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Prof. William Wiest [psychology 1961–95]

December 19, 2019, in Portland.

Bill Wiest was an influential professor and notable authority in the fields of social psychology, behavior, learning, and human sexuality. During his long and illustrious career he studied the behavior of fish and the psychological dimensions of vasectomy; worked with the World Health Organization on family planning programs; and once designed an interactive pigeon exhibit at OMSI where museum-goers pushed buttons to change patterns on a screen, to which the pigeons would respond by executing a little dance. He also inspired generations of Reed students and participated in one of the sharpest intellectual debates of the 20th century.

Bill’s parents came to the United States as Germans from Russia where, for generations, their families had tilled the soils of the Volga and Black Sea regions, eventually settling in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley. His father had a dairy and later grew peaches. During the years these operations overlapped, the family liked to call it the “Peaches and Cream” farm.

He began his academic career in a two-room country schoolhouse, near the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, often riding his horse, Parade, to school. Later he went to Immanuel Academy, a Mennonite-supported high school, where he was senior class president, editor of the annual, captain of the football team, and senior class valedictorian.

While driving the school bus as a 17-year-old senior, he caught the attention of 14-year-old Thelma, who was especially taken by his lustrous, wavy black hair. They had their first date on December 19, 1950, and it seemed clear to them from the beginning that they were intended to spend their lives together.

The first person in his family to continue his education beyond high school, Bill attended Tabor College, in Hillsboro, Kansas. During the summer, he drove a truck to earn tuition, transporting fruit from the farm to Los Angeles. The summer after he graduated from Tabor, he married Thelma. Having excelled at Tabor, he was rewarded with a scholarship to the University of Kansas, where he earned his master’s degree in psychology. He then earned a PhD at UC Berkeley and came to Reed in 1961. 

Bill soon made a mark as an inspiring teacher. “My teaching philosophy, right from the start, was that I was not the font of wisdom,” he once said. “I didn’t expect students to simply sit there and soak up what I poured out to them.  Rather, I see teaching and learning as a sort of joint enterprise where the students and I were working on this together.” 

He also weighed in on one of the most significant intellectual debates of the century, the theory of behaviorism as propounded by BF Skinner, who argued that complex behaviors such as language were learned by experience (or to use Skinner’s terms, shaped by reinforcement). In 1959, linguist Noam Chomsky issued a blistering critique of this idea, arguing that Skinner’s claims were either trivial or nonsensical and that human languages shared a deep structure that could not be the result of behavioral reinforcement. 

Bill was one of the first psychologists to come to Skinner’s defense. In 1967 he published an influential paper in Psychological Bulletin rebutting Chomsky’s analysis. Bill argued that Chomsky’s position was based on a fundamental misreading—or misunderstanding—of behaviorism. His paper was cited in hundreds of subsequent articles and became required reading for psychologists around the globe.

Bill loved music and loved to sing. He had a fine tenor voice which he lent to the Tabor College Choir, the Reed College Collegium Musicum choir, the choir of the First Unitarian Church in Portland, a quartet of friends, and the Joyful Noise.

In retirement, his interest in genealogy led to multiple trips to Russia, including ones he led for fellow Americans with “Germans from Russia” heritage. He greatly enjoyed “Putting the World to Rights,” attending monthly lunches with a small group of other Reed Professors Emeritus who call themselves The Geezers.

In 2015, after a Mediterranean cruise celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, Bill was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor situated at the base of his tongue. The cancer was treated with radiation, and never came back. Unfortunately, he suffered severe side effects from the radiation.

Despite his ailments, Bill was up and about, and clear in his mind until the very end of his life. He died peacefully, in his own home, surrounded by his family, on Dec 19th, 2019—sixty-nine years to the day after his first date with Thelma.

On January 4, 2020, a memorial service held in the Reed College chapel was attended by hundreds of mourners, including some of his siblings, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, from Arizona, California, Canada, Maine, and the Netherlands.

He is survived by Thelma and their children William Albert, Suzanne Kay, and Cynthia.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2020

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