Clay Mosher, a professor in the Department of Sociology on the WSU Vancouver campus, unexpectedly passed away in January 2022. In the Spring 2022 Newsletter we announced his unfortunate passing. In this issue we asked a few of Clay’s former students, friends, and colleagues to contribute memory pieces in his honor.
Remembering Clay in His Office
By Alair MacLean
I worked on the same hallway as Clay for nearly 16 years. Pretty much every day that I came into the office he was already there, which he indicated by keeping his door open a crack. That sliver of light indicated that he welcomed visits from any and all but was not necessarily open for casual communication. He worked in his office alongside a pile of papers and books that had no discernible order to my eye but from which he could always pull a relevant piece of paper containing either his hand-written notes or some article that he had printed out and highlighted. The piles also contained articles from his favorite weekly and monthly popular publications, including The New Yorker.
Among the scribbled notes was his annual compendium of information about executive pay. Clay was indignant about inequality at all levels of society. He was especially outraged that pay for those at the top seemed to have no relationship to the wages of those lower down in an organization. He reserved particular ire for the football coaches of the world. Because he believed in documentation, he collected and analyzed data from publicly available sources, including a colleague down the hall with a particularly powerful spreadsheet. In this effort, he contributed an on-the-ground perspective to the ongoing search among sociologists and economists for the sources of the spectacular rise in inequality in the US since the 1970s.
Among the printed and highlighted pieces of paper were his source materials for his annual email collection of what he called notable quotes, assembled from various writing samples he encountered in the past year. Clay was irritated by a general slide in writing standards. He was a stickler for correct grammar and, above all, the proper use of statistics. As part of the notable quotes, he collected nonsensical phrases like: “If men did not commit so many violent crimes, the percentage of women committing violent crimes would rise significantly”; “The most serious offenses are sought to be crime, even if the crime itself isn’t set out to hurt anyone”; and “As the table and research shows, females have the tendency to be surprising.”
In many ways, Clay shared a contemporary version of the sensibility of the earliest writers for one of his favorite publications, The New Yorker, to which he demonstrated allegiance by tacking selected cartoons to the corkboard outside his door. Many of those writers would gather at a hotel in New York for lunch every day in the 1920s at what came to be called the Algonquin Round Table. Clay had his own table of friends whom he met after work every day in Vancouver, first at the Hazel Dell Brew Pub, and then, when that closed, at Applebee’s and Brothers’ Cascadia Brewing. The group was tightly knit by their shared love of golf and banter.
Clay also shared a sensibility with one of the most famous denizens of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker. He could have adopted one of Parker’s most famous queries as a motto: “What fresh hell is this?”
Also among his books, notes, and papers were many articles about golf. At certain times of the year, Clay would have the video from the major tournaments on his computer screen as he worked. He was obsessed with golf and thought that everyone else should be as well. He was such a proselytizer that he gave my family a full set of golf clubs with a bag the moment he learned that my son, whom he had known since the age of four, had taken up the sport as a teenager. This gift instantly vaulted my son into the solid middle class of golfers and made him the best-equipped of his friends.
For the last two years, under the shadow of the pandemic, Clay’s office also contained a varied collection of politically themed masks. Clay was passionate about politics and very open about his deep hatred of Donald Trump. At the beginning of the pandemic, he discovered that one could buy online hand-sewn cloth masks with anti-Trump messages. He may have single-handedly kept the market for such items afloat with his orders to Etsy.
Clay’s office was not the only place where he spent time, but it was a big part of his daily life.
Alair MacLean is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Washington State University. Her research and teaching interests are in the areas of inequality in historical and cross-national contexts. Alair has examined military service and, more recently, higher education pathways through the transition to adulthood.
By Fiona Kay
Clay and I became friends in graduate school at the University of Toronto. Clay was a couple of years ahead of me in the PhD program. One summer, he recruited me to play on the department softball team, The Social Animals. I could usually get myself to first base and then Clay was up next and would usually hit a home run. Once he hit the ball out of the park and through the windshield of a professor’s car in the adjacent parking lot. Clay waited for the car’s owner to return and paid for the new windshield.
Another time, a group of graduate students gathered for breakfast at a diner. Clay told us how an undergraduate student walked in after his tutorial ended and began shouting that helicopters were following her. The G-8 summit was being held in Toronto and the circling helicopters were for security. The young woman was terrified. Clay reassured her and walked her to a nearby hospital. The next day, her parents called the Sociology Department to thank Clay. They explained their daughter had struggled with mental health and they were grateful for Clay’s willingness to help her.
Clay’s compassion toward others ran deep. Clay had many friends – from different places and spheres of life – and he kept his friends for life.
Years later, I called Clay and told him I was teaching a sociology of law class and I didn’t know much about Jim Crow laws in the US. Could he recommend a source? I recall he said, “I can do better than that. Give me a day.” The next day he emailed me a 10-page lecture he had written in response to my questions. A few weeks ago, in an old file folder, I found those lecture notes.
It was not the only time I would seek his academic advice. We talked about teaching, publishing, and politics. We also talked about family and friends, golf, travel, and what mattered in life.
Clay was acutely offended by discrimination and was not one to back down when he saw injustice committed against others. That sense of outrage inspired his writing, especially on topics of discrimination in the criminal justice system. His books, Discrimination and Denial, The Mismeasure of Crime (with T. Miethe and T. Hart), Drugs and Drug Policy, and In the Weeds (both with S. Akins) were impressive contributions, as were his many articles on the topics of racial discrimination, policing, drug legislation, and sentencing. Clay saw the importance of applied research to inform policy development. In recognition of his consulting work with community leaders, Clay received in 2013 Washington State University’s Sahlin Faculty Research Excellence Award for Outreach and Engagement.
