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Deil S. Wright

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2009

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Deil Spencer Wright, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, passed away on June 30 2009, at the age of 79. Born on June 18, 1930, in Three Rivers, Michigan, to working-class parents, Deil received his BA, MPA, and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He spent time on the faculties of Wayne State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of California at Berkeley before landing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the bulk of his career.

In Memoriam
Copyright © The American Political Science Association 2009

Deil Spencer Wright, Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, passed away on June 30 2009, at the age of 79. Born on June 18, 1930, in Three Rivers, Michigan, to working-class parents, Deil received his BA, MPA, and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He spent time on the faculties of Wayne State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of California at Berkeley before landing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the bulk of his career.

Deil was a great scholar, but so much more. He was also an athlete, a mentor, a family man, a gentle soul, and great friend to a legion of students and colleagues. Two of his ever-present companions, Angus and Sandy, also make their appearances here.

Deil was truly a consummate scholar. His first published article (coauthored with Morris Janowitz) appeared in a 1956 volume of Public Administration Review while Deil was still a graduate student. Fifty-four years and over 100 publications later one of his final articles (there are more in the pipeline) will appear in a 2010 volume of the Public Administration Review. That single statement gives you one flavor of the man who may have officially “retired” a number of years back but continued to teach courses for a number of years, and was active in research, publication, and conference participation up until his death. His final conference was in May of 2009, the State Politics and Policy Conference in his hometown of Chapel Hill, but he was already scheduled for the APSA in the fall and planning on others.

Deil was one of the most vigorous and energetic persons you could encounter. Friends and coauthors often had difficulty keeping up with him at conferences. Armed with a pocketful of notes to remind him of his schedule, Deil would begin each day of a professional meeting with an early breakfast, often including a meeting, and would proceed from there to attend panel sessions, special presentations and award ceremonies, more meetings, and receptions through the early evening. Deil would use conferences to collaborate with his coauthors, which were many, often meeting very late in the day, 11:00 p.m. or later. Late at the end of a very long day, Deil's energy was still higher than his (usually younger) coauthors and his phenomenal memory filled in names, dates, publications, findings, and the host of other details required to turn a decent conference paper into a clearly publishable one. In his later days Deil made a modest concession to age: still putting in a full day of panel sessions and related activities but moving his evening meetings all the way up to 8:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. While meetings may have moved up, his coauthors still frequently received 10:00 p.m. phone calls to discuss whatever project was on the current agenda. He definitely lived up to his name, where in Celtic Deil is translated as “devil” and Wright as “worker.”

Angus and Sandy rented a boat and were out fishing in a lake. Every time they threw out their lines, they caught a fish. On and on they fished until dark was almost upon them. As they were rowing back to the dock Angus said to Sandy, “Did you mark that spot like I asked you to so we can find it again tomorrow?” “I did.” Sandy replied, “I put an X right here on the side of the boat.” “Oh, Sandy,” Angus responded, “you didn't. We might not get this same boat tomorrow!”

As a young scholar Deil became fascinated with the world of state administrators and how they fit into the nexus of intergovernmental relations. This led him to begin the American State Administrator's Project in the 1960s, a series of surveys conducted twice a decade from 1964 through 2008 detailing the experiences and environments of state administrators. These recurring studies provided many of Deil's publications—including Understanding Intergovernmental Relations, considered by many to be a definitive work in this field—as well as the publications of his colleagues and graduate students. The ASAP data were a critical element in moving the study of public administration in general and state administration in particular from isolated case studies into systematic analysis. The forthcoming 2010 Public Administration Review article is focused on this massive and unique contribution of Deil's to the field of public administration.

Deil's research garnered him substantial recognition in the fields of political science and public administration. The American Political Science Association's Public Administration Section awarded him—three times—the Herbert Kaufman Award for the best paper on public administration presented at the APSA conference. The Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations Section of APSA recognized Deil for both the best conference paper and the best book published during the year. And the State Politics and Policy Section of APSA recognized Deil with a Career Achievement Award for research on state politics. One of his most recent awards he received was the Rita Mae Kelly award. He was particularly proud of this award for it represented his mentorship and generosity as he mentored and coauthored with women students and colleagues on bureaucratic representation.

Meanwhile across the disciplinary street at the American Society for Public Administration, Deil was recognized with the Donald C. Stone award for distinguished academic contributions to the field of intergovernmental relations, the William E and Frederick A Mosher Award for the best yearly article by an academician published in the Public Administration Review, and the Dwight Waldo Award for outstanding contributions over a lifetime to the professional literature on public administration.

Sandy boarded a cross-town bus with his bag of golf clubs and a very large suitcase. When the driver told him that the bus fare was 75 cents the Scotsman expressed indignation and began arguing with the driver, refusing to pay what he perceived to be such an outrageous price. The argument continued for several minutes as the bus proceeded along its route. Finally the driver reached the end of his patience and stopped the bus on a bridge. The driver pushed the Scotsman off the bus and then threw his golf clubs and suitcase after him with such force that they sailed over the bridge railing into the river below. Sandy was incensed and castigated the driver for his rudeness and carelessness: “not only did ye discard a fine set of golf clubs but ye added insult to injury by drowning m' caddy!”

Deil's renown was not limited to this country. One account has him lecturing, teaching, or consulting in some 30 different cities in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Deil had a special fondness for the Far East, developing a strong and continuous relationship with the people of Japan and Korea. He was a frequent lecturer at Asian institutions and a supporter of many students from that region in their pursuit of degrees at American institutions.

For all his productivity, Deil eschewed computers, preferring pencil, paper, and longhand. His son David listed Wite-Out as Deil's highest technological aspiration. Deil appreciated technology but it was Pat, his wife of 56 years, who faithfully transcribed Deil's penmanship into typewritten pages and, later, both computer files and e-mails.

