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Remembering John Orbell

With great sadness, the Department of Political Science reports that John Orbell, professor emeritus, recently passed away.

A tribute to John will be held on Friday, January 11th   at 4 p.m. in the Knight Library Browsing Room.

John Orbell joined our department in 1967, after receiving his Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed by two years at Ohio State University. He was a remarkably accomplished scholar and researcher, having published over fifty articles or book chapters, including such intriguing titles as “Sherlock Holmes as a Social Scientist,” “The Governance of Rivers, and  “An Evolutionary Account of Suicide Attacks: The Kamikaze Case.” He was also the principal investigator or Co-PI of 14 grants from the National Science Foundation.

John was also a splendid administrator. He served as the Political Science Department Head from 1976-1979, Director of the Institute for Social Science Research from 1979-1983, CAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies from 1983-1985, and Director of the Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences from 1998-2001. John retired in 2003, but continued to teach for several years afterward.



If you would like to add your own remembrance, comment, or story, click HERE to complete the tribute form.

By Priscilla Southwell on December 6, 2018

John was a wise, witty, and wonderful person, but, most of all, he was a mentor to his colleagues and graduate students.
We already miss him so much.

Professor Priscilla Southwell
UO Department of Political Science

By Misha Myagkov on December 8, 2018

It was a great luck of my life to meet John on so many different levels. He was an amazing individual: funny, curious, kind, loving and so many more. In his academic vision he was ahead of his times by decades. Hard to express how much we miss John…

Professor Misha Myagkov
UO Department of Political Science

Orbell and Crosson enjoying lunch, August 2018, Eugene, OR

By Scott Crosson on December 10, 2018

I am very sad to hear of John’s death. He was a great PhD adviser, something I knew at the time and understood even more as the years passed. I am very glad I had the opportunity to have lunch with him in August as I was passing through Eugene.

Farewell John, you are missed.

Scott Crosson, PhD
Economits, NOAA Fisheries, Florida

By Linda Shafer on December 10, 2018

John was a gracious advisor with a gentle sense of humor who sought to ensure our incoming class’s transition to the demanding world of grad school would be as enjoyable as possible. As a professor, I endeavored to show my students the same sort of kindness.

Linda Shafer, PhD
Retired, Battle Ground, WA

By Bruce Blonigen on December 10, 2018

Some of the most interesting elevator conversations I had over the years have been with John as we traveled to our respective departments in PLC. He was such an intelligent person who led by example as a top scholar AND someone who so clearly cared about colleagues and students. He is truly missed.

Professor Bruce Blonigen
Interim Dean, UO College of Arts and Sciences

By Matthew Mulford on December 12, 2018

I had the absolute pleasure and privilege of having John as my PhD supervisor. He was a true friend and mentor. Throughout my studies and when I had the honour of working with him on joint projects, John’s generosity of time and spirit were an inspiration. He was a formidable intellectual and profoundly decent human being. The world is a little darker without him.

Matthew Mulford, PhD
Visiting Senior Fellow
London School of Economics, United Kingdom

By Marion (Mimi) Goldman on December 12, 2018

John was an inspiring colleague and good friend. His intellectual curiosity and rigorous standards represented the best academic traditions. He was always available to talk about theory and research and to offer intellectual and personal support. He carried his energy and kindness into his personal life with his wonderful family: Sandra, Matthew, and Paul. And his professional and personal contributions live on!

Professor Marion (Mini) Goldman
UO Departments of Sociology and Religious Studies

By Stephen Fickas on December 12, 2018

John was one of the first faculty I met when I arrived at the UO. After chatting a bit, he invited me to sit in on a project he thought I would like, one that he and Holly Arrow had just started called Social Poker. John warned me I might be in for trouble. He noted that a congressman had recently complained from the floor about the project: “Why is NSF paying these academics to study how to win at poker!”. I thanked John for the warning but eventually joined the project anyway. But never did learn to win at poker.

When I would run into John in later years at the coffee shop, he would always have a book recommendation. I now have a book pile at my house that we affectionately call the Orbell stack. John, I promise I will get through it. You were a great colleague and I will miss you.

