Personal reflections about Jim Short; new professorship to honor him

by Don Dillman

A photo of the Wilson-Short Hall re-dedication plaque.
The rededication plaque for Wilson-Short Hall (photo by WSU Photo Services, 2009).

Nearly a decade ago, I paused near the front door of Wilson–Short Hall to admire the new name on the front of this nearly 100-year-old building centrally located at the highest point of the WSU Campus. The new name continued to honor James Wilson, the Secretary of Agriculture for whom it was originally named in 1917, but now included the name of my colleague, mentor, and friend, James F. Short, Jr.

Soon after the building rededication, a hurriedly constructed wire fence appeared around the base of the building as protection against pieces of the top floor cornice that had begun to break off. The new honoree, when confronted with the fencing on the way to his office—part of his daily routine until this year—casually observed to office staff with his trademark smile: “Wouldn’t it be something if the guy they just renamed the building for would get hit by a falling piece of concrete on his way to work?”

The fence stayed for many months, while the cornice and other exterior parts of the four-story building were meticulously repaired. Although the interior of the building had been completely renovated in 1970, the exterior had not. The repairs made it once again a beautiful home to the Social and Economic Research Center (SESRC) that Jim had established in 1970, and the Sociology department that he had been part of since 1951.

I joined the WSU Sociology faculty in 1969, when Jim was on a short visit to Pullman, during his two-year assignment in Washington, DC, as director of research for the National Commission on the Cause and Prevention Violence. Our first encounter was in Bohler Gym on the basketball court, frequented by new faculty members like me. I wasn’t much of a basketball player, but several of us younger folks enjoyed the occasional exercise. My first memory of Jim was how quickly and efficiently he moved up and down the court, leaving many of us behind. He was in constant motion, and at the time I thought it unfair that anyone so old (he was 45 at the time) could outplay us.

The image of Jim on the basketball court also seemed incongruent with what I knew from a distance about him. He was a prolific writer and had a knack for producing beautiful prose, while also writing with simplicity and clarity in ways that most of us could not. That became even more evident to me in 2016 when he casually mentioned a piece he was writing for the inaugural issue of the Annual Review of Criminology. In it he described his early career and the development of sociological research on gang behavior that had engaged him at the University of Chicago. His criminological research focused on issues I knew little about, but I read every page of the article, slowly, marveling once again at his incredible ability to turn phrases in ways that were efficient, informative, and engaging.

For many decades Jim was the scholarly anchor and constant promoter of the sociology department at WSU, always curious about what other faculty and graduate students were doing and eager to engage with them to learn more. He seldom talked about his own work or accomplishments, including serving as president of two national organizations—the American Sociological Association (1984) and the American Society of Criminology (1997)—but he was quick to share experiences he thought would be helpful to others.

A few years ago, he described a trip he took with a former graduate student, Lori Hughes, to the University of Chicago to examine the gang research he undertook decades before. His comment to me was, “In my day we never used the word ‘mentoring,’ and I didn’t even know what it meant, but I guess that’s what I was doing on this trip.”

I hardly knew how to respond. This was the guy who, in the early 1970s, provided daily encouragement for me to develop mail and telephone survey methods into powerful tools for accurately assessing public opinion and measuring human behaviors. It was the kind of encouragement, and, yes, mentoring, that I saw him constantly offer to others as well.

Jim Short, sitting in the center, converses with two students, Alana Inlow, sitting on the left, and Adam Roth, sitting on the right, at the awards banquet.
Alana Inlow, Jim Short, and Adam Roth, conversing after the awards ceremony.

Lori’s tribute to Jim also appears in this issue of Sociology News. Her comments reminded me of how many of us have benefited from the mentoring Jim provided perceptively, graciously, and with good humor to multiple generations of students and colleagues.

In late April 2018, Jim attended the Sociology Department’s annual awards ceremony, as he always did. This year, two graduate students, Adam Roth and Alana Inlow, were co-winners of the much-coveted James F. Short Jr. Research Award for papers they wrote.

We appreciate Jim for 67 years of making so many of us better sociologists, colleagues, and university citizens.

You can support the James Short
Professorship in Sociology

To honor Dr. Short’s legacy of scholarship, his dedication to students, and his indelible mark on the Department of Sociology and Washington State University, a professorship has been established in his name.

Gifts to support the James F. Short Professorship in Sociology are welcome and appreciated. Your gift can be made securely online or by check payable to the WSU Foundation, James F. Short Professorship #7246-7311. Mail checks to CAS Development, PO BOX 643528, Pullman, WA 99164.

You may also email or call the CAS Development Office at 509-335-1096 for assistance in making a gift.