In Memoriam: Eldersveld, legendary prof. and Ann Arbor mayor, dies at the age of 92

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BY JOSEPH LICHTERMAN