Professor Stephen Fickas
UO Department of Computer and Information Science

By John Dryzek on December 12, 2018

John was a creative scholar, generous colleague, and good friend. I remember my first phone call from him in 1986 telling me why I should come to the UofO, my farewell party at his house, and so much in between. I have so many good memories of conversations with him about the vast range of topics to which he could bring insights, ranging from Shakespeare to framing in political rhetoric to the connection between discussion-induced cooperation and deliberation to why there should be a moratorium on social scientists giving policy advice.

Professor John Dryzek
Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance
University of Canberra

By Jeffrey D. Berejikian on December 12, 2018

John was an incredibly supportive mentor – smart, funny, and incisive. Best advice ever: “Oh, just get over yourself and do it.”
— Thank you, John.

Dr. Jeffrey D. Berejikian
Faculty, University of Georgia

By Roshani Shay Curtis on December 14, 2018

John will be missed by the many people whose minds and hearts he touched.

Professor Roshani Shay Curtis
Retired, Portland

By Randy Simmons on December 15, 2018

John Orbell was my advisor, dissertation chair, coauthor, and friend. He had a deep intellectual curiosity, which led him to read widely and cross disciplines—just check the range of subjects and approaches represented by his coauthors and the journals where he published. He wrote the following about one of his long-time colleagues but it also describes John perfectly, “He was a model of academic integrity, perspective, judgement, and enthusiasm for ideas.”

Professor Randy Simmons
Professor of Political Economy
Utah State University

By Alvin Mushkatel on January 9, 2019

I first met John in 1965 when the registration process at Ohio State University assigned me a new major and a brand new advisor from UNC who had just joined the Political Science Department. To my great fortune, it was an event that changed my life and career in so many ways that I can not recount them all. Not only was John the youngest faculty member in the P.S. Department, but he was the most patient and caring that I would encounter. John shared with me and his other students the type of face-to-face contact with faculty that you did not find at very large universities at that time. In addition, when I ran out of funds to continue my education at the end of my junior year, John provided me with employment on one of his research projects, and when those fund were exhausted, John arranged for me to be hired in the same capacity on another professor’s grant. This type of involvement and assistance by a Professor for an undergraduate was not only rare it was nonexistent but typical for him.

When I became dissatisfied with the university I had chosen for graduate studies, it was John who I called and who said he had discovered heaven and encouraged me to come to Oregon as quickly as I could. Once again, John provided some funding through a Ford Foundation grant that supported some my and other students’ graduate studies.

During the period I worked with him, John was like an intellectual whirlwind you encountered as he engaged you in ideas,thought, and research. In a very real sense John was the first trans-disciplinary scholar I met as his research path followed ideas and thought with little deference to disciplinary boundaries.

John’s intellectual energy and patience benefited me and many students and faculty. When I saw him years after leaving Oregon, he told me of how much he had changed and how happy and perfect his life had become. He certainly deserved that happiness.

Professor Alvin Mushkatel
Professor Emeritus and Research Scientist
Arizona State University

By Cheyney Ryan on January 10, 2019

I am deeply saddened by John’s passing. He was a tremendous colleague and a great support to younger scholars like me in getting our footing at Oregon. A great scholar who also cared passionately about the well being of the world in all its dimensions. A great loss.

Professor Cheyney Ryan
Director of Human Rights
Oxford University

By Oleg Smirnov on January 11, 2019

I am John’s student and current collaborator. He is the co-author of a number of papers that are still under revisions.

Intellectually, John has been the most influential person in my life. His energy, curiosity, passion were contagious. John was and will be a role model for me and, I am sure, many other people. John’s influence will live on and be felt for generations to come.

I miss you, dear friend.

