"Ed" Powell, UB Emeritus Sociology Professor, Dies at 75

Release Date: April 25, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Elwin H. "Ed" Powell, emeritus professor in the Department of Sociology in the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences and a legendary figure on campus for his fierce defense of academic freedom, human rights, drug legalization and self- expression, died suddenly Friday, April 20, 2001. He was 75.

Powell was a member of the UB faculty for 38 years who often could be seen riding his bicycle down Main Street to campus, even in the dead of a Buffalo winter. Throughout his career, he earned a reputation for the attention he gave to the effects of the U.S. government's social and political policy on American participatory democracy.

Powell was a popular professor and a mentor. He explained his thrall with the educational process in a 1996 article in the Spectrum, UB's student newspaper: "When I was in high school, I had a transforming experience with a teacher who turned me on to a world of ideas. We began with the eight parts of speech and moved to his explaining the atomic theory of the universe.

"This was an epiphany," he said, "a spiritual experience where my world kind of fell into place. It was a discovery of the joy of knowing -- I was quite literally intoxicated."

Michael Farrell, professor and chair in the UB Department of Sociology, said, "Powell's work on anomie and suicide has been cited by scholars around the world.

"He loved the University at Buffalo, and he loved teaching," Farrell added. "He was a mentor to some of the best graduate students to go through the department, and year after year he drew a devoted following of undergraduate students. In part, they were drawn by his integrity -- not only did he teach them sociology, he acted on what he believed. The students may not have always agreed with him, but they knew he respected what they had to say, and they felt empowered to think for themselves in his presence."

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.

In his classes he encouraged students to find their own place in the world through the "Sociology of Autobiography." In an email to a student this past December, Powell wrote, "Speak your truth. Say it out loud . We have to keep talking."

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, as 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.

Powell grew up in Plainview, Texas. As an Eagle Scout, Powell learned the values of community and citizenship. He later 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.

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.

In the !960s, 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.

In 1976, the 200th anniversary of the American Revolution, Powell led a public demand for a local "People's Bicentennial" protesting a "war machine" that annually was "eating up more than $100 billion dollars" of the federal budget and that denied social and economic equity through such tools as poverty, sexism, racism and ageism.

A flyer distributed at the time by the "People's Bicentennial" organizing group demanded the abolition "of all government secrecy" and an alteration in governmental priorities, "focusing the energies now devoted to the military-police state to build a humane society."

Like other important protesters of the era, Powell was being "officially" watched. In 1976, he sued the Buffalo police department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for repeatedly denying 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 "utopian idealist," but had no subversive activity to report.

In 1982, Powell was arrested along with dozens of UB students, for refusing to end a controversial sit-in in the former Norton Hall -- now Squire Hall -- on the South (Main Street) Campus. Powell led a much-publicized "citizen's assembly" to protest the UB administration's closing of Norton, which had been the university's student union for 20 years.

He spent 12 days in the Wende Correctional Facility for this action. He counted these 12 days as a pivotal point and transformative experience in his ideology. He often advised that everyone spend a couple weeks in jail.

The sit-in, which originally involved 60 students, eventually involved more than 400 protesters. Norton 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. Over the past two decades, he did extensive research on the subject of drug prohibition.

At the time of his death Powell was working on his life story, entitled "Autobiography of a Charismatic Follower." His wife, Karen Powell, explained, "Although he was seen by others as a leader, Ed's wish and aim was always to support. His real life's work was to facilitate the liberation of the voice in each of us -- regardless of where it lead."

In addition to his wife, Powell is survived by two sons, James E. (Debbie) of Maui, Hawaii, and Stephen R. (Susie) of Buffalo; stepdaughters Rachael of Middlesex and Rebekah and Eve Williams, both of Buffalo; three grandchildren, and a step-grandchild. Memorial contributions may be made to the Western New York Peace Center.

A memorial service for Powell will take place at 11 a.m. May 12 in the Unitarian Universalist Church, 695 Elmwood Ave., the focal point of many of the anti-war activities of the 1960s and '70s. A reception will follow in the Powell home. Further details, including eulogies and "Powell Tales" by students, colleagues, friends and family, can be found at www.edpowell.org.

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.