KENNETH P. WILKINSON: A RETROSPECTIVE -- THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY YEARS
It is my privilege to follow Jerry and Barbara in this plenary session. Their comments and anecdotes nicely capture the essence of our colleague and friend. My task is to cover the period of Ken's career following Mississippi State. As most of you can well imagine, this is a particular challenge in that he was involved in so many things. I have made a conscious effort to attempt to weave through this time period, highlighting significant events and accomplishments. By necessity, I will overlook lots of things that each of you remember and consider to be quite important, that is okay. Part of the purpose of this celebration is to rekindle and share memories.
After a twelve-year career at Mississippi State, Ken accepted a position with the Cooperative State Research Service, USDA, in Washington, D.C. for the period 1970-1971. There, Ken served on a subcommittee of the National Research Council to develop programs in rural development. He was a member of a USDA panel which evaluated proposals for establishing the four regional rural development centers. This effort, as we all now recognize, was extremely important for the discipline since these centers became keystones of research-extension activity in each of the four USDA regions (Northeast, Northcentral, South, and West). They facilitate interdisciplinary activity among faculty at large and small land grants. Through efforts initiated by center seed grants, many rural sociologists have been able to begin careers marked by generating extramural resources. Most important, the emergence of the centers gave strong impetus to a continued recognition of the need for social scientific efforts aimed at improving the quality of life of rural citizens in the nation.
Ken also was a member of the Rural Sociological Society's (RSS) Task Force on Civil Rights in USDA. He represented the RSS at a meeting convened by the National Academy of Science in which the Council of Agricultural Science and Technology - now widely known as CAST - was created. Ken also became actively involved in reviewing rural sociology programs throughout the country. As a result of this activity, he increasingly was invited to present seminars at various universities and research facilities throughout the nation, including Texas A&M University, the US Air Force Academy, and NASA-Langley Research Center. By and large, each of these presentations focued on his perspective of the changes and issues confronting America's rural communities, as well as his view on the kinds of rural development programs most needed. Not surprisingly, many of these themes continued to occupy his attention throughout his academic career. And, his youngest of three sons was born while in DC.
Penn State Beginnings
Ken arrived in Happy Valley in 1971, one of three faculty members hired as part of the department of agricultural economics and rural sociology's new efforts in rural development. The chair of the department at that time was M.E. John who was in charge of a large and productive group of faculty. M.E. also was a former president of both the Rural Sociological Society and American Agricultural Economics Association (to our knowledge the only individual to have held both offices) indicating his broad interests and the respect by which he was held by his colleagues. As is well known by those who knew M.E., he generally got what he wanted. Not surprisingly, according to Ken, M.E. made a very convincing argument for his coming here. Essentially, M.E. convinced Ken of "the goodness of fit" between Ken's interests and those of the department. M.E. suggested to Ken that Penn State's position in the Northeast and rural sociological research community would best enable him to pursue his interests in rural development research and policy. Indeed, M.E. John indicated to Ken that the recently funded Title V Rural Development Act (which allocated research and extension funding to addressing the continued long-term problems wreaking havoc on rural America) would provide the central mechanism for facilitating his move to PSU, while providing him the necessary start-up funds for his work. The lure of joining a major department with a long and glowing history of efforts in rural sociology, staffed by a talented cadre of scientists including Robert Bealer, Fern Willits, Rex Warland, Bill Smith, Walt Coward and Emory Brown was attractive - and obviously represented a major increase in numbers of departmental faculty when compared with his former position at Mississippi State. And, it is clear that the university's setting played a major role as well. Certainly Ken's fishing and floating needs would be satisfied by the region's numerous streams, and the ridge and valley terrain provided scenic backdrops for camping and hiking trips with his sons.
Not surprisingly, the latter also contained numerous small and rural communities and served as a field laboratory for his major research efforts. Indeed, his first major projects at Penn State focused on "Planning for Economic and Social Development in Pennsylvania Communities" and "Structural Changes in Rural Communities of the Northeast," both funded by the Agricultural Experiment Station. This allowed Ken to maintain his focus on community. This focus, like most of his career work, was at odds with the extant literature which had almost completely come to accept the dominance of a homogenous culture, one characterized by the eclipse in importance of local society and community. Ken thought such thinking was premature.
