04/02/2006

Remembering the late Lester Ward, local resident
credited with founding discipline of sociology

By: NANCY COLEMAN

 

Mansfield professor makes documentary on Lester Frank Ward

Lightning flashes. A tree stands in a creek. A lovely flower grows.

And a boy lies on the grass gazing at the stars.

 

They're scenes from "Lester F. Ward: A Life's Journey," a documentary looking at a man who once lived in Myersburg, near Wysox. That man became a famous sociologist and scientist in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was called "the founder of American sociology," and "the American Aristotle."

But -- a tree and humble flower to tell the story of such a scholarly person?

Yes. Because the documentary isn't just about ideas and theories and books. It's about a man's life.

And another man wants you to know about that life.

Dr. Gale Largey, retired Mansfield University sociology professor, spent seven years making the documentary, with help from many friends. He released it last summer.

A cheerful, round-faced man who wears a comfortable denim shirt today and chuckles often, Gale enjoys telling stories about people and places.

The Bradford County connection, of course, made Ward a good subject. But Gale also did the piece to tell about someone he admires, someone who helped shape him into who he is today.

Much of Ward's thinking can be summarized by one of his quotes: "People are equal in all, except privilege. ..."

"I think he had a lot of integrity. He's a good, old-fashioned, do-the-job-and-help-society kind of guy!" Gale says.

"His impact, I think, is quite significant. ... I think he should be recognized."

Gale grew up in Elk County, Pa., and attended college at St. Vincent.

"I was very interested in social action, I think," he explains. Studying sociology lent itself to that. He also was interested in group behavior.

So he went on to earn his doctorate in 1971 at SUNY-Buffalo, then taught at Mansfield from 1970 to 2005.

One day, Gale came across a college notebook from his first college sociology course, in 1962. And there were the words, jotted right on the first page: "Lester Ward, father of American sociology."

They had studied Ward's thoughts on planned social progress. "That clicked with me," Gale remembers. He got involved with lots of movements, like the civil rights efforts of the 1960s.

"He certainly had an influence on me."

Over the years, Gale's done many projects. He wrote books on Tioga County history -- "They are ... coffee table-style books," he explains. Then, with Dr. Richard Feil, he and students did state surveys and reports, which led to then-Gov. Tom Ridge visiting class. The students even testified in Harrisburg.

Gale made "The Austin Disaster, 1911," a documentary on the Pennsylvania town's dam break that killed 78. He even got Willie Nelson to narrate, and Ridge and Gerald Ford to supply some of the other voices.

That led to "the only time my son thought I was somebody," Gale claims ... when he got free Willie Nelson tickets and permission to go backstage.

Penn State aired "Austin," Gale says, "and it hit the film festivals."

"That kind of invigorated me!"

He also made "People of Honor," a documentary on Tioga County residents' memories of World War II, which WVIA-TV aired.

So ... what would be next?

Why not Lester Ward?

Gale started collecting Ward materials, and started working with his team. And working, and working. ...

He gathered photos -- of Ward himself, other notables, less-famous people, buildings, tombstones. He collected images of book covers.

To design a picture of a stern-looking husband and meek wife, illustrating Ward's theories about gender inequality, Gale examined historical society material to find just the right faces. Then they combined them on the computer.

"That took an eternity!" Gale declares. Thanks goodness for Phil Ogden, the computer guy. "We worked a long, long time on that!" Gale says. He laughs.

He worked even longer on the crowd scene. This would be a set of images of some people appearing to change over time, showing more ethnic groups. "After about 30 hours of work, that was not used!" Gale says. Again, he laughs.

He also collected copies of famous people's signatures to go with photos -- Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglas and so on. Once he hired a researcher to go into archives in Chicago and track down a will. All for one name.

Music? That came from university people and the Sadie Green Sales band. A man named Greg Peck wrote some original music.

Student anecdotes? They came from Brown University. Mansfield students supplied the voices.

Permission to use John Dewey's signature? That came from Japan.

Book inscriptions? Would you believe ... e-Bay?