Angus was walking unsteadily over an uneven part of the golf course. It being a cool day he regularly availed himself of the flask of whiskey in his hip pocket. As luck would have it he eventually stumbled on the rough terrain and fell down an embankment. Regaining his footing he started walking toward his ball when he suddenly felt some warm liquid trickling down his leg. “Oh Lord,” he exclaimed, “I ‘ope that's blood!”

Deil was always involved in public service both inside and outside of academia. He served at various times as a consultant to the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, testified before U.S. House of Representatives committees on the topics of federalism and general revenue sharing, served on an advisory task force for president-elect Richard Nixon, as well as advisory groups for the North Carolina governor, and more. But I suspect Deil was probably prouder of his service to his church. He was licensed as a lay preacher since 1948 and was an avid participant in the church choir. His coauthors quickly learned there was no point in trying to reach him on a Wednesday evening for he was always at choir practice. Deil always blended his multiple experiences so, during an evening in IGR class at his home, he preached from a pulpit on the 10 commandments of federalism.

To many of us Deil was a mentor supreme. We don't know why we were blessed to have Deil take an interest in us. We were a mixed bag of individuals, some making good progress toward our graduate degrees and others stumbling over qualifying exams and unsure we could complete our degree programs. Strong and weak alike, Deil took us under his wing, not only to complete our graduate studies but to help in landing our first job or getting our first publication. But it never stopped there. Deil maintained contact throughout our lives asking not only about us, but about our families. Whenever he was in town he would get together with former students going out to dinner, or to a baseball game, or playing a round of golf. With Deil it was marvelously easy to go from student to colleague to coauthor. And as we established our own careers Deil extended his interest to include our students as well as his own, continually asking about them and their progress.

Deil's students ran the gamut from undergraduates to MPA to doctoral students. He was the soul of the MPA program at North Carolina. He served as MPA director for that program from 1973–1979, developed the MPA alumni association, and initiated the annual alumni conference. He mentored hundreds of MPA alumni throughout their careers. They, in turn, honored him in 2002 by endowing the Deil S. Wright Speaker Series at the University of North Carolina School of Government. Adding to that his students affectionately presented him with an additional honor—a Deil Wright bobblehead—that he treasured as much as his other honors.

Angus was about to putt his ball on the green. This part of the course was near a highway and as he readied his putt he noticed a hearse and funeral procession moving along the highway. Angus paused, took off his hat, and bowed his head in silence as the entourage passed. Sandy, his golf partner, commented that the gesture was very thoughtful, to which Angus replied, “Well, it seemed the least I could do. After all, I was married to her for twenty-five years.”

When not teaching, mentoring, or writing, Deil was still an inspiration to many and a joy to observe. Upon meeting Deil the label “athlete” would not be the first image jumping into your mind, but athlete he was. Softball was one of the sports he kept playing past the time when many would retire to the bleachers. A church friend describes many a twenty-something batter deciding to drive the ball toward this elderly looking third baseman. Deil would dive to snag the grounder then make a dead-on accurate throw to first base for the out. Not all of the young people learning lessons from Deil were enrolled in his classes.

His other athletic love was golf and he played on courses around the world. These passions, along with his Celtic heritage, became intimately familiar to his students through his constant reliance on sports metaphors and passing on the never-dull experiences of Angus McTavish and Sandy McDonald. Any friend or student of Deil's knows of Angus and Sandy, and their appearance here will bring back fond memories for many. Deil was elected president of the Southern Political Science Association for the 1981–82 academic year. It was common for presidents to give an address at the annual conference, and for the Journal of Politics to print that address. But not always and Deil opted for one of those exceptions. His address—entitled “Five-Iron Federalism: Mixing Academics and Athletics or, Scotsmen, Golf, and SPSA”—was replete with Angus and Sandy stories. Though not necessarily publishable, it was one of the most enjoyable presidential addresses and, typical of Deil, it carried a gentle lesson: “As a professional association we may be assuming irresponsible risks if we remain hard-bound and hide-bound to the past.”

Sandy had applied for a position as doorman at the Royal and Ancient Club of St. Andrew. He was describing to Angus the sequence of the interview, the most critical part centering around the wearing of kilts. “Angus,” Sandy said, “the hiring man wanted to see m' knees 'cause they'd show below the kilts. Will, I show'd him m' knees and he said fine, but when the wind blows the kilts up, the thighs would show and he'd need to see them also. So I pulled m' trousers down and show'd him m' thighs. And then he asked t' see m' testimonials. And do y' know, Angus, if I'd been an educated man, I'd a got that job.”

Deil was multilingually cheerful. He would always be smiling as he greeted you at a conference, and you could hear his smile when he greeted you over the phone. While many of us have experienced the English version of Deil's greetings, one colleague, Jay Eungha Ryu, described the same experience whenever Deil would greet him in Korean.

For all of his vast accomplishments it is Deil the unique and generous person that will likely last as his most valued and enduring contribution. A person leaves a scholarly impact that, for most of us, will not long survive our death or even our retirement. We also leave a personal impact on the lives of those we interact with. The importance of that impact is measured by the empty hole in our lives when a friend has gone. For Deil that is a large hole. Of all the many things people comment on or remember about Deil they all seem to end up at the same place: “I will miss him.” To have our students, colleagues, family, and friends say that about us is truly the highest calling we could strive for. Deil is survived by: his wife of 56 years, Patricia Mae Jaffke Wright; his children David C. Wright, Mark W. Wright, Matthew Deil Wright, and Lois L. Wright; his granddaughter, Lindsey M. Wright; sister, Phyllis Wright Swanwick; and more friends in and out of academia than can be counted.

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