Almost alone, Ken effectively argued for the continuing importance of people, community, diversity, and volition. Ken did not pursue this belief out of some hopeless romanticism or nostalgic drive. His fundamental bias was to believe in and care for people and places. He was committed to the idea that "community" was an emergent entity that resulted from the interaction of individuals. Because of this fundamental fact, Ken believed that people - and community - had the capacity to make a difference. Ken relied on numerous studies of communities to fashion these ideas, and through the early 1970s he developed a series of articles that articulated the reasons behind his framework. These early works from his activity at Penn State laid the groundwork for and were the dominant themes of this part of his career, although as I will attempt to show, he extended them nationally and internationally.
A very short time later Ken began a long and uninterrupted period of association with regional research efforts. He served as principal author and chair of NE-129, a project entitled "Improving the Distribution of Socioeconomic Resources in Rural Areas." This project reflected Ken's interest in multistate, comparative, community research and had collaborators from Florida, Arkansas, North Carolina, Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, New York and New Hampshire. Beyond the substantive interest shared in these issues by project participants, regional collaboration facilitated his intellectual support for research and extension faculties throughout the Northeast. As a former member of the Association of Small Stations (in the Northeast) - I can attest to the fact that we looked forward to these regional meetings both for the opportunities to discuss rural sociological research with others who had similar training (as a means of maintaining our sanity), and because Ken played a central role in providing advice and guidance to those of us without rural sociological colleagues at our home institutions. This reflects the fact that what rural sociological presence existed in small experiment stations like those in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, and/or West Virginia was generally in the presence of one individual. Usually, this individual had enough local work (including acting as the state demographic analyst whose principle responsibilities included making census material available for public consumption) to preclude involvement in broader efforts. Indeed, most opportunities to meet with other rural sociologists were limited to attendance at the annual meetings of the professional society. As Ken assumed a more visible role in the region, he acted as a magnet for many of these individuals, bringing them into the "mix" of regional research projects which had been historically dominated by Cornell and Penn State. That is, without an organizational presence which would allow isolated rural sociologists from communicating with others about shared research interests, many of us would not have had regular contact with others in the discipline. This was certainly my experience when I was at New Hampshire where I was responsible for documenting and reporting on community and demographic changes and their implications for the state. With Ken's encouragment, I was able to gain local experiment station support to become actively involved in a series of regional research projects. As a result of this involvement, I developed many personal and professional contacts, became engaged in a series of projects which resulted in numerous publications, and had numerous opportunities to travel to different venues both in and outside of the region.
Besides his active role in regional research, Ken also continued his long-term involvement in water-resource related research. Indeed, Ken and his former student R. Singh (from Ken's days at Mississippi State) earned the Boggess Award from the American Water Resources Association in 1975 for their article "On the measurement of environmental impacts of public projects from a sociological perspective" which appeared in Water Resources Bulletin. He also began an Agricultural Experiment Station project entitled "Community Decision-Making on Water Resources Issues in the Susquehanna River Basin."
I admit to being particularly interested in this latter effort, since it was the source of much of my funding and the topic of my dissertation research. This project focused on, among other things, the reasons for flood-prone communities in the basin to engage membership in the National Flood Insurance Program. In Pennsylvania, where over 90% of all municipalities were identified as being flood-prone, and where millions of dollars of flood-related damages were regularly reported, the availability of such a protection plan appeared to be a benefit for most such places. However, more than one-third of these places had failed to enter the program as late as November 1995. My research attempted to identify those factors associated with program engagement. Naturally, in my research I made use of a theoretical model informed by interactional theory. This model emphasized the emergent nature of community activeness in program participation and provided strong support for the utility of Ken's theoretical framework in a large comparative community study. Our efforts on this thesis served as the foundation through which we began our long-term cooperative research ventures.
