Posted by Jay Livingston
Jerry Starr died on Friday. He was a good sociologist, a public sociologist. In the 1960s he worked with Peace Corps volunteers. In the 1980s he put together a curriculum on the Vietnam War for use in high schools, a curriculum that treated the issues with depth and honesty. More recently he worked to keep public television in Pittsburgh public and relevant.
I met Jerry at Brandeis. He was a grad student, I was an undergrad, but the sociology department did its best to minimize that division, at least for upper-level undergrads who were interested. We discovered shared interests. We both liked jazz, and we both had been known to spend an afternoon with the horses (“track trash” was the phrase Jerry used), we knew a lot of the same jokes. More than that, I appreciated his perspective on the world. But while his intellectual style was a sort of bemused ironic detachment, but he combined that with a real-world political engagement.
He taught at Penn, then at West Virginia University, and teaching was one of te things we would talk about. In my classes, I still often use an example I got from him. I think Jerry used this in his Sociology of Youth course, probably as in lead-in to the section on the school as an institution.
He would turn class discussion to the topic of dreams. What could be more individual, personal, and psychological? Then he would ask if any of them had ever had a dream where the setting is a school. Most had. What were the dreams like, he would ask. I was two days late to class. I couldn’t find my classroom. I was in the wrong building. I was naked in class. You get the idea – anxiety dreams.
Maybe, he would say, maybe these seemingly personal things, dreams, tell us something about the nature of an institution. The example is about schools. But it also epitomizes the sociological enterprise – going beyond the personal and individual to see the impact of social institutions.
Four years ago, Jerry was diagnosed with cancer. He sent a letter to friends saying,
in fairness to the truth, we now know more than enough to know that I am inoperable, incurable and have months to live. As the doctors told me, it is just "bad luck" when a perfectly healthy person with no symptoms is discovered (by accident) to have cancer so advanced that nothing can be done.He did try chemo and survived both the treatment and the disease. Those four years are something of a bonus for us. But this time, he rejected the idea of treatment, preferring, as he said four years ago “to see death as part of life.”
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an obit on Saturday.