As Sheldon Stryker moved through his late 80s and early 90s, his family, friends and professional colleagues were astounded at his ongoing vitality as an influential scholar, his passion for life and his exhaustive social calendar, which would have been impressive for a man half his age.
As a distinguished professor emeritus of sociology at Indiana University, Sheldon continued to collaborate and publish papers with his former students, as well as his daughter, Robin, who followed in his footsteps into the field. He still mentored graduate students, remained a regular at the American Sociological Association's annual conference and at the age of 90 lectured in Italy. Back home in Bloomington and Sarasota, Fla., where he lived during the winter, he was an avid arts consumer, taking in jazz and classical music, theater, opera and ballet. His five children would often get concerned when they couldn't reach him for a few days, only to learn later that he had been out on the town. (Sometimes, however, he had simply left the phone off the hook again.)
Sheldon, who died on May 4 at Heartland Health Care & Rehabilitation Center in Sarasota, was still living independently when a fall at home in late March resulted in a broken hip. He was 91 and died in the wake of complications following surgery.
Sheldon was best known as a pioneer of identity theory - a way of explaining how a person's behavior and sense of self is shaped by his or her experiences in key life roles, including those in the family, at work, at school and in civic, political and religious life.
His research emphasized scientific methods and quantitative analysis. His ideas found their most profound expression in two important books, "Symbolic Interactionism" (1980) and "Self, Identity and Social Movements," the latter co-edited with Timothy Owens and Robert White (2000).
"One would be hard-pressed to find a scholar who has accomplished as much as Sheldon Stryker has during the second half of the 20th century," the American Sociological Association said in awarding him the 2009 W.E.B. DuBois Career Award of Distinguished Scholarship. "The body of his lifetime work, which continues to thrive, has been exemplary to all sociologists."
Sheldon was born on May 26, 1924, in St. Paul, Minn. As a young man, he played basketball and billiards, delivered newspapers and worked on his high school newspaper, earning the nickname "Scoop" Stryker. He loved jazz and among his most cherished possessions were records by Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman and Dizzy Gillespie.
Sheldon served in the Army during World War II, becoming a battlefield medic in Europe and earning a Purple Heart medal after being wounded in France. After the war, he finished college at the University of Minnesota, where he was drawn to sociology and the prospect of the academic life. He eventually earned his Ph.D. from U-M in 1955, but his teaching career at IU started in 1950.
Sheldon's list of academic awards and honors included lifetime achievement markers like the Cooley Mead Award from the Social Psychology section of the ASA, prestigious editorships of the Social Psychology Quarterly (1967-1969) and the American Sociological Review (1982-1986), a Fulbright Fellowship in Italy (1966-67) and a year at the Center for the Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto (1986-87). He was chair of the sociology department at IU from 1969-75 and for nearly 25 years was director of the university's pre-doctoral and post-doctoral training program in social psychology.
Sheldon married Alyce Agranoff (Stryker) in 1947 in St. Paul - their first date was at a Stan Kenton dance. Once they landed in Bloomington, their family began to grow and, somehow, Sheldon managed to become a world-class scholar while attending seemingly every ballgame or concert that involved his children.
The great sorrow of Sheldon's life was outliving his beloved wife, who died in 2009 a month shy of their 62nd wedding anniversary. In later years he often said that his biggest joy came from monitoring the professional and personal lives of his children, all of whom survive him: Robin, professor of sociology at the University of Arizona in Tucson; Jeffrey, professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta in Edmonton; David, executive vice president and general counsel of the Hunstman Corp. in Houston; Michael, associate professor of jazz piano at Western Illinois University in Macomb; and Mark, arts reporter and critic with the Detroit Free Press.
In addition to his children, Sheldon is also survived by daughters-in-law Patricia Leake (Jeff), Kasandra Stryker (David); Kitty Karn (Michael) and Candace Stuart (Mark). Sheldon is also survived by grandsons Joshua Stryker, Joseph Stryker and Samuel Stryker; granddaughters Captain Hannah Stryker Thomas (U.S. Army), Alyssa Stryker and Emily Stryker; and four great-grandchildren.
Though Sheldon took great pride in the accomplishments of his children, he liked to say that he was even more proud that they all turned out to be nice people and that they remained friends with each other into middle age. He insisted that their mother was responsible for this state of affairs, but the truth is that Sheldon and Alyce together provided a remarkable example of how to live a life filled with unconditional love, integrity and grace. They set a high bar, which no one who knew them will ever forget.
Donations may be made to the Sheldon Stryker Memorial Fund to support graduate education in sociology. Indiana University Foundation, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, Indiana, 47402 (phone: 812-855-8311). To make a gift online, go to www.myiu.org and use the "write in gift area" to indicate that the gift is in memory of Sheldon Stryker.
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