This brief overview was meant to serve two major purposes: (1) To frame Ken's work at Penn State, and (2) To show the continuity of thought, interest, and concern that best characterizes his commitment to the study of community. As previously demonstrated, Ken's work style was enviable - his energy boundless - and his communicative skills remarkable. The fact that his life-work -- both basic and applied -- reflected a steady trajectory of growth is not unimportant either. Unlike many of his contemporaries who, apparently satisfied with earlier accomplishments, reapplied models and/or theories in replication after replication, Ken continued to refine and extend his thinking, and that of his mentor Harold Kaufman, on field theory and the interactional perspective of community. He accomplished this through regular contributions to the literature and a steady stream of research projects involving numerous graduate students. Moreover, unlike Kaufman, Ken maintained a grace and openess. That is, Ken was approachable and relished his contacts with students which invariably led to long-term collegial relations. Dr. Kaufman was known for being much more difficult to work with -- indeed, he was often seen as being gruff. Despite this, Ken and Harold maintained an incredibly productive and collegial relationship, and Ken's feelings towards Harold are no better expressed than in the dedication of his book to him. As a result of all of these activities, the interactional perspective on community was gaining currency and popularity.
At Penn State, Ken quickly assumed a central role. He offered numerous courses at the graduate level (Rural Community Organization, Community Theory, Poverty Analysis, World Food and Population Problems, Rural Development in the United States), immediately began serving as major advisor to both masters and doctoral candidates (with his guidance, two MS students completed their degrees by the end of his second year), and became immersed in the advising of undergraduate students in the agricultural economics and rural sociology major. His involvement in departmental, college, and university committees also commenced.
It is not surprising, then, that Ken was recognized as a multi-talented individual, a paragon of what a professor could and should be. As a result, he was highly sought -- as a major professor or to serve on various graduate student committees, as a guest lecturer in large Penn State classes (such as those in the Science, Technology, and Society Program -- which he was affiliated with since 1975), and as a visiting scholar to various universities and colleges nationally and internationally. His major professional affiliation -- the Rural Sociological Society -- continued to call on him for his valued services in a variety of roles. And he became a critical player in a number of community activities, especially the Community Alternatives for Criminal Justice Program and maintained an active role in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County.
Simply put, Ken's appointment at Penn State marked the beginning of a significant and highly dynamic period of activity. In the remainder of this presentation, I attempt to highlight some of the more important activities and events while attempting to capture some of the essence of the man. As Jerry and Barbara can attest, this is not an easy task. But, perhaps this is as it should be; Ken always attempted to make things less complicated.
During this time, Ken's writings focused on the theoretical and operational implications of field theory in applied settings. He argued that communities were not always acted upon - that they also could act and act in meaningful ways. Increasing attention from urban sociologists to this literature led to the inclusion of his material in several community readers, in part indicating the growing awareness of Ken's unique perspective. A cursory review of the Social Science Citation Index supports this contention, in that it reveals a consistent increase in the number of citations to his body of work. It is also not a coincidence that he continued to be called upon to serve as an outside reviewer of research and education programs for the Cooperative State Research Service (CSRS) (that is, he served as either a member or leader of a series of review teams at numerous land grant universities), and was asked to deliver numerous seminars at universities throughout the country. Of course, Ken served his major professional society as well, as membership chair and program chair.
With increased activity came increased responsibility -- the old saw that if you want something to be done give it to the busiest person -- certainly held true for Ken. He served his rural sociology colleagues at Penn State as graduate program coordinator -- and held this role during my enrollment.
I remember being struck by his personalized letter advising of my acceptance and being amazed that he had actually read the copy of my master's thesis that I had forwarded as part of my application. Hey, what did I know? It was the only thing I had other than some creative writing that we shared after I arrived.
Others apparently had had similar experiences. By being so ingratiating, Ken helped create an integrated student body. Ken was proud of these network supports and knew them to be the strongest and finest in the world among departmental programs in rural sociology.