Associate Professor Oleg Smirnov
Political Science
Stony Brook University

By Steven Maser on January 11, 2018

I met John soon after I arrived in Oregon as an assistant professor at Willamette University’s School of Management. We discovered each other at a State meeting of political scientists, both interested in applications of rational choice theory to politics when that was relatively rare. John, who became something of an advisor to me, was one of the young pioneers in that field, especially using game theory. He was a trenchant observer of human behavior. During my four decade career in academia, John was one of the few true intellectuals whom I had the pleasure of meeting, those who lived the “life of the mind,” although he had an acute interest in using ideas not just to understand but to improve the world. I could start a conversation on virtually any topic with John and within minutes find myself immersed in a discussion of ideas, causality, and idiosyncratic observations. John’s intellectual passion and search for answers to important questions inspired me and generations of students, undergrad and graduate. His wide ranging interests included improving the ways he communicated with his students, as evidenced by a short article we co-authored about classroom exercises to convey rational choice concepts.

Although I had not communicated with John for a few years, aside from a yearly holiday card, in the early days our young families took occasional short holidays together. John and I also traveled to professional conferences together. I learned on these trips, for example, that John had wonderful stories to tell but that he could not remember jokes, which he considered a sign of intelligence. By the time I met him, he was with the love of his life, Sandy, and became devoted to their two boys.

John was a role model on many levels. When asked, he offered sage counsel; he was never intrusive. He was proud of the success of his students, including those drawn to his work as undergraduates. Clearly able to recognize talent and potential, he collaborated with many of them and sought to advance their careers, another sign not only of a great scholar but of a caring one.

I join those who are saddened by his passing. I am glad to have such good memories of our association.

Steven Maser
Portland, OR

By Tim Johnson on January 13, 2018

John Orbell ranks among the most wonderful people to have walked our planet and anybody who knew him understands that fact quite well. John was kind, fun, and brilliant.

John was my mentor as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, as well as a research collaborator, co-author, role model, and friend. He is responsible for every good thing that has happened in my career: his unwavering support and invaluable guidance showed me how to chart a path forward in my academic pursuits and, more generally, in my life.

In that light, one memory immediately comes to mind. During my final term at the University of Oregon, John and I had completed an experimental study with one of our colleagues; after we studied the experiment’s data, John invited me to his office to work on the paper. In these situations, the standard arrangement involves co-authors passing a manuscript back-and-forth until it is ready to send out for review. However, on that day some fifteen years ago, John and I sat at his desk and worked together to write the abstract and introduction of the paper word-by-word. It must have taken hours longer than if John had chosen to write it himself and then pass me a draft for editing; nonetheless, John took the time to work with me, an undergraduate who knew little of the craft. I now realize how generous this gesture was, yet John never once hinted at the altruism in which he was engaged. Rather, he treated me as an equal and taught me a lot along the way. It was a vivid example of John’s kindness and his selfless commitment to his students.

In addition to his generosity and kindness, John was a genius. He wrote lucidly and efficiently: John once emailed me in the morning to inform me that he had hunkered down in a coffee shop and was going to start writing an article on which we were working; shortly after lunchtime, John sent me a publication-ready draft of all sections of the paper, save for the methods and results sections, which I was responsible for and which I would spend at least a week toiling over, wondering how John could write with such precision and speed. John also appeared to have limitless memory for the endless stacks of books that he read; this talent made him a particularly integrative thinker, being able to cross academic disciplines with ease and see the linkages between lines of inquiry previously unconnected. Furthermore, John’s brilliance was accentuated by his graciousness, sense of humor, and friendliness. Because of these attributes, John made people feel at ease in his presence and, in so doing, he created an environment that brought out the best in his students, collaborators, and friends. Fittingly, John studied the drivers of cooperation and sociality during a significant portion of his career—it was a terrain he knew well, for he was the most cooperative and socially adroit guy that I have ever met.

John, your thoughtfulness and brilliance were unparalleled. Your memory and your work will live forever.

Sandi, Matt and Khrystal, Paul and Denise, and young Erikson–I wish each of you solace and strength in the face of your loss. John always radiated the goodness around him, thus his undeviating pleasantness indicated that the constellation of people closest to him were exceptionally bright and warm. You all are therefore amazing.

Professor Tim Johnson
Public Management & Policy Analysis
Willamette University


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