Richard “Dick” Erskine Downs

December 2, 1920–May 14, 2019

Dick Downs—a man of dry wit, with an eye for irony—passed away on May 14, 2019, in Princeton, New Jersey, aged 98.

Downs started at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in 1962 and retired in 1991. He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, grew up in North Andover, Masachusetts, and graduated from Phillips Academy (1938) and Harvard (1942). He experienced the Great Depression as a child. During World War II, Downs served in the United States Navy rising to the rank of lieutenant (learning Japanese to assist in the interception of military intelligence). Following the war he worked for a couple of years in the Office of Naval History with the historian Samuel Elliot Morrison. Then, taking advantage of the GI Bill, he went to Europe for graduate study in anthropology: first in Geneva (1947), next in Paris (1949) where he studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss, and finally Leiden, from whose university he earned a PhD (1956). Immediately on earning his doctorate, Downs returned to the USA and the University of Illinois (1956–1962). There he worked with Julian Steward who was conducting a large-scale comparative analysis of modernization in 11 developing societies. In the fall of 1962, he began his duties in the Sociology-Anthropology Department.

Downs was intellectually serious. He was a social anthropologist who specialized in Malaysia and Indonesia in the Pacific. He published on head hunting, religion, and village change in Malaysia. During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was part of a group of UNH scholars (including Walter Buckley and Tom Burns) that sought to develop systems theory beyond the confines that had been set for it by Talcott Parsons. He was a marvelous editor, co-editing four volumes on land tenure, African famines, warfare, capitalism and states. He was associate editor of the journal Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power.

Downs was an educational leader at UNH. He chaired the Sociology-Anthropology Department between 1973 and 1979, facilitating its rise to national prominence. He created anthropology as a subject area at the university, and when it first became an independent department he became its chair (1988–1990). He also worked in the faculty senate, representing faculty interests with vigor. Downs’s best leadership skill was (agree with him or disagree with him) his capacity for trust and trustworthiness.

During his later years at the university, Downs completed numerous development missions, under contract to the United States Agency for International Development in Senegal, Mauritania, Rwanda, Swaziland, and the Republic of the Congo. Dick was good at development. He cut through the bureaucratic babble of “experts” out to make “rational maximizers” out of the “target population.” Downs made friends with ordinary people on the ground, listened to them and fought for practical things that actually helped them.

In 1949 Downs married Julie van Oldenborgh from Holland. They were together for 70 years building a close-knit Dutch-Anglo-American family that now spans four generations and five countries. Julie and Dick passed within 48 hours of each other. (Steve Reyna)

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