Theodore Caplow, who founded the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia, died July 4 in Charlottesville. Caplow, 95, came to the University about 45 years ago and retired in 2005.
Caplow’s well-known research focused on “Middletown,” which studied the middle-class, white family and social life of Muncie, Indiana as a mirror of typical American life in the latter half of the 20th century.
Caplow would have been delighted to know he shared his date of death with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, according to his Charlottesville Daily Progress obituary.
Department chair Jeffrey Olick called Caplow “the founding father of the sociology department.” Caplow chaired U.Va.’s department from 1970, when he arrived, until 1978, and again from 1984 to 1986.
Caplow hired Tom Guterbock, director of the U.Va. Center for Survey Research, as one of seven new assistant professors in 1976.
“Ted Caplow served as an adviser to the Center for Survey Research in our early days and was always supportive of our efforts to improve the University’s research infrastructure,” Guterbock wrote on the center’s Facebook page. “Ted taught the graduate course in Survey Research Methods here from the first days and ensured that the course was required of every graduate student in the program. He was a mentor and a role model to so many, both intellectually and in his extraordinary style of life.”
Randy Atkins, a former student who went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology at U.Va., wrote that Caplow made such a profound impression on him when he took Sociology 101 in 1973 that he decided to major in sociology.
Atkins, who now works as a social science researcher at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said he used Caplow’s sociology textbook from that first class even in graduate school.
“He was a great scholar and a true gentleman. It was an honor to be his student,” Atkins wrote. “Whenever I hear the word ‘sociology,’ I recall with fondness his Sociology 101 class and the great gift he gave me that first fall in Charlottesville.”
After graduating from the University of Chicago at the age of 19, Caplow earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1946 and served on the faculty there until 1954, before moving to Columbia University in 1961 and U.Va. in 1970.
A large portion of Caplow’s research focused on continuing the landmark study of a former professor of his, Robert Lynd, who with his wife, Helen, published two books on “Middletown” in 1929 and 1935, describing Muncie, Indiana’s middle-class, white family and social life as a mirror of typical American life. Fifty years later, Caplow led a team of sociologists back to Muncie in 1977 to compile a new Middletown study to examine changes in Muncie since the Lynds’ original studies.
He published “Middletown III” in 1982 and a later study in conjunction with Ben Wattenberg’s documentary, “The First Measured Century: A Look at American History by the Numbers,” shown on PBS in December 2000, with help from the Center for Middletown Studies.
Caplow, Wattenberg and Louis Hicks published a companion reference volume, “The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900-2000.”
The researchers chronicled some of the major changes in the American family as they were occurring, such as the record numbers of women leaving the home to work.
“The family has changed enormously and most of the changes have occurred not so much from 1924 to 1999 as from, let’s say, 1960 to 1999,” Caplow said on the TV show.
In addition, they discovered the contrary finding that mothers – and fathers – were spending more time with their children by the end of that 40-year stretch than they did in 1924.
Among Caplow’s other books are “Recent Social Trends in the United States, 1960-1990,” “American Social Trends,” “The Academic Marketplace,” “All Faithful People,” “Managing an Organization” and “Sociology of Work.”
After retiring in 2005, he circled the globe as a shipboard professor with Semester at Sea in 2007, revisiting Hiroshima 62 years after his post-World War II assignment there, according to the Daily Progress obituary. As a member of the U.S. Army, he had served in the Philippines, where he received a Purple Heart, and was deployed to Japan after the Allies’ atom bomb devastated Hiroshima – an experience he returned to in his later years, studying and writing about peace in a nuclear-armed world, including, “Armageddon Postponed: A Different View of Nuclear Weapons, 2010.”
Caplow is survived by his wife of 33 years, Margaret Pettit Caplow; a sister; seven children (one son predeceased him in 2002); 10 grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and extended family.