I am privileged to have known Jim Short and to have worked with and learned from him. When we met in 2000, Jim (’51 PhD, University of Chicago) recently had become professor emeritus of sociology at Washington State University and was beginning to “unwind” after an illustrious career spanning half a century. I was a graduate student in my second year of the doctoral program and had just learned that my first mentor would be departing WSU for what were very understandable personal reasons. I am forever indebted to him for walking me three doors down the hall to introduce me to Jim.
I knew enough about Jim to be awestruck and unable to remember everything that was said on that fateful day, but it was my great fortune to be leaving his corner office with leads for a doctoral dissertation topic based on his and Fred Strodtbeck’s well-known study of Chicago street gangs, 1959–62. Several weeks later, Jim and I retrieved from the attic of Wilson Hall—renamed Wilson-Short Hall in Jim’s honor nearly 10 years later in 2009—roughly 25 large boxes full of archived study data, including 40 or so 3-ring binders containing over 15,000 pages of transcribed interviews with outreach workers and reports prepared by field observers. Known formally as the Youth Studies Project (YSP), Jim and Strodtbeck’s research was undertaken in cooperation with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago and is discussed at length in their highly influential book, Group Process and Gang Delinquency (1965, University of Chicago Press).
With the help of graduate student assistants and volunteers, I have spent the better part of the last two decades cataloging and digitizing the YSP data. The deeper I have dug into them, the more I have come to appreciate the sheer genius and magnitude of Jim’s study, its significance for understanding social dynamics contributing to violent and delinquent behaviors among gang youth, and its value in documenting the lives of young people growing up during a volatile period in the history of Chicago and American society. I also realize how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to be analyzing and writing about them with Jim more than 50 years later. The YSP was such an important part of Jim’s life, leading him back to his home away from Pullman and to fascinating observations in the social laboratory of a great American city. It also is a defining feature of his legacy as one of the most distinguished and influential sociologists/criminologists of the modern era, with hundreds of scholarly publications and presentations spanning topics such as criminological theory, survey research methodology, suicide and homicide, white-collar crime, sociology of risk, and, of course, gangs and collective violence.
Although Jim had educated and mentored thousands of students before me, it was my distinct honor to be his last one. When I defended my dissertation, he greeted me with a big smile and gave me a giant hug I will never forget, and his delight in placing the doctoral hood over my head during the commencement ceremony is one of countless examples of his selflessness and down-to-earth personality. Over the next 15 years, I went from being Jim’s postdoctoral student to frequent collaborator, professional assistant, and close personal friend. I never could keep up with his level of productivity, but I tried my best to absorb everything I could from him about research and writing, sociology, criminology, academia, and life. One of many invaluable lessons he taught me is to strive continuously to follow the scientific method, apart from personal sympathies and advocacy. Another is to remain curious about people and the social world, because there always is more to learn and appreciate.
Jim had a heart of gold and was one of those special people who complement an incredible history of professional accomplishments with genuine humility and graciousness. I wish I could have more time with him, but I am so grateful for what I had and will cherish forever my memories of the man who so greatly impacted my life. To know Jim was to love him. He was a WSU treasure, sociology star, and, to so many of us, wonderful mentor and friend.
Lorine Hughes is master of criminal justice program director and associate professor at the School of Public Affairs, University of Colorado Denver.
On the web
Chicago Magazine tribute to Jim Short including our “Gangs of Chicago” video from 2010