On the other hand, a danger of becoming too cliquish concerned him as well. He was adamant about not letting a "PSU-Mafia" mentality set in. This sentiment reflected his belief that rigidity was unnecessarily exclusive and most often a practice of the larger institutions offering degrees in rural sociology. As a justifiably proud graduate of a smaller program, Ken was bothered by the frequent parties hosted by the "big" places. Despite his invitation to all such gatherings, Ken felt they did much to create bad feelings among those not invited. To him, it created an "in-group" "out-group" dichotomy, and he felt that our profession was far too small to suffer such foolishness.
After he was elected president of the RSS, he developed an idea which has become routinized in our annual meetings and which helped diminish the role of the "Wisconsin, or Ohio State, or Cornell, or Penn State, or Iowa State, or Louisana State, or Washington State, or Missouri, or whomever" Party. In Blacksburg, Virginia, in 1985, the RSS initiated "Department Night." There, everyone was invited to gather, eat hot dogs and other small snacks, and have some liquid refreshment, regardless of place of degree. This was a typical act of inclusion -- a central tenet of Ken's theoretical and life perspective. In my opinion, the event has been quite successful.
Family = Community
1978 was a particularly important year for Ken -- he settled into a wonderful and meaningful relationship with Bev Henshaw. It was obvious to all who worked with Ken that this new alliance invigorated him and helped cement that permanent smile on his face. It also doubled his family size, giving him another son and two daughters he so wanted. Fortunately, the homestead could stand the numbers -- especially with several of the older siblings off to school or beginning their ventures across the country.
One of my most vivid memories is of the US map hanging in the foyer -- and the multicolored stickpins in various locales representing the whereabouts of the Wilkinson-Henshaw clan. Often, with a beer or Jack in hand, Ken would speak with never-ending pride about the most recent adventures and experiences of his wandering tribe. And despite the distances, it was clear that community was more than a subject matter in this household -- it was life.
The earliest signs of his enhanced vitality were revealed when Ken's interests shifted west with the emergence of the energy crisis. Through a Department of Interior grant and Agricultural Experiment Station support, important insights into "boomtown" related social disruptions were generated. Not surprisingly, Ken's particular interests resulted in the formation of a large and diverse research team (consisting of colleagues in Wyoming and Washington, D.C., as well as at Penn State and New Hampshire) which applied a critical perspective to the extant literature in this area. In particular, this research team raised serious questions about much of the then current literature's measurement protocols. With his colleagues from Wyoming and Washington, D.C., Ken was involved in the publication of a dedicated issue of the Pacific Sociological Review (now called Sociological Perspectives) which focused on "Local social disruption and western energy development." Ken's teams thoughts were first to appear in this journal and their rejoinder the last. Sandwiched between them were commentaries by seven others, all of whom disagreed with Ken but were able to maintain cordial relationships with him. This speaks well of Ken's ability to educate and enlighten without the rancor normally associated with published critiques of others works. Even while pointing out and correcting errors, Ken praised the basic efforts. Through such work, Ken truly added to our storehouse of knowledge.
Ken published extensively on malintegrative problems during this period -- especially on disruptions such as crime, suicide, homicide and divorce. This focus surprised many of his former students who were used to work on the more positive aspects of community relationships. Further, as one of our colleagues pointed out, during this period he appeared to digress for a brief time in the sense that some of this work suggested that macro structures constrained the interaction markedly, rather than being constrained by the interaction. Many of us had many hours of debate over this issue - and never reached any closure. Indeed, we continue to debate these issues and I am certain that even if Ken were here to participate we would end up little closer to resolution. After all, the basic issue under consideration lies at the heart of sociological study and this perhaps was enough - Ken had, through his activities, gotten his colleagues to take up the micro-macro debate and all its ramifications for community.
In my mind, this also demonstrated his versatility. Field theory embraces an emergent approach. The nexus of macro-micro and the forces which generate from it remained a continuing point of study for him and his students.
During this period, Ken was remarkably productive. He published 12 articles in 1984, including work in Rural Sociology, the Journal of Marriage and Family, Sociology and Social Research, Social Science Quarterly, and Social Forces among others. As important as the numbers was the fact that his work was continuing to reach an ever expanding audience.
