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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

By Graham Orbell on January 17, 2019

John was my big brother. We grew up in the leafy suburb of Saint Heliers Bay in Auckland New Zealand. I am 2,1/2 years younger than John and sister Margaret was 2 years older than John. Our father was a radio design engineer and communications expert Our mother had been a school teacher before marrying and raising our family.

World War 2 was underway and one of my early memories was of running down to the end of our street with John to watch convoys of American troops driving past with long lines of Jeeps, trucks and Bren gun carriers. New Zealand soldiers had earlier been sent to the war in Europe and now with the war in the Pacific, American military were based in Auckland.

Back home we would make toy guns out of bits of wood and run around shooting one another, while playing at soldiers. In those days we ran around barefoot as did practically all New Zealand kids. This wasn’t a sign of poverty, it was just what we all did.
Not far away were a couple of sandy beaches where we would often go swimming after school in the summertime. We rode our bikes or ran everywhere with me usually following along behind John.

About a year before the end of the war in Europe, our father was sent on a secret 12 month mission to England.Years later John figured out that it was most likely to work on the design of 2 way portable radio communication sets which was Dad’s area of expertise.

When we were growing up we usually shared the same bedroom often chatting to one another or reading books before going to sleep. At 4am one morning when I was about 10 years old we woke to a tremendous explosion as our chimney was struck by lightning. I will always remember John saying “Get out of bed, Graham”. Seconds after I did, another half ton of bricks landed on my bed. The tiled roof was shattered and the chimney half destroyed.

Although New Zealand has always had a reputation for being clean and green, unfortunately in the 1940s the sewage system in our city discharged into the harbour, and around 1949, there was an outbreak of poliomyelitis especially affecting children. Schools were closed for 2 or 3 months with many children badly affected by the disease. A year later there was another outbreak and first John then a week later I contracted the disease. We were hospitalized along with many other young people. For me it was a lot less traumatic having John in hospital with me.

Fortunately after 3 months we were both OK and allowed to go home thanks to the treatment by the experienced doctors and nurses. At that time there was no vaccine.

The harbour was cleaned up and a new treatment plant was built elsewhere. We would go swimming whenever we could in the summertime; either at nearby beaches or swimming pools.

John along with a couple of his friends bought shares in a 14 foot racing yacht. But by that time he was a very good competitive swimmer and he soon realised that he had to choose between the yacht and swimming.
John chose swimming and often competed representing Eastern Suburbs Swimming Club in the Auckland Championships. He did very well especially in backstroke and also competed several times in a 3 mile cross harbour race from Rangitoto Island to Saint Heliers Bay.

John and I each attended Auckland Grammar School with John of course a couple of years ahead of me. John went on to Auckland University College obtaining BA then MA. He also had to undergo compulsory military training in the army. That was just 10 years after the end of World War 2. I missed out on that training as it was abolished shortly afterwards. John had a 350cc AJS motorbike that he would kindly loan to me when he wasn’t using it.

Around this time our father, a cigarette smoker was diagnosed with lung cancer. He deteriorated slowly over a couple of years, before he died in 1957. Neither John nor I ever smoked having witnessed that.

As I recall John completed his MA at Auckland University including a study of voting patterns around the many central government electorates in Auckland City. His tutor was Prof. Bob Chapman.

John also trained as a school teacher and taught at Tamaki College,and later at Otahuhu College. One of his pupils at Otahuhu College was future New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange.

Around 25 years later during my work in television I met Prime Minister David Lange. On hearing my name he instantly asked if I were related to John Orbell.

Around 1961 John obtained a scholarship to Chapel Hill University in North Carolina. He set sail in a passenger ship across the Pacific Ocean and through the Panama Canal to North Carolina.

I greatly missed him, but we kept in touch by writing occasional letters that took a couple of weeks to be delivered in the days before email. Our Mother wrote much more frequently keeping us all in touch. She even sailed on a ship to meet and stay for a while with John in Chapel Hill. She then continued to England on her own for a few weeks which was very brave of her having not been out of New Zealand before.

While at Chapel Hill,in August 1963, John went with some of his University friends to Washington DC to observe “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom “. He later regretted that they had decided to have hamburgers instead of going to yet another speech.

That of course was Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream “ speech at Lincoln Memorial.

As I recall John completed his PHD at Chapel Hill. John moved on to other universities in Ohio and Logan in Utah.

