VOLUME 32, NUMBER 29 THURSDAY, April 26, 2001

send this article to a friend

Activist Elwin Powell, emeritus professor of sociology

Elwin H. "Ed" Powell, emeritus professor in the Department of Sociology and a legendary figure on campus for his fierce defense of academic freedom and human rights, died Friday after collapsing of a heart attack in his Buffalo home. He was 75.

Powell was a member of the UB faculty for 38 years and throughout his career, earned a reputation for his attention to the effect of government social and political policy on American participatory democracy.

Powell grew up in Plainview, Texas, and attended Texas Technological College before serving in the U.S. Navy from 1944-46. He taught high school biology in Houston after graduating from the University of Texas and in 1956 received his doctorate in sociology from Tulane University in 1956.

He joined the UB faculty in 1958 after a short term at the University of Tulsa and a year of post-doctoral work at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He retired in 1996, but continued his relationship with the university by teaching part-time at UB until his death.

Powell frequently was asked to address off-campus civic, political, academic and religious organizations on some of the most controversial issues of the day. He encouraged the public, as he did his students, to attend to complex social and political issues and to speak directly to local, state and federal governments, legislators and the UB administration through letters, public protest and civil disobedience, if necessary.

In fact, usually dressed in jeans and a dashika, the six-foot-three-inch Powell was present at nearly all UB student protests from the 1960s through the 1990s because, one of his colleagues said, he loved the idea of students fighting for a cause. He also was a well-known supporter of the Vietnam peace movement who led an all-night UB teach-in on the Vietnam War as early as 1964 and continued to protest the war until it ended.

He was a member of the Buffalo Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy and other organizations calling for the enforcement of civil and human rights laws here and abroad.

Like other protesters of the era, Powell was being "officially" watched. In 1976, he sued the Buffalo police department after repeatedly being denied access to files he claimed had been kept on him after he opened his home on Jewett Parkway to war protesters in 1971. In 1996, the Spectrum, calling Powell an "antidote to the mainstream," reprinted some of the citations from the 65-page file the FBI kept on him for several years that described him as "a utopian idealist" but had little else of substance to report.

In 1982, Powell was arrested along with dozens of UB students, over a refusal to end a controversial sit-in in Squire Hall-formerly Norton Hall-on the South Campus. Powell had led a much-publicized "citizen's assembly" to protest the UB administration's closing of Squire, the university's student union for 20 years.

He spent 12 days in the Wende Correctional Facility for his trouble. The sit-in, which originally involved 60 students, eventually involved more than 400 protesters. Squire Hall was closed as scheduled and a second, fully functioning student union was erected on the North Campus in 1992.

His affection for public protest was still intact in 1996, when he participated in a Student Association-sponsored "classroom walkout" that turned into UB's largest student protest on campus in 10 years.

Powell was the author of "Design of Discord: Studies of Anomie" (Oxford University Press, 1970, second edition by Transaction Books, 1988) and "A Presentation of Stanley Taylor's 'Conceptions of Institutions and the Theory of Knowledge'" (Transaction Books, 1989).

For several years he edited Catalyst: A Journal of Participatory Sociology and published many articles in scholarly journals, book chapters and presentations on occupation, anomie and suicide; civil rights; civil disobedience, and the conditions and crises of urban life.

A memorial service for Powell will take place next month in the Unitarian Universalist Church, 695 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, the focal point of many of the anti-war activities of the 1960s and 70s. The exact date and time will be announced. A reception will follow. Further details, including eulogies and "Powell Tales" by students, colleagues, friends and family, can be found at http://www.edpowell.org.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Western New York Peace Center.

Playwright Lionel Abel, emeritus professor of English

Funeral services were held in New York City Sunday for Lionel Abel, emeritus professor in the Department of English and nationally regarded playwright, drama critic and translator.

Abel died April 19 in New York. He was 90.

A noteworthy, if cantankerous, scholar and author, Abel frequently is cited in the literary company of Delmore Schwartz, Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Lionel Trilling, James Agee, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt and Elizabeth Hardwick.

He joined the UB faculty in 1967 and retired in 1979. He earlier was a visiting professor of drama at Columbia University, Rutgers University and UB, and a visiting professor of aesthetics at the Pratt Institute.

Among Abel’s best-known works of scholarship are “Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form” (Hill & Wang, 1963), a collection of his essays and addresses, and his compilation, “Moderns on Tragedy: An Anthology of Modern and Relevant Opinions on the Substance and Meaning of Tragedy” (Fawcett, 1967).

Leslie Fiedler, emeritus professor of English, knew Abel before and after his tenure at UB.

“As a scholar, Lionel preferred recent drama, that is, 20th century drama. He was a playwright, but was more successful as a theater critic,” Fiedler says. “He was a man of many fascinating ideas, but was not very diplomatic in his way of selling them. His way of dealing with people was to put them down. He was very sure of himself. He sometimes boasted with great assurance about things he had never read,” he says. “Nothing got in his way. Lionel was a difficult customer.

“He was interested in literature in French, but also American and English work. For a long time, he was a completely independent intellectual who stayed out of universities because he distrusted them. He refused jobs at other universities, perhaps on the grounds that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him,” Fiedler says.

“He did not become widely known, but was very influential among those who did know him,” he adds. “He’s a man I would like to have in the department with me. I worked very hard to get him here and was glad I did. Of course, the first thing he did when he got here was insult me.”

Miles Slatin, emeritus professor of English, agrees that Abel “had a reputation as a very tough customer. He liked to fight. He believed in the value of intellectual argument.

“In the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, when a faculty member wrote a paper, we would have a meeting at which he or she would read the paper,” Slatin recalls. “At one meeting, Angus Fletcher, a very distinguished Renaissance scholar who’s now at Columbia, read his new work. As he read, Lionel sat back beaming and beaming, and listening and listening.

“When Angus sat down, Lionel stood up and tore the paper apart. As he did, Angus sat there beaming and beaming and then got up and tore Lionel’s arguments apart. As Angus spoke, Lionel sat there beaming and beaming…they went on and on, for the sheer pleasure of arguing. I always thought of it as an example of what the intellectual enterprise should be.”

Abel’s plays included “The Death of Odysseus,” first produced in New York’s Amato Theatre in 1953; “Absalom, “first produced in New York at Artist’s Theatre in 1956; “The Pretender, “ first produced in New York at Cherry Lane Theatre in 1960, and “The Wives,“ first produced in New York in 1965. His plays were anthologized by James Laughlin for New Directions in 1956 and by Herbert Machiz for Grove in 1960.

“In his last years here, it was for me to deal with him,” Fiedler says. “Lionel had been a Marxist, but moved to the political far right and said a lot of things that made no sense at all. I must say, though, that talking to Lionel when he was being irrational was better than talking to most people who weren’t.

“I guess I would conclude by saying that it’s easy to say bad things about him, but much more interesting are the good things that are hard to say.”

Front Page | Top Stories | Photos | Briefly | Q&A | Electronic Highways
Kudos | Obituaries | The Mail | Sports | Exhibits, Notices, Jobs
Events | Current Issue | Comments?
Archives | Search | UB Home | UB News Services | UB Today