Ken's ideas about rural development policy also began to crystallize. In part, this reflects his involvement with a half dozen masters and some nine doctoral students, all of whom had extensive interests in this and related areas. He also participated in numerous federal (Office of Rural Development Policy, House Agricultural Appropriations Committee, OTA, NASULGC, USDA, and DOE), state (Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Mississippi), and local committees which were wrestling with the impacts of rural development, rapid growth and the disposal of nuclear waste.
Personally, I believe Ken did all of these things to broaden his perspective more than simply to offer his opinions and advice. Ken had a remarkable talent for profiting from his experiences. He just didn't seem to expend energy needlessly, and as a result, associations with Ken produced no negative energy. Anyone who worked with him came away from that contact enriched. Such indiviudals were exposed to new ideas; theories and/or methods; and more important, new and creative ways for communicating. Not surprisingly, therefore, this was a creative period for him and individuals with whom he was working.
Also, about this time, Ken's interest and involvement in international issues became more visible. He became very active in the International Rural Sociology Association. He served as program co-chair, council member, local arrangements chair, and was elected to the presidency during the 1992 Joint Meetings of IRSA and the RSS. The meetings were held at Penn State -- and, not surprisingly, were organized by Ken. Through his efforts, these meetings helped erase debt for RSS and greatly increased the working capital of IRSA.
During the 1988-89 academic year, Ken and Bev were at the University of Galway, Ireland, where he served as Fulbright Scholar. While there he gave several invited lectures, including to the arts faculty at Galway; to the Department of Sociology at Trinity College, Dublin; to the Sociological Association of Ireland; and to Queen's University, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ken also served as the representative of Fulbright Scholars in Ireland to the Annual Berlin Conference, West German Fulbright Commission, and continued his intellectual exchanges with faculty from Catania, Italy.
I know of no other individual on sabbatic who attempted to maintain such a full plate of activities -- particularly when overseas. To Ken, it was nothing out of the ordinary, and anything less was never considered.
At the same time, one of his greatest joys occurred -- the birth of his first granddaughter -- Ashley in 1988. Of course, like all things associated with him, these joys seemed to come in bunches -- Eric in '90, Jessica and Kaylin in '91, Ryan in '92, Lindsay in '93, and most recently Alexander and Cole.
When Ken returned to Penn State, he confronted a new task -- he was designated mentor to a faculty member [me] who recently had moved from the University of New Hampshire to the department of agricultural economics and rural scoiology. We got a tremendous joy from this assignment -- and used it as a means of organizing some research efforts. Of course our work would have to fit into an already full round of activities. He had recently been awarded a major competitive grant to study community action and economic development in Pennsylvania's forested areas, became involved in a restudy of the six original Rural Life Study Series communities, and had agreed to serve as a faculty consultant to an Aspen Foundation Grant.
Also, Ken's long awaited book appeared about this time -- and was widely acclaimed and well received. There is no doubt in my mind that this book solidified Ken's position as the preeminent community scholar in the world.
Clearly others thought so as well. Ken was repeatedly called upon to write a concluding chapter for new text in community, or to present invited lectures at universities throughout Europe and North America, or to serve on any number of special federal, state, and/or local committees. And, as recently as last month a request was received to include an off-print of his presidential address in a new two-volume set entitled "The Sociology of the Environment."
Other indications of the esteem with which Ken was held exist. He received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the department of sociology and anthropology, Mississippi State University; he was elected to Gamma Sigma Delta Honor Society and was a recipient of its Research Accomplishment Award (only 2 years after being initiated); he was a Penn State Graduate School Lecturer; and he was named Distinguished Professor of Rural Sociology by Penn State -- the first, and only, social scientist in the College of Agricultural Sciences so honored.
Similarly, despite his personal distaste for the creation of awards by our society - he believed that they would quickly amount to popularity contests - he won several. These include the Research Award, the Distinguished Rural Sociologist Award, and the first RSS Rural Policy Interest Group Award which was renamed "The Kenneth P. Wilkinson Rural Policy Interest Group Award." The awards continued even after his untimely death, including the Robert and Helen Lynd Award of the American Sociological Association for scholarly contributions and leadership in the Sociology of Community.
