Tribute to Robert G. Crowder

Offered at his Festschrift in 2001

Robert G. Crowder.  I first encountered that name on the spine of a book twenty years ago this Fall.  In gold letters on a gray background, the name soon came to signify nothing short of awe.  Graduate courses didn't use textbooks, the instructor explained, but this book was different--it had imposed an organization on the field that was so cogent and the material so excellently filtered that it would be an essential guide through the course.  I think it fair to say that at least for the first few months of graduate school, every fact and opinion that I had about human memory was planted in my mind by the writings of Robert Crowder.  He opened for me a world that was unfamiliar but entrancing--and I was never to leave it.

Robert G. Crowder.  I next encountered that name on his name tag some three years later.  I was at a professional meeting in Washington D.C., had snuck off to the National Gallery, and lo and behold a few steps ahead of me, was Bob Crowder.  I followed him, weighing the possibility of inserting myself between the Matisse and him and blurting out how much Principles of Learning and Memory had mattered to me. But I was shy, the moment passed, and the encounter never happened.  Little did I know that two years later, we would not only meet, but that he would, this time in person, shape my thinking more directly and decisively than he had even through the rigor of his written words. 

Robert G. Crowder. Fifteen years ago this Fall, he shook my hand and welcomed me to Yale with a dazzling smile that I came to know and love dearly because it so represented his essence--his genuine interest in those around him, his tolerance for ideas that opposed his own (I certainly provided him with some), and his cheerfulness even in the face of the most trying of circumstances.  We came to know each other in a variety of contexts (serving on committees, sharing the duties of DUS in Psychology and so forth).  But the real action took place in one spot every week-- memory lunch in Taylor Library.  There, I had the thrill of observing his razor-sharp thinking and his ability to clear away vast quantities of intellectual clutter in a manner that I can only describe as magical.  At the end of memory lunch we'd go to the real world lunch in Silliman and it was there that we'd have occasion to speak frankly about our work, our families, and our worries.  Never patronizing, always direct, his infinite kindness and quiet confidence in me helped to build an identity that connected to my aspirations. 

"We are kindred spirits" , he once said in a gruff sort of way soon after I had presented in memory lunch.  I was so taken with the honor that I immediately wrote the first two paragraphs of a paper that we were to later call The Bankruptcy of Everyday Memory. That paper made many strangers into our friends--and, I should add, vice versa as well.  Bob and I were both prone to speaking our mind about a need for the ordinary, and hence respectful, treatment of psychological constructs, and we were also prone to stating our opinion, to put it politely, in plain language.  

Of the many admirable qualities he embodied, for me his intellectual honesty always stood out.  As evidence accumulated against his idea of a precategorical store, he actively sought data that would debunk his own theory.  I recall the glee with which he showed me new data and said: "Now this will absolutely crush the idea of a precategorical store!"  To my own students in this room I should admit: If perchance you see any sign of this quality in me, be aware that it is not original; it comes from Bob, and now, it can be yours as well.  For this is among the rare gifts of having been in the company of a great scholar B the values that make up the ether in which the work is done lives on through new generations of learning and remembering. 

Bob Crowder cared so much about punctuality that he would by now be conspicuously glancing at his watch to indicate that my time was up.  So I end by remembering the understated way in which Bob would speak about the big ideas that he thought to be very very important.  He would say: "Now that changed my mind".  And that was high praise from Bob.  So, to my friend, colleague, and yes, kindred spirit, I will simply say:  You changed my mind.