I’ve noted several characteristics of Clay: integrity, compassion, generosity, advocacy for others, and intellectual curiosity. Any friend of Clay’s would add competitiveness to that list.
Two moments stand out for me. Years ago, we went skiing together at Whistler, BC. As it goes with Clay, a gentle ski down the mountain turned into a race. I hit a mogul and my binding released one ski. After a summersault, I face-planted into the snow. I looked up to see Clay, in full tuck, bombing down the mountain as fast as he could. Years earlier, we played golf in Kamloops, BC. I asked to finish at the 9th hole, but Clay was unhappy with his score and insisted we play on. So, I caddied the back 9 as Clay worked on his game. It was competition—not with others but with himself—that drove Clay to be better.
Clay’s wit and ability to tell stories were also legendary. Finally, one last attribute, possibly rooted in his Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada origins, was his tough outer crust beneath which lay a sensitive soul. His family and friends saw that side of Clay as he listened to their struggles and celebrated their accomplishments. He was a trusted friend.
We were friends for many years. I like to take credit for introducing Clay to the love of his life, Melanie, when I encouraged him to take her to a Blue Jays baseball game in Toronto. I thank Clay for introducing me to the experience of college town football (Washington State Cougars), craft beer, pedal-to-the-metal driving, and for making me laugh so hard my face hurt. I miss our calls, his encouraging words, and hearing his take on world events. It’s difficult to believe we won’t pick up the phone and hear Clay’s voice and laughter once more.
Fiona Kay is a professor in the department of sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Her research interests are in the areas of inequality, professions, and law.
By Scott Akins and Chad Smith
Our friend Clay passed early this year. We miss him each day and agreed to write this piece to share with you a bit about Clay. We each met Clay as new WSU graduate students, so our relationship with him started with some form of mentorship and then evolved into a close friendship. Speaking first about his mentorship role in our lives, we can say he was a terrific mentor in part because he had extremely high standards in work produced. This was the standard he placed on himself, and he expected no less from those he worked with. This high standard, and the often-blunt presentation of criticism, scared many away from working with him. But this was often to their detriment because your work would absolutely be better for his critical eye. He wasn’t perfect—far from it—but he pulled no punches, and if you could take that, it made your scholarship all the better.
Clay also worked harder than anyone either of has ever met. Clay saw his work as an integral part of his life, and he saw his role as a professor as requiring a contribution to the greater good. Unlike many, he greatly valued working with community partners. He saw the discipline and his role in it differently than most, being prouder of his university award for community outreach and engagement than he was of any journal publication.
Many of the traits that made Clay such a terrific mentor can be traced to his working-class background. That Clay came from a working-class background was unknown to many around him. Those whom Clay trusted knew how much his upbringing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, shaped him, and were let into his world where his irreverence for authority and hierarchy, especially academic, was constantly on display. He had no tolerance for academic pomposity or nonsense—he did not live his life that way. One small example of this is that Clay was friends with a number of graduate students, including the two of us, and in this (like all things) he did not put on airs. To Clay, there was no position of superiority between him and us, and if you were trusted (and sometimes even if you weren’t!) you were let in on just what he thought—the good and the bad. As a graduate student this was both reassuring and demystifying. You saw a version of academia that you could see yourself in. You were treated like a colleague, not a student, and over time you began to believe that you were a colleague, that you belonged.
It also meant that we all got to have lots of fun together at professional meetings, on golf adventures, and, of course, at pubs (many pubs!). Often during such occasions Clay provided advice and explored ideas related to academia. A popular topic for Clay’s scathing wit was his disdain for university bureaucracy and those that fawned over them. “Fart catchers” is how Clay bluntly characterized such people. Although he generally followed rules of civil discourse, Clay was also one to share his opinions, especially if his blood was up (as it often was for the former hockey player). For example, he collected data to bolster his argument that universities seemed more focused on administrative bloat than on the core missions of research and teaching. To put it bluntly (something Clay also liked), he was not afraid to speak truth to power. It didn’t always make him popular, but it is the only way Clay knew how to live.
Clay was also one of the funniest people either of us has ever met. Clay’s humor was often biting and dark, but it was always entertaining and never mean-spirited. He didn’t target the weak, he targeted the powerful and the self-satisfied, implicitly pointing out that what many valued wasn’t something to be emulated. Whether he was conducting a running monologue during a meeting, one typically more interesting than the topic at hand, or in his endless search for the perfect nickname for friends, colleagues, or public figures, or his display of his George W. Bush “pocket president” at academic meetings, Clay was always seeking a way to bring much needed levity in this crazy world. He was his own reality show before such things were popular, and while at times being in this show could be uncomfortable it was never, ever, boring.
All of this is to say, Clay was his true authentic self. He had authentic values that were important to him, and he lived his life in accordance with those values. He was funny as hell, but above all genuine. Clay was strong-willed, irreverent, and independent, but also generous with his time and with sharing his advice and experiences. He was fiercely loyal to those he cared for and to his core values. At the center of it all was Clay’s authenticity. He did not waver from that authentic self and for that, we are grateful. Cheers to you, good friend, you are missed.
Scott Akins earned a PhD in Sociology from WSU in 2002. He is a professor in the sociology department at Oregon State University. He has co-authored several articles and books with Clay Mosher, including the 2021 book Drugs and Drug Policy: The Control of Consciousness Alteration (3rd ed.). His research interests include criminology/deviance and drug use, abuse, and policy.
Chad Smith earned a PhD. in Sociology from WSU in 2005. He is a professor in the department of sociology at Texas State University. His primary research interests focus on the intersection of the environment, the military, and social inequality. He also conducts research related to social inequality and substance use.