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Remebering Nelson Polsby
Two of the late political scientist's Berkeley colleagues recall his welcoming spirit and commitment to collegiality

14 February 2007

Polsby was 'informal, freewheeling, funny, and warm,' with a 'capacity for keen observation'

by Eric Schickler

Nelson Polsby, leading expert on American politics, dies at 72

"The most important thing you can do as a parent is to give your child a sense of efficacy — the belief that if he or she does something, the world will take notice and respond."  Nelson Polsby offered this advice to my wife, Terri, and me seven years ago when we were expecting our first child.  Even when straying far from his scholarly field of expertise (though some might say that studying Congress offers substantial insight into child psychology), Nelson always thought like a social scientist. No one derived more pleasure than Nelson from simply watching and learning about people — be they Washington elites, members of the House of Commons, or the children of faculty colleagues and graduate students. This capacity for keen observation lay at the root of Nelson's grand scholarly accomplishments and his equally great contributions to the lives of the many people he touched over his 72 years.

Before I arrived at Berkeley as an assistant professor in 1997, I already knew a great deal about Nelson Polsby. He was something of a legend at Yale, where I went to graduate school. He was one of a small group of superstars to graduate from that program during its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when Robert Dahl and his students were redefining the study of American politics. As a Ph.D. student, I was well-acquainted with Nelson's classic studies of Congress, party reform, political innovation, and community power.  

It did not take long for me to realize that there was much more to Nelson Polsby than one could glean from the literature on American politics. That realization came when I attended my first tea at the Institute of Governmental Studies, which Nelson directed from 1988 to 1999. The IGS under Nelson brought in visiting scholars from all over the world, hosted seminars by leading academics, journalists, and politicians, and incubated important scholarly research.  But the spirit of Nelson's IGS could best be seen at tea each day, when graduate students, faculty, visitors, and Nelson debated the news of the day. Tea was informal, freewheeling, funny, and warm — in other words, it reflected Nelson's character perfectly. One day, you might find Nelson and the group chatting with a prominent Washington journalist or former legislator.  The next day, Nelson's focus might be on making sure one of the graduate students' kids felt equally welcome to partake of both the cookies and the conversation. My son Sam, now 6, has long loved running into IGS, plopping himself down next to Nelson at the table, and joining the group.

Nelson's welcoming persona was by no means limited to tea. Nelson's office was always open to visitors, as was his home. Linda and Nelson were great hosts to generations of graduate students, faculty, and visitors at Berkeley — making people feel at "home" even if their original home was thousands of miles away. 

Being around Nelson also meant enjoying (and occasionally being targeted by) his sharp wit. Perhaps my favorite example comes from the Annual Review of the Presi-dency panel in 1999. The moderator asked what the panelists expected Bill Clinton to do for a living once he left the White House.  Without missing a beat, Nelson replied, "Open up a dry-cleaning business."

Many people who never met Nelson Polsby will remember him for his contributions to the study of American politics. But everyone who had the opportunity to meet Nelson in person will remember him for much more. With Nelson gone, I will always have an empty feeling whenever I walk into IGS.  But that sense of loss will be at least partly soothed every day as I appreciate my kids' somewhat oversized sense of efficacy and think of Nelson.

Eric Schickler is a professor in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science.

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'I can think of no finer education'

By David Hopkins

Most people might be bothered or distracted by having an office with three doorways that served as a pass-through point for people coming and going all day. Nelson Polsby, a social scientist in the truest sense, loved it. His campus home, 115 Moses Hall in the Institute of Governmental Studies, always felt like the center of the action. Nelson ignored the traditional practice of "office hours"; anyone could, and often did, drop by at any time for any reason. An assortment of chairs and a soft, comfortable couch stood in wait for friends, colleagues, current and former students, or even those who wandered in by accident and were invited to sit and introduce themselves. New faces ran a gauntlet of soon-familiar questions: Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What do your folks do for a living? Particularly fortunate respondents might inspire an impromptu map of their native state drawn on a paper napkin with felt-tipped pen, home town marked with an X. Nelson loved people. Though his friends and acquaintances must have numbered in the thousands, he never tired of making new ones.

Nelson felt deeply that isolation is the greatest potential threat to a rewarding academic life. He did more than anyone to foster a sense of inclusiveness and collaboration among graduate students and other scholars at Berkeley — an accomplishment that is at least as impressive as any of his many celebrated publications. As a firm believer in the power of institutions to shape individual behavior, Nelson established his famous daily tea to help build community at IGS. While countless ideas for dissertations and papers have undoubtedly been born out of or shaped by the informal interactions among students, faculty, and visiting scholars encouraged by the mid-afternoon provision of snacks, conversation can, and often does, turn in any conceivable direction — and there were few topics on which Nelson failed to hold forth, from the latest developments in electoral politics to the pitching staff of the Oakland Athletics.

Nelson hired me as a research assistant immediately upon my arrival in Berkeley in August 2001. I soon discovered that one of my main responsibilities was simply to spend as much time as I could in his office, a practice that Nelson liked to refer to as "babysitting." When he was in the midst of working on a book or article, the pace might be hectic, with much to be done. During slack periods, we would sit and talk, the air thick with Nelson's insightful remarks, hilarious quips, and loud, infectious laugh. He was terrific company, and I can think of no finer education.

David Hopkins is a doctoral candidate in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science.