Phil Converse Tribute
Phil Converse was the Center's fourth Director, serving in that position from 1989 to 1994.
His standing in the social and behavioral community was, of course, already well established long before he became Director. One colleague at the University of Michigan, Donald Kinder, describes Phil as" one of the most important social scientists if the 20th century". Another colleague, political scientist Nancy Burns, characterized his contributions to the study of voting behavior this way: "Phil's work really created the architecture of our understanding of public opinion… His work is thick with ideas, offering blueprints to be taken up or challenged by later scholars in every paragraph." The obituaries marking his passing that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere recount in impressive detail the importance of his scholarly work for advancing our understanding of voting behavior. Those familiar with Phil's scholarly work, or who have read about it in the many announcements of his passing, cannot fail to appreciate what an intellectual giant he was.
I had the privilege of working with Phil at the Center on a daily basis for five years, and in that time came to appreciate that he was as much of a giant human being as he was a giant scholar. In an environment as rich with accomplished talent as the Center, there is never any shortage of self-referential discourse. In that environment, if anyone deserved to put their accomplishments on display and promote them it was Phil. In my view, what made him stand out were the lengths to which he went to keep his own achievements hidden. I often remarked to former Fellows and others who asked about Phil's performance as Center Director, that if Phil had ego needs, I certainly couldn't detect them. It was as if he quietly parked them by the gate at the foot of the hill leading up to the Center and arrived each day completely open to the world of scholarship and eager to embrace it. On the rare occasions when he spoke about himself, he did so in a manner that was never self-promoting but more often self-effacing. He absolutely loved lunch conversations with Fellows, eagerly questioning them about their work but never in a way that was critical or intended to score debaters points. He relished attending Fellows' seminars, no matter the subject, and it was his practice to visit presenters the day after they spoke and engage them in spirited and lively discussion, never to be critical but rather to add their ideas to his every-growing storehouse of knowledge. He did this in a manner that kept it largely concealed from public view, and he was occasionally criticized for being disengaged, a charge that could not have been further from the truth. Phil absolutely loved the Center and considered it to be the very model of what a scholarly community ought to be.
Phil loved data, and the larger the data set the happier he was. His ability to massage large bodies of numbers and extract from them nuggets of insight was breathtaking. I learned this first hand through two experiences. One was the pleasure he took in analyzing the vast quantities of data we gathered each year in connection with evaluating nominees for Center fellowships. He took the system we had in place, massaged and refined it and taught members of the selection committee how to "read" the results in ways that told us exactly what we needed to know in evaluating scholars while being eminently fair to them. (I once said to him that my vision of him as he approached St. Peter's Gate in Heaven was to quietly inquire on what bases decisions were being made to admit or exclude people, with the certainty that Phil would find a way to tweak their selection system in ways that were bound to make it better). The other data set related to an experience I prefer to mention here only in passing. Phil was one of the main inspirations behind what some referred to as "the National Baseball Seminar", a kind of early version of today's fantasy baseball league. Phil lured me into joining it and in the four years I participated I lost every time. What I eventually discovered is that he had compiled an immense data set of performances of active major league players and selections made by other participants in the seminar and based his selections on these results. The predictable outcome is that he almost always won.
Phil's range of intellectual interests was astonishing. He was, of course fully versed in the literatures of his fields, but his horizons were much wider than this. He regularly read technical entries in Science and Nature. He consumed books and articles about geology, human biology, physics, great works of literature, the arts, treatises on politics, history, biography, population studies, philosophy, historical patterns of migration, bird watching… the list goes on. The breadth of his knowledge was astonishing, yet one was only ever able to glimpse it by close questioning, as if he was somehow anxious not to appear to be bragging or in any way showing off.
There was one area of his life about which this was not true. It was his partnership with Jean. In my conversations with him he never hesitated to talk about how proud he was of their union, how deeply he loved Jean and their two sons and how important they were to him. He reveled in his relationship with them, rejoiced in their accomplishments, seized every opportunity to spend time with them and proclaimed without hesitation how much they added to his life.
In the end, it is fair to say of Phil that he truly was "A Man for All Seasons" not just a model academic leader but a model human being whose life was well lived. My wife Julia and I regard our time with Phil and Jean as among the most rewarding and satisfying of our time together at the Center, a relationship we cherish while mourning the passing of a dear friend and colleague. The Center was indeed fortunate to have benefited from Phil's leadership as Center Director, Board Member, and Fellow.