October 12, 2005

Memorial Service Recalls Life of Bronfenbrenner

Print More

On a chilly autumn day last weekend Urie Bronfenbrenner ’38 smiled at his family, friends, students and colleagues from a framed black and white picture on the podium as they filled the sanctuary in Anabel Taylor Hall with songs and sadness, literature and laughter to celebrate his 88 years as a scholar, teacher, friend, father and grandfather.

Although he was most famous for his groundbreaking “bioecological” approach to human development, Urie’s family and friends also spoke of his love for Russian literature, folksongs and hiking, of his amazing intelligence and of his brilliance as a teacher.

On hikes with his son Michael, Urie loved to examine flowers with a magnifying glass and to reference them in his pocket guidebook, counting and cherishing each new find. When they returned from their trek someone inevitably would ask, “How was your walk today?”

“37!” Urie would say, smiling, referring to the 37 different types of flowers he had discovered. He measured a walk’s goodness by the scale of flowers – the more he found and studied up close the better it was.

“And it seemed the more inclement the weather the more he enjoyed it,” Michael said, glancing with a smile out the square paned windows at the threatening gray sky. “I think he would have been happy about the weather today.”

But whether or not the sun shone on his hikes, folksongs provided a constant melody to the beat of Urie’s footsteps. Whether he was hiking, shaving, driving or meeting with the Cornell Folksong Club, he was always singing.

“Lord knows how many wild animals turned in curiosity whenever we entered the forest,” Michael said. “Urie’s favorites were the songs of America – Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Odetta, Stephen Foster, Casey Jones, the Erie Canal – we sang them all.”

And so at Urie’s request, his guests lifted their voices: “From this valley they say you are going, we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile” they sang, some singing harmony and some singing off-key, filling up the curved ceiling of the room with Red River Valley, one of his favorite melodies.

That same melody floated over the crowd at the train station on the day in 1942 when Urie left to serve as a psychologist in the war, and since that day he and Liese, his wife of nearly 63 years, have called it their song. Liese and their six children, 13 grandchildren and a great-granddaughter survive Urie.

To commemorate another of her father’s loves, Beth Soll read excerpts from one of the Russian-born Urie’s favorite authors – Anton Chekov.

“For 100 years your unspoken summons to fruitful labor has never faltered, upholding through all the generations of our family wisdom and faith in a better future and fostering within us ideals of goodness and a social consciousness,” Soll read, addressing her father and the ideals he held close to his heart.

From Russian literature to botany to developmental psychology, Urie was “a lifelong learner” consumed with a desire to “find pieces of the puzzles of life and [to discover] ways to improve the character and competence of everyone,” said Phyllis Moen, founding chair of the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center at Cornell.

“He was the smartest, most generous and most unpretentious scholar that I’ve ever known,” said Prof. Laurence Steinberg Ph.D. ’78, Temple University. “One did not need to have Urie as an advisor, a committee member or classroom instructor to be his student. If your work was interesting Urie wanted to know more about it and once he learned more about it he couldn’t help but suggest ways to improve it.”

While working with Urie one day during his third year of graduate school, Steinberg recalls the telephone ringing. Urie answered cheerfully and explained he would call back – he was busy meeting with a student.

“Walter Mondale; a wonderful man,” he commented briefly before picking up their conversation as if nothing unusual had happened. But Steinberg was amazed: Urie had just told the vice president of the United States that an appointment with a student took precedence over his phone call.

“As a result [of his teaching style], even when Urie was critical of your work somehow you left the meeting feeling more confident, more excited, more interested in what you were studying than you had been when you came,” Steinberg said.

After joining the faculty in 1948 Urie taught at Cornell until his retirement in 1987; he was the Jacob Gould Sherman Professor Emeritus of Human Development and of Psychology when he died September 25.

But Urie’s voice resonated far beyond the buildings topping this hill above Ithaca and his impact has not stopped with his retirement in 1987 or even now, with his death.

Over 1 million children and pregnant women enrolled in Head Start in 2003 alone, taking part in a federal child-development program for low-income families Urie helped to create forty years ago.

“Before Urie Bronfenbrenner, child psychologists studied the child, sociologists examined the family, anthropologists the society, economists the economic framework of the times and political scientists the structure,” said Stephen J. Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology. “As the result of Urie’s groundbreaking concept of the ecology of human development, these environments – from the family to economic and political structures – became viewed as part of the life course, embracing both childhood and adulthood.”

And while many of Urie’s legacies were related to his professional career, his personal impact on the Cornell and Ithaca communities was visible in the faces of the guests who came to celebrate him last weekend.

“Now Urie’s on another journey,” Michael said, voice thick with emotion. “A journey within us. His joie de vivre, his love of song, his sense of humor, his thirst for knowledge, his commitment to children and families – these are within us.”

Archived article by Katy Bishop
Sun Staff Writer