Despite all that he was doing, Ken and I found time to piece together a few activities - including work with the new National Research Initiative, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and the US Forest Service and Pennsylvania Department of Forestry. These activities helped to fund several graduate assistantships and provided continuing sources of travel money which were used to help develop a bilateral agreement with the University of Catania.
And in his role as president of IRSA, Ken traveled to Rumania in 1992 to give an invited lecture and to help in the planning of the 9th World Congress to be held in Bucharest in July 1996.
The PSU Community
Presenting this overview of Ken's career at PSU would be bald without some more personal recollections. To accomplish this, I called upon several former graduate students, our staff associates, and current graduate students to attempt to piece together the following, somewhat rambling, but I think accurate perspective on Ken and his influence.
Ken was one of the few people who truly "walked their talk." He was convinced that his rendition of community was "good." As a result, he went about his life attempting to "build community" in every way possible. His attempts at this venture spanned the range of peace maker in the rural sociology program, to true friend and mentor to graduate students. Most striking, however, was his commitment to the principle of the good of community in his own personal life.
Ken's interaction was always genuine, selfless and consistently optimistic. Most of us also remember that he was extremely soft-spoken -- to the point that we often had to strain to hear exactly what he was saying.
There was universal agreement that Ken was always extremely busy, so much-so that we wondered how he did it. Perhaps it reflected how well-organized he appeared to be; or maybe he was a good juggler, given all of the things he was doing. Since nothing he was handling slipped through the gaps, I guess it doesn't really matter.
Despite Ken's busy schedule, he was never too busy to talk to students when they came by his office -- which was often. Given its location, essentially behind the elevator in Weaver, a visitor -- whether student, faculty, or staff associate -- was relatively obvious. Ken always made everyone feel comfortable, sometimes offering them the opportunity to sit in his rocker. And once there, you almost always came to appreciate the unique perspective his windows gave him of the campus.
Before computers were made available to the professors, Ken apparently spent most of his time in his office in his quiet and unassuming way hard at work on his numerous manuscripts. His first draft, according to Robbie, was more often than not, the final draft. It had gone through the editing process long before it arrived on her desk. Indeed, Robbie really didn't like it very much when he started to type his own work since she really enjoyed her interactions with him.
When he started to use a computer, he began to talk a little more -- he actually had questions. When Linda showed him something on the computer, she only had to show him once. He wasn't like many of the other professors who you had to show again and again, and you knew they still didn't get it!
Another memory shared by most of us is Friday Cake Day in Rural Sociology. Every other Friday we all get together to chat and eat goodies. Most of us have our own favorites - Mud Pie, Pecan Pie, Sweet Rolls, and the like - but all of us remember Ken's sweet potato pies. They were the best!
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge that Ken partied as hard as he worked. Not only was Ken a good friend, he was one of the only people we ever knew who could drink more sour mash than us.
A.E. Luloff's teaching, research and writing primarily elaborates on the impacts of rapid social change, as a result of demographic shifts on the human and natural resource bases of the community. Changes in land cover and use, particularly in areas at the rural-urban fringe, and the impact of rural development and environmental policy on small and rural communities have been the central features of his work. His current research focuses on the siting of hazardous waste disposal facilities, the adoption of intensive grazing practices by dairy farmers, and the impacts of economic development-environmental protection efforts on community quality of life. These studies have been supported by federal, state, international and private non-profit agencies. Much of this work is comparative; cross-national studies are in progress in Australia, Japan and Italy.
Dr. Luloff is a senior scientist with Penn State's Institute for Policy Research and Evaluation, the current editor of The Journal of the Community Development Society. He was recently elected to the council of the Rural Sociological Society from which he also received that organization's Excellence in Research Award.
Professor, agricultural economics and rural sociology
111 Armsby Building
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802
Phone: (814) 863-8643