Mark Polonia served as editor. And Jack M. Wilcox, a former Mansfield music professor who once sang backup music for the Rockettes in New York City, provided Ward's voice. "People really believe it's Ward!" Gale says.

Gale traveled to Iowa and found Ward's hometown, and went to the Potomac River, where a park ranger helped him track down a tree named after Ward.

Paleontology taught Ward to look back in time at human history, and across cultures, just as he gazed back through the ages at rocks. "He reminds us we can't get caught up in the moment," Gale notes.

At the Smithsonian, an old paleontologist fellow showed him some of Ward's rock discoveries. But Ward's specimens dated back only 300 million years, the man claimed. He had his own samples. "I go back 400 million!"

Gale wrote to Jefferson County Community College, at Watertown, N.Y., to find Ward's grave. "Give community colleges an A-plus here!" he insists. It seems Ward had attended a Unitarian church. A Jefferson woman wrote back. "I'm a Unitarian. I'll find him!" she declared.

And she did.

 

--

 

And then, there were Jon Laidacker's drawings.

 

Drawings of Ward's parents. His father plowing. Young Lester gazing at the stars, and an older Lester teaching his students.

And of battle. And Ward playing violin while his wife played piano.

And Ward, hand on head and hair roughed up. His wife had died.

 

 

--

 

The documentary came out last year, in time for the American Sociological Association's centennial. Gale also made a "spinoff" piece, on ASA past presidents. At its conference, the organization showed both.

It took seven years. But it was exciting.

"As long as there's some element of fun in the whole thing, you can keep going along with it," Gale says.

No one's gotten rich off the Ward piece. But, "I get the satisfaction of feeling that we did a good job," Gale says. And "the feeling that I'm contributing to the understanding of the area."

"I like to think that ... people watching it will be proud that he lived in Bradford County ... this culture had something to do with shaping this person."

Ward was a man of determination, sincerity and strong character, Gale believes. He had a "willingness to stick his neck out on unpopular issues."

Equality? Ward wouldn't even let a porter carry his bags. "He was a man that really believed in it," Gale says.

 

--

 

The documentary shows excerpts from Ward's diary. The year is 1913:

 

In January: One day he had a nose bleed and swollen legs. He can't sleep. "Feeling below par, dull."

In February: He makes out his will. One day, he tries to walk up a hill. "It was a mistake."

March 3: "Red spots on my left leg."

March 26: He boards a ship to sail to Washington, after bidding his Brown students farewell.

March 29: "Sickest day of my life ... managed to work on my proofs."

April 1: It's a pleasant day out. But "have been very weak."

 

Then, we see an obituary. Lester Frank Ward has died.

 

--

 

"I kind of feel like I owe something to Lester!" Gale says. "In a sense ... he let me into his life."

 

 

 

INFO BOX

To get a copy of "Lester F. Ward: A Life's Journey," contact Dr. Gale Largey at (570) 724-3564 or visit his Web site: www.galelargey.com. The documentary is available on DVD.

Major sponsors of the project were: The National Science Foundation, The American Sociological Association, Mansfield University, Citizens and Northern Bank and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.

Dr. Largey is willing to speak on Lester Frank Ward for any interested groups.

 

 

Lester Frank Ward's life

 

Who was this man?

Lester Frank Ward grew up in Illinois and Iowa in the 1840s and 1850s, a child of Justus and Silence Ward.

His mother, Silence, was a devoutly religious woman, and Justus worked as a pioneering farmer and quarry owner.

Perhaps it was the combination of the two -- his mother's beliefs and the family's poverty -- that formed some of young Ward's own beliefs in equality and improving society.

Ward, too, learned to work hard but also had a curious mind. He dug for fossils in the quarry and dragged rocks to help his father build a mill. He hunted, fished and walked the local creeks. He read the McGuffey Reader. From his mother, he said, "I quickly learned that knowledge is power."

