Thomas L. Van Valey
Thomas L. Van Valey
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and went to college at Hanover College (located outside Madison, Indiana, on the Ohio river). I graduated in 1964 and went to the University of Washington (Seattle) for my Masters.
My wife (Jan) and I were married in June of 1965, and we moved to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1966, before I finished my thesis. One thing I distinctly remember about being a graduate student at UNC – taking classes from people who were well-known – even famous – sociologists. I had Tad Blalock for statistics, Amos Hawley for population, and Gary Lenski was chair and gave me my first teaching opportunity. And they were not the only ones, just the ones I worked with the most. In part because of the faculty, and in part because of the other graduate students,
UNC presented lots of challenges and opportunities, both in and out of class. I remember clearly going to the library, and seeing armed state troopers standing on either side of the door. Jan had to drive through a National Guard checkpoint to get to Northern High School in Durham County where she was the music teacher. I also remember when a mob tried to set fire to the computer room on the second floor of Alumni.
Still, a number of us studied together and did research, together and with faculty. Tad included a piece I had written for him in his Causal Models in the Social Sciences. Clark Roof and I wrote up a piece of research we did on residential segregation, and the department supported our going to the meetings of the Population Association to present it. It was later published in Social Forces. Today, that kind of support is common. Back then, it was quite unusual. I distinctly remember preparing for and taking the PhD qualifying exams. At the time, we had to take three, each a day-long, take-home examinations with a day or two off in between. It made for a long week or so. One was required (titled Social Organization, as I recall), and the other two were areas of specialization. I chose Population and Development.
As it tuned out, Jan was pregnant and due to give birth at about the same time as the exams were scheduled. So, in addition to my preparation for the exams, we set up contingency plans with friends and neighbors (mostly other graduate students on Davie Circle where we lived) in case she went into labor. Fortunately, she did not go into labor then, but I do remember the day that our results were handed out. Jan was with me in the hallway outside Lenski’s office, and when Babe came out to give someone their letter, she saw Jan, fully nine months pregnant. She turned around, and in a loud voice said to Gary, “Better do Tom’s letter next.”
Given the heavy class and research load at UNC, it had taken me quite a while to finish my MA thesis, so I was determined to finish my dissertation before I left Chapel Hill. I originally proposed a population project to Krishnan Namboodiri, but he shot it so full of holes that it looked like he used a shotgun. I scrapped it. So, I put together a new project, a test of a theoretical model of the migrations of academics, and asked Lew Carter to look it over. He liked the idea and became the chair of the committee. I managed to get it finished and defended, and we turned in the typed copies to the Graduate School, the very day we left Chapel Hill for Colorado. (Several years later, with Lew as coauthor, I published an article based on it).
After I finished at UNC in 1971, I went to Colorado State. It was there that I received my first grant (from NICHHD) and participated in a number of applied research projects. I served there for several years, then left for a brief visit at Wisconsin to work on my first NSF-funded research project, on residential segregation (co-directed with Clark Roof), then on to UMass (where Clark was located). I was there almost two years, then to Virginia for two more. In 1977, I went from Charlottesville to Western Michigan University, largely because I had shared an office at UVA with Dick Means who was there on sabbatical from Kalamazoo College. He spent most of the time talking about Kalamazoo and how good a place it was to live.
The position at WMU opened up after he left, so I called him and asked him if he was serious about Kalamazoo and WMU. He was, and encouraged me to apply. I first went to WMU in June of 1977, before my family actually moved here (in August). I directed an applied research project their Center for Social Research had received. Over the next three decades, I and three colleagues handled most of the applied research projects that came to the department. While these were mostly surveys and needs assessments – thus lots of reports – some did include opportunities for publication.
From 1981 to 1985, because I had some familiarity with computers, and because I had experience teaching large classes at Virginia, I was released from teaching in Sociology to Computer Science where I taught large Introduction to Computers course. In 1985, I became the Director of the Center for Social Research. With one interruption, I was Director until 1994. At that point, I stepped out of the Center to run a survey of alcohol and other drugs that covered the state of Michigan.
I became Chair in 1999. I served as chair for six years and retired in 2007 (at age 65). So, I was a faculty member a total of 37 years. That’s a lot of time (although I must admit it doesn’t really feel like it) and a lot of memories, most of them good ones. I have had the distinct pleasure to work on research projects and publications with many colleagues, and with a fair number of graduate students.
I moved away from research and publishing in population studies after going to WMU, but applied research has always been a focus for me. Also, I always enjoyed teaching Introductory Sociology, our Teaching Practicum, and our Proseminar (which was required of all new graduate students), and have been active in the teaching movement within the ASA. All of those experiences were great fun, and, I must also admit, so was being Chair (most of the time). I really do think that being an academic is a wonderful way to live. It is never boring, you continue to learn, and it is a comfortable living. Plus, there is plenty of time to pursue your interests (family, golf, handbells, science fiction, and travel in my case – not necessarily in that order).
Before I officially retired, I had already applied for Social Security benefits and I had my Medicare card. However, unlike most of the emeriti I know, I did not cut my connections with the department. I continued doing research, both unfunded and funded, and I had several writing projects to complete. A couple of those papers are still under review. Also, in the last year or so, I have been doing some consulting with the university regarding research ethics training, and I remain active in the ASA.
Besides, my wife (Jan) did not retire when I did. She continued to serve as a church music director for another year or so and still is a sales agent for a handbell manufacturer, and artistic director of the community handbell ensemble she founded (of which I am a member). Since 2007, we have faced some difficult family situations –the loss of one daughter, Jan was treated for breast cancer, and Christine, our remaining daughter, was treated for Hodgkins lymphoma. Both of them are okay now, and we are looking forward again. We have, of course, also been doing some of the things we like to do and visiting new and old places … and golf courses. It has been a grand journey, and I like to think I have taken the time along the way to appreciate at least some of the sights.