Friday, June 5, 2009
My long-time friend and colleague, Len Lansky, died in April after coping for months with cancer and the lingering side-effects of a hip replacement operation. You didn’t have an opportunity to meet Len, but I think you would have hit it off in a second.
I knew Len longer than anybody else at UC. I first ran into him in 1958 as an undergraduate Psychology major. I was taking developmental psychology, and the professor arranged for a young research psychologist named Lansky at the nearby Fels Institute to do a guest lecture. We met in a first floor classroom in the rear of Horace Mann Hall. The students were scattered around in a circle, and Len was dressed in jeans and a casual shirt and was on some sort of elevated podium, where he paced back and forth, waving his arms about, laughing, scowling, and imparting his wisdom. I don’t recall his exact content, though I do remember that it had a strong dose of psychoanalytic theory. Len was a hypnotic and dynamic lecturer, and we students became spellbound converts.
In 1960, Katja and I graduated from college and went off to the University of Michigan. I wound up working with a social/clinical psychologist named Dan Miller who theorized about interpersonal relationships and personal identity. Coincidentally Dan had been Len's mentor a decade or so earlier. In the summer of 1963 I went with Dan to the National Training Laboratories summer workshops at Bethel, Maine, to do research on identity change in T groups. One of the laboratories from which we collected data was for interns – professionals who were undergoing training themselves to become T-group trainers – and who was part of this group but Len Lansky. Through our mutual link to Dan Miller, we had the basis for an immediate connection. Len stands out among the memorable people I ran across in that emotionally intense summer. He offered free-flowing advice about the research that Dan and I were doing. In particular, he was perturbed that one of our measures required participants to rate themselves on a bipolar scale which ranged from “rational” at one pole to “emotional” at the other. Len insisted vehemently that he was high in both rationality and emotionality and that these were separate dimensions rather than opposite ends of a single continuum. Len, of course, was right, though it was too late for us to change our measures.
Two years later Dan Miller was invited by department head Wes Allinsmith to do a colloquium at the University of Cincinnati’s Psychology Department where Len was a full professor. Wes and Len had collaborated as doctoral students at Michigan with Miller and Guy Swanson on their well-known research on the changing American family, and Wes had recruited Len to UC from Harvard. Dan recommended me as a prospective job candidate. I interviewed, took the job, and we moved to Cincinnati in 1966. Len was my mentor and guide during the multi-year process of becoming a full-fledged faculty member. He invited me to be a member of M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation committees that he chaired, and he spent a lot of time teaching me how to work democratically and openly with graduate students on their research. Len was very bright, emotionally expressive, personally engaged, and filled with spontaneous ideas which poured forth with minimal censorship. Some of these were brilliant, some idiosyncratic, some occasionally kooky, but all were accompanied by great zest and eloquence. Len’s research dealt with gender roles, correlates of right- vs. left-handedness (Len was left-handed), perceptual control theory, and organizational change. Operating in a rather hard-nosed, behavioral Psychology department, Len drew extensively from Freudian theory and encouraged his grad students to do the same. He was a fount of support and positive feedback for students, yet not intimidated by conflict. This was a department of strong personalities, e.g., Professors Goodstein, Schwartz, Schumsky, et al., and Len was perhaps the most outspoken of the bunch. He was rebellious against authority and typically championed a minority viewpoint. Len regarded himself and was regarded by others as a gadfly in the university, and he took delight in challenging the status quo.
As our faculty numbers grew, Len was the key senior person in our developing a doctoral program in applied social psychology. Other integral participants were Dan Langmeyer, Kathy Burlew, Ron Boyer, Tony Grasha, Bill Meyers, Len Oseas, Bren Reddy, and myself. Len was central to this group, personally and intellectually. For several years, he directed the applied social psychology program, and we trained many accomplished graduates.
In the mid-1980’s we started playing doubles tennis on weekends. Len teamed up with my son J, an excellent junior tennis player, against my regular partner Irv Greenberg and myself. The teams were pretty evenly matched, though Len and J eked out victories at least half the time and probably more. Len brought the same enthusiasm and playfulness to tennis as he did to his work and social life.
Late in his career Len published an editorial column in the university’s student newspaper, addressing the question of why he should (or should not) think about retiring, just because he was an age where it was conventional to do so. He, of course, made an unequivocal case why it would be ridiculous for him to retire, given the level of his ability and performance. I think Len would have continued ad infinitum if he hadn’t finally been hampered by some age-related physical problems. After his retirement in 1999, he was always the first person I looked forward to reconnecting with at annual department events. Len’s parents had lived well into their 90s, and he fully expected to do so as well. It came as a shock when Len did pass away at 84. It seemed contrary to nature.
I think Len and I got along well because we were such opposites and consequently helped to balance one another. While I’m a pretty retiring, introverted person, Len readily embraced people and new situations. He had a passion for life, an exuberant manner, and a contagious laugh. He talked with great intensity. He was confident in his opinions and forthright in expressing them. He loved teaching and its emotional engagement, developed good friendships with students, and won the University’s outstanding teacher award. You always knew that an encounter with Len would be the highlight of the day. Lots of people impact our lives. I’m a more complete person from knowing Len Lansky over the years, and I owe him many thanks.
Dave – I’m not certain that we ever met although our paths may have crossed early in your career at UC when I was an undergrad Psych major (1963-7) and one of Len’s devoted students. Len not only turned me on to Soc Psych, NTL, OD, etc, but invited me into his family where I became an honorary big-brother/guardian to Dave & Steve and a great admirer of Donna. Although our visits were infrequent since I left Cinci. In 1968, we all managed to keep in touch throughout the years; and I’m still closely involved with the “boys” today. I last spent a wonderful evening over dinner with Len two years ago when I was presenting at a conference in Cinci. I too have many fond memories and so appreciated reflecting on times we spent together when I read your most accurate and loving description of him.
Thank you for sharing your memories and honoring our friend and teacher!
Michael P. Freidman, Ed.D.
Psychologist & Coach