A neighbor sparked Ward's interest in languages by giving him a book on French. (Ward would later learn eight languages, including French, German, Russian and Japanese.) He and a brother read eagerly. Ward was especially disturbed at the racism he found in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

According to "Lester Frank Ward: Bradford County's Aristotle," written by Guy Abell and published in The Review on June 10, 2001: "The historian Leo Wilt said that the entire Ward family seemed to pick up and adopt all the liberal and reform ideals that were popular in Illinois in the 1830s." One of Ward's brothers became a Populist; another, a Free Methodist; and a third, a communist. Lester Ward himself later would propose some controversial ideas.

In the late 1850s another brother, Cyrenus, asked him to come to Myersburg, in Bradford County, Pa., to work in his hub (wagon wheel) shop. (Cyrenus was the brother who became a communist, befriending Karl Marx, a founder of socialism.)

Ward found the area "a hotbed for progressive thinking," having been home to such famed men as hymn writer P.P. Bliss, song writer Stephen Foster, labor leader William Wilson and politician David Wilmot.

In the meantime, Ward took an interest in science from books written by a cousin who served as president of what is now Bucknell University. He worked with Cyrenus and later studied at the Susquehanna Collegiate Institute, which shaped many of his ideas, farmed and taught school. He wrote a diary in French. Ward also met, romanced and married a teacher named Lizzie.

Wanting to abolish slavery and preserve democracy, Ward joined the 141st Regiment and fought in the Civil War. "What I was fighting for, I never doubted," he wrote.

After being wounded, he was captured, then rescued, then hospitalized. He returned to Bradford County, but later left to work with other wounded men at Fairfax Hospital in Washington D.C. Lizzie joined him.

Over the next few years, Ward began advancing in his work and intellectual influence. He worked for the government, and studied social justice. He earned an AB degree from the forerunner to George Washington University, was admitted to the bar and received an MA in 1873 and later an honorary doctorate.

In 1870, he became editor of "The Iconoclast," considered a radical newspaper.

In 1872, Lizzie died of appendicitis. "Losing her was devastating," Ward wrote. For comfort, he began walking the creeks again. Soon he met a widow named Rose, and happiness returned to his life. They married.

Working as a government scientist, Ward studied botany and even discovered a tree now called the "Wardian Willow" along the Potomac. He became the chief U.S. geologist and paleontologist and earned degrees in medicine and law. It was Ward who invented the word "ecology," which he called "the science of the relation of organisms to their environment."

In the meantime, he also became interested in sociology, realizing how scientific principles could apply to studying people.

In 1883, he published "Dynamic Sociology." Later came titles like "Pure Sociology" and "Applied Sociology."

Ward believed sociology was the ultimate science and included many of the other disciplines. He was in favor of democratic, egalitarian change -- based on the belief that everyone should have equal social, political and economic rights. He supported "telesis," or planned progress; the idea of improving life through science; government based on positive social action; and regulating brute power. He saw one global organization without barriers.

Ward also examined theories on the history of relationships between the sexes. He believed men had a long history of dominating women, and he supported women's equality. He also advocated equality of all classes and races, believing people could choose their destiny.

On the other hand, Ward opposed "social Darwinism," the belief that certain groups or people succeed because of a genetic superiority. And he was strongly against "eugenics." Eugenics is the attempt to improve mankind by mating people with certain traits to each other. Ward argued with its supporters in Europe.

"I think he anticipated the awful consequences of the area's eugenics movement," says retired Mansfield professor Dr. Gale Largey. Just decades later, Adolf Hitler would try to advance his idea of a "master race." Eugenics, Largey believes, set the stage for the Holocaust.

In 1905, Ward helped form and became first president of the American Sociological Society, later re-named the American Sociological Association. He spent his last years teaching sociology at Brown University, in Rhode Island.

Ward is credited with: laying the groundwork for many of the policies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, defending democracy from aristocracy, advocating equal opportunities via education, helping women's rights, applying sociology, opposing eugenics and showing the public role of sociology.

"Marching over its stumbling blocks, nothing will check the sure and steady advance of sociology," he declared.

Lester Frank Ward died in April 1913. He is buried in Watertown, N.Y.

 

(Sources: "Lester F. Ward: A Life's Journey, 1841-1913," "Lester Frank Ward: Bradford County's Aristotle," and Dr. Gale Largey)