Some Random Memories from My Years with Chick Perrow. On the occasion of a memorial service, spring, 2020.

I met Chick when he presented a seminar at the University of Michigan back in the mid-1960s. I kept in touch with him through occasional letters and meetings at regional, national, and international conferences over the next six decades. How does one encapsulate all those years with just a few observations? I’ve chosen to pick out a few things that came immediately to mind when I thought about what the world has lost.

Chick Perrow holding forth on a panel
Chick always had something to say & he said it well

To start, he’s indirectly responsible for the intellectual turn I took in graduate school. I credit Chick with triggering my obsession with explanations of organizational phenomena that emphasize their context, rather than their internal workings. He would be surprised at that, because he and I were constantly at loggerheads over my evolutionary approach, which he saw as neglecting issues of power and privilege in modern capitalist societies. (Chick was one of the outside reviewers for my tenure case. One of the committee members told me that Chick recommended tenure, but he also said that he thought that “Howard ought to loosen up a little bit.”)

The event in question was his presentation at a workshop in the School of Social Work at Michigan, which he was visiting from Pittsburgh, where he had moved after being at Michigan for about 5 years. Being a graduate student at the time, I was not privy to why he had left Michigan nor why he had moved to Pittsburgh. However, when he and my mentor and department chair, Albert J Reiss Jr., got into an argument at the seminar, I sensed some tension between them! Whatever Chick was talking about, Al claimed that the real answer lay in figuring out what environmental forces had produced the outcome, rather than the way Chick was approaching the problem. For some reason, that selection-based argument stuck in my mind from that point on. And I have Chick to thank for it.

One of the ways I kept in touch with him was through dinners at American sociological Association meetings. Although we couldn’t manage it every year, we met often enough that it became an eagerly anticipated ritual. One of those dinners involved Mayer Zald, one of Chick’s best friends in the profession, as I discovered. That dinner stands out because the two of them argued over who was older, and because Chick was born in 1925 and Mayer not until 1931, Chick won. But what was fascinating to me was that Chick went out of his way, on every occasion at which we met, to obfuscate how old he really was. In fact, the dinner with Zald is the only time I can recall him fessing up to the truth.

Because he was in great shape, smiled a lot, and hung out with a younger crowd, I don’t think anybody ever realized that he was 20 years older than people typically assumed. I remember Chick coming back from a year spent in Europe, in the early 1970s, with a leather man-purse slung over his shoulder. (I don’t think that phase lasted very long, however.)

Chick’s reluctance to reveal his past was unshakeable. For example, I didn’t learn about his war record until I read in his obituary that he had served in the paratroopers in World War II! I would love to have heard some war stories or learn about his days as a journalist, before he entered graduate school. But as far as Chick was concerned, his professional life began at Berkeley and I could never pry anything else out of him. (But maybe his PhD students learned more?)

My first memory of an extended conversation with Chick is from my second year at Cornell University, when he was invited along with a panel of luminaries (Peter Blau, James Thompson, Chris Argyris, William Foote Whyte, and others) to a conference at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations. It was great for me, because as the youngest member of my department, I was tasked with driving those guys around, giving me a chance to talk with them. Sparks flew at the conference, but they were nothing compared to what happened one evening at my house. My wife and I hosted a reception at our house (why they let a junior assistant professor host it, I have no idea).

After dinner, we were standing around talking in our dining room when I saw Chick reach into his pocket and pull out a huge Cuban cigar. Given the difference in our statuses, I briefly froze as I contemplated how to respond: as the parents of a young child, we didn’t allow smoking in our house. But how to tell Chick? After about 10 seconds, I realized I had to say something because his smoking was likely to trigger a similar response from the others in the crowd who smoked. So, I asked him to put it away or go outside to smoke. His response? “Dammit! I wish you had told me that before I unwrapped the whole cigar!”

I can still see his face as he said it. Curiously enough, it is one of my fondest memories of him! He brought that same ferocity and intensity of expression to the social and political issues that he addressed in his work. I saw “that face” many times in the ensuing years.

Which brings me to my last and most recent memory of him. He and I were members of a semi-secret society (that’s a joke – we tell members they are not allowed to list it on their CV’s) called “MOBS.” MOBS stands for macro-organizational behavior society, a self-perpetuating closed group comprising mostly sociologically trained business school professors, with a few assorted other disciplines. We meet once a year. About five years ago, Chick was our keynote speaker after dinner. His topic was the threat that reckless use of nuclear power around the world posed to humanity, with associated remarks about politicians’ indefensible refusal to deal with climate change. I felt I was watching a middle-aged social movement leader on the stump, recruiting followers to a global cause. He challenged us to get involved and do something about the issue. It was a stunning performance by someone in his late 80s. As I recall, we gave him a standing ovation.

I miss him.