Getting to know Sheldon Lachman


Getting to know about Shelly Lachman was difficult because he was a famously private man. Even after years of association, and many many lunches at local bistros, one's attempts to learn about his personal life were gracefully deflected. Here are a few 'highlights' of his more public life.

In our increasingly sub-specialized age, Shel was something of a renaissance man. While his formal training was in psychology of learning and its biological bases (mostly animal comparative work), he practiced clinical psychology in Detroit and also published his research on circumstances surrounding the 1967 "riot" (or "uprising" as some would have it).

Lachman had the initiative and personal courage to interview participants while the town was still burning. He even went to some who were in jail to find out their perceptions. We only learned about this a few months later when the FBI showed up in the department, attempting to seize the data he had collected. Fat chance they had of finding those data. Lachman was a notorious hoarder of stuff. One could quite literally barely set foot into his office as it was piled floor to eye-level with books, paper, and cartons of who knew what. I used to nag/goad him about his inability to discard anything but this was to no avail.

Shel's contributions expanded beyond even the ample domain of psychology. He self-published some rather old fashioned - even to my books of amusing anecdotes and jokes of the Henny Youngman sort under a pseudonym. These volumes would mysteriously appear in our mailboxes and when asked about them Shel would then feign ignorance of their existence.

Lachman had the distinction of being the longest-serving faculty member, perhaps ever. He was an instructor here shortly after the war while still a graduate student working towards the Ph.D. at the U of M. (Wayne was not yet a state university and did not award Ph.D.'s in psych until the mid-'50s). He became a full-time faculty member around 1949, so by the time he retired, he had logged over 45 years of service. One of Lachman's interests was the department's growth. He prepared a 30-page history of our department where I learned of these ancient happenings (I didn't arrive here till the fall of 1966).

As I said Lachman's area of identification in the department was with bio-psych (then called physiological psych) but he even by the time I arrived here with a still wet Ph. D. from NYU he was doing precious little research with animals. Philosophically though he remained a staunch behaviorist/materialist. If it wasn't objective and quantifiable it wasn't science as far as Shel was concerned. Imagine this: he would get upset by the use of the word mind even when used in casual conversation.

Shel was also an active participant in the monthly probability seminar (a long-running poker game), but as this was an interest I didn't share, I can't tell about it. Shel Lachman was certainly an unforgettable and enigmatic character.

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