One of John’ many achievements in Utah was managing to drive his struggling 4 cylinder British MG sports car over over the mountainous Highway 12 from Capital Reef to Escalante. (He told me this after I made the same drive around Utah on our way to visit John and Sandi in Eugene on our last trip in 2015.)

John eventually moved to Eugene and the University of Oregon

He liked Oregon as he often told me. “It is quite similar to New Zealand in many ways “ he would say “with its mountains and forests and West Coast beaches and similar population”. Back when we were growing up in New Zealand, we always had pet dogs First Taffy then Monty a spaniel which John named after Field Marshall Montgomery whom we were led to believe, single handedly won World War 2. So of course for companionship while settling in to Eugene, John got an Alaskan Malamute that he named Moisha. One summer break, John with Moisha in their VW Kombi van drove north to Alaska. This must have been a little like author John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie”

John wasn’t lonely for too long as he met Sandi, the love of his life. As we all know they had children Matt and Paul, now with their respective partners Khrystal and Denise, and recently grandson Erikson .

Family has always been important to John and Sandi. Members of our New Zealand family and friends were always welcomed to stay with them in Eugene or Bend.

Leonie and I made our first visit in 1989, flying 12 hours from New Zealand to Vancouver Canada. John and Sandi drove up to meet us and back down the coast taking a few days. Back home in Mahalo Drive, John proudly showed me his new laptop with a 4 gig storage hard drive, and introduced me to the internet at the University.

Another time we flew into Portland and John drove up to collect us and then with Sandi we toured Oregon.

On another occasion we flew into San Francisco where John took us to Lefties Bar for a beer, then led the way striding ahead up zigzag Lombard Street. Again we flew into San Fran with friends this time, and drove up to Bend to stay with John and Sandi. They took us to Smith Canyon then the Painted Hills, then for hamburgers in the cowboy town of Mitchell.

On our last visit in October 2015,we came to Eugene by Amtrak from Chicago. Matt had returned from Wisconsin with Khrystal, along with Khrystal’s horse Tanner. One evening we dined at King Estate Vinyard Vineyard which was a special family occasion.

Over the years John and Sandi have also traveled several times back to New Zealand.
More recently in February 2017, John with Matt and Khrystal came to visit us in New Zealand.

We drove to visit the beaches and scenic spots around Auckland, John often saying how beautiful his old home town looked. He also caught up with some of his old friends. After a week as planned,Matt and Khrystal went off on their own too explore more of New Zealand. When the time came for John to fly home I drove him to the airport with time to spare. We found a bar and sat down to have a beer and a chat before I waved him through to International Departures.

We were always in regular email contact at least every week or more often; discussing this and that, family and friends,politics and Climate Change.

I still think of things I’d like to discuss with him and I will always miss my big brother John.

Graham Orbell
Retired television cameraman
New Zealand

By John Polito on January 24, 2019

John was a mentor, my dissertation chairman and a friend. From the moment I arrived in Eugene and entered the graduate program, he provided me direction and guidance. Undoubtedly, he was one of the most influential people in my academic, professional and personal life. I along with so many others will miss him dearly.

John Polito
Managing Partner
New Jersey

By Thad A Brown on Februrary 12, 2019

Prof Orbell was a new Assistant Professor at Oregon in my last year as an undergraduate in the Honors College. He directed me to the topics of electoral behavior and computational analysis, even providing my first deck (with JCL) to execute an OSIRIS I program on his Ohio migration data. Prof Orbell suggested that graduate school at Michigan’s political behavior program was the best place to go. He was kind and patient and listened to the utterances of young scholars. May he RIP.

Thad A Brown
Chairman and Founder, Center for Social Computation Inc.
Chairman, Institute for Physical Sciences
New York and Washington DC

By Steven Rothman on April 9, 2019

John was an amazing professor and friend throughout my PhD degree program and since then. I knew that I could always count on him for sound and clear advice no matter the topic.

John introduced me to the realities of rational choice theory and decision making during my very early years at U of O and got me interested in the importance of heuristics and biases. I have grown my intellect in such important ways due to John’s influence and his clear thinking and instruction. His intellect lives on through his numerous students and all the people he has affected in his life. I know I won’t ever do justice or compare to him, but I hope that my own work and teaching will be added to his accomplishments, since much of my thoughts derive from him.

Steven Rothman, PhD
Associate Dean
Beppu, Japan


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