals in clinical psychology and human factors,” Warm said in a heartfelt eulogy.

“In addition to his roles as a distinguished scientist and master teacher, Bill also served the university in administrative capacities. He was head of the Psychology Department from 1968-1976 during the time of Vietnam, student rebellion, and the end of the ‘Golden Era’ of growth in higher education.

“Through all of this, he guided our department with a firm but gentle hand, mentoring young faculty, developing new initiatives, and building for the future. In true Athenian style, he transmitted the department to his successor greater and more viable than it was transmitted to him.”

Quite simply, Warm said, Dember was “the finest colleague anyone can have and a cherished and beloved friend. Our congregation, our university, the field of psychology, and the world at large have lost a truly great man. His like will not be seen again.”

By all accounts, locally and internationally, Dember’s passion and reputation were carved out early in his career.

A 1996 McMicken Magazine story about a festschrift for Dember mentioned that by 1957, Dember had co-authored the “optimal complexity theory.” That theory defied conventional thinking that “everything animals and humans do is driven by a biological need.” Instead, the article said, Dember’s theory – published in what is one of the most cited papers in the history of psychology – suggested “that curiosity, the need to learn new things, is also a basic need of living organisms.”

Dember Book

Viewing Psychology As a Whole: The Integrative Science of William N. Dember

Dember was an inspiration for countless professionals, including Peter Hancock, a Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor at University of Central Florida.

After hearing of Dember’s death, Hancock wrote in an e-mail that upon first meeting Dember, “I was quite amazed.”

“Here, standing before me was one of my intellectual heroes. A man whose work I had read and admired since before I first came to the U.S., several decades ago,” said Hancock, highly regarded for his work in the study of human factors.

“But in stark contrast to my bombastic self, the overwhelming sense of his presence was one of calm touched by a humorous glimmer in the eye. This was someone who understood life. I find it a hallmark of the very best that they need inform no one of their prowess – it is something that is self-evident. But with Bill there was more.

“It was not simply a self-confidence, it was an overwhelming sense of empathy and even sympathy. Good simply radiated from the man. I have no doubt that he had his failings which are the essence of our humanity but his behavior, as I witnessed it, was always impeccable. He was what the English (with me now being American), would call a ‘gentleman’ and indeed more, he was a gentle man.”

Hancock said it is “indeed one of the quirks of life” that Dember died on the same day as did Steve Irwin, TV’s “Crocodile Hunter.”

“One feted by society which worships the cult of personality, the other anonymous in the popular mind but a hero to his scientific colleagues. The comparison goes beyond this one linkage in time since I have the sense that each of their existences reflected ‘the life well lived,’” Hancock said.

“Each were highly passionate about what they did. Steve in a very vocal and public way, Bill in a comparatively quiet and intellectual way, and each of these well-lived lives had their influence.”

As for Dember, Hancock said, “No flags will be lowered in Washington. CNN and MSNBC will not be sending representatives. For this was not a man who sought ‘the guinea stamp.’ But our world is poorer for his passing at a time when we can ill-afford any reduction in intellectual honesty, in true scholarship, and in such manifest humanity. It was an honor and a privilege to know the man and accordingly, the shadow of sorrow is today cold and dark – vale!”

At the Sept. 6 service, Bob Stutz, another UC colleague and psychology professor, joined Warm in offering a eulogy. Stutz knew and worked with many of Dember’s students over the years.

“They have led me to believe that he was beyond being ‘adored’ by his graduate students; a more precise word is ‘revered,’” Stutz said.

“I have gotten the feeling that they almost regarded him as a minor deity. I’ve heard stories about colleagues who ask students to make appointments in order to set up a future appointment. I think that the students and his colleagues appreciated Bill because of his instant accessibility. After first declaring that, ‘I don’t know much about that topic,’ he would ask challenging questions, edit your rambling writing into perfect prose, and lead you to think of your problem/topic in new and creative ways.”

Stutz also recalled a time when one of Dember’s earliest colleagues at UC, Professor Emeritus Joe Senter, mentioned that he (Senter) had been browsing through the directory of the American Psychological Association. Senter mentioned to Dember, with considerable surprise, that the Directory contained one APA member who was in New Zealand – the APA was a much smaller body then.

“Bill not only knew that there was a member in New Zealand, but knew him personally and told Joe his name,” Stuz said. As time passed, Stutz said, “it became clear to me that he knew everybody in psychology – at least everybody who was anybody,” he said.

“I don’t recall ever mentioning the name of any accomplished psychologist to Bill that he didn’t either know personally. “The reverse is also true. Bill was remarkably well known, well liked, and admired among his colleagues everywhere. He was elected President of the Midwestern Psychological Association and he was constantly appointed to various national boards, study sections, site visiting/accreditation teams, etc.”

As a two-term department head (1968-’76 and 1979-’81), Dember “was very sensitive to what his faculty were doing and everyone knew that he weighed productivity data carefully in the matter of raises and promotions,” Stutz said.

“In those days before collective bargaining and the legislation of promotion and tenure decisions, you were ready for academic advancement when Bill Dember thought you were ready… our current formulae and 12-page promotion criteria document do not do any better than Bill’s thoughtful evaluation. Despite the considerable power that accrued to the Department Head in those days, Bill’s treatment of his people was less affected by ‘politics’ than was typically true of his counterparts in other departments, or, for that matter, Bill’s predecessors in our department.”

That carried over, Stutz said, to Dember’s tenure as Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, a position he held between 1981 and 1986.

Dember’s impact, imprint and impressive style are still evident.

“Bill Dember’s passing is a great loss for McMicken College and for all those who knew and admired him,” said Dean Karen Gould.

“Bill’s dedication to excellence in research, teaching, and administrative service has left its positive mark on the Department of Psychology and on our college as well. A warm, personable, and effective mentor to McMicken students and faculty members for many decades, he will be deeply missed.”

Director of Alumni Affairs Dick Friedman said he was very pleased to serve in a leadership role for the College during Dember’s tenure as dean.

Most, he’ll miss Dember’s friendship.

“Bill’s leadership style was, always, one of consensus-building marked by a mixture of kindness, understanding, and sensitivity,” Friedman said.

“There was never a shrill moment of harshness. Instead, he created an atmosphere of commitment and encouragement that produced significantly important results. As a friend of 30 years and a leader, and as a human being, he will be sorely missed.”

At Dyer Hall, where a large, framed photo of a smiling Dember remains, colleagues are simply proud to have been part of Dember’s circle.

Steve Howe, acting Psychology Department head, said he is “proud to have known Bill as an advisor, co-author, colleague, counselor, critic, dean, department head, friend and teacher.”

“From my earliest personal interactions with Bill – when I was a second-year graduate student who had somehow landed space in the midst of a row of faculty offices that housed Professors Dember, Melton, Lansky, Schumsky and Warm – I was aware that this was someone with whom the role exchanges were going to be doubly meaningful,” Howe said.

“Not only did you benefit in the expected ways from being on the other side of the role relationship, you also benefited from seeing that other role played so masterfully and effortlessly.”

Memorial contributions for the Department of Psychology at UC should be made payable to the University of Cincinnati Foundation and be mailed to the William N. Dember Memorial Fund, c/o The University of Cincinnati Foundation, P.O. Box 19970, Cincinnati, OH 45219-9972.

Online donations may be made with a credit card by clicking here.

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