Tenth Emeritus Lecture Honoring William A. Shack

Biography of William A. Shack

Excerpt from Elizabeth Colson's Obituary for William A. Shack:

William A. Shack, distinguished Africanist and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, died March 31, 2000 after a courageous battle with cancer. In his last months, with the assistance of his wife Dorothy Nash Shack, he devoted himself to revising his book on African-American musicians in Paris 1918-1939. This is now in press. In his last work, therefore, Shack, as he was known to friends and students, returned to his early interest in the urban migration of African-Americans, but now he followed them not to Chicago but to Paris and into the past. Between the 1955-57 research in Chicago and the 1990s research in archives in Paris, London and the United States, Shack had a career which included field research in Ethiopia and Swaziland, teaching in a number of African universities as well as at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle and the University of California, Berkeley, and service on many professional boards and as Dean of the Graduate School at Berkeley.

How well he did this last is attested to by the many campus and national committees on graduate affairs on which he was called to serve as well as by the respect he won from the Berkeley faculty. By the time he retired there was no one on campus with a greater number of friends among faculty and administrators. He was known as fair-minded, imaginative, critical and helpful - all of this in a typically low-keyed manner that kept him very much his own person.

Few who knew him probably understood the breadth of his experience or all that lay behind his appraisal of situations and people. Shack was born in Chicago, April 19, 1923. He served in the US Coast Guard during World War II and then entered the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he took a B.A. in 1955. He might well have become a painter of note, but instead his desire to understand the social pressures of the time and a summer spent in Social Relations at Harvard Univesity brought him into anthropology. He did an M.A. in social anthropology at the University of Chicago before going to Ethiopia for field work among the Gurage, a people notable for their reliance on the ensete plant as staple food. At that time Chicago had close links with British social anthropology and Shack chose to do his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. Throughout his professional career, he maintained the high standards of scholarship and attention to how social relations structure action that derived at least in part from his work under Lucy Mair and Isaac Schapera at the LSE. After taking his degree, Shack returned to Ethiopia, together with Dorothy, to teach at the University College of Addis Ababa, Haile Selassie University I, 1962-65. Before returning to the United States, he had created and chaired a department of sociology and also revisited the Gurage.

His interest in Ethiopia continued but the violent death of many of his associates at Haile Selassie during Ethiopia's years of trouble alienated him from the new regime and he felt unable to return there for further research. Eventually he found it hard to write ethnographically about a people whom he knew to be undergoing great suffering and abandoned his book on Gurage religion. His books include The Gurage (1966), The Central Ethiopians: Amhara,Tigrinya and Related Peoples (1974), the co-authored Gods and Heroes: Oral Traditions of the Gurages of Ethiopia (1974), The Kula (1986), and the co-edited volumes Strangers in African Societies (1979) and Politics in Leadership (1986), as well as the book now in press.

Shack's scholarship, administrative talents and assistance to students and young scholars won him recognition both in the United States and internationally. He served on the Executive Council of the International African Institute at a crucial time in the history of the Institute. The French Government honored him as Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite. He held the Berkeley Citation and the Distinguished Service Award of the University of Chicago Alumni Association. At the 1996 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, former students organized a panel "African Urban Anthropology and Beyond" that spoke to the continued influence of his thinking as well as their appreciation for his integrity and support. Throughout his career he had the companionship of his wife, Dorothy. She and their son Hailu were an important part of his life, sharing in his multifaceted interests which included painting and music, sports cars, university politics and cooking along with social anthropology.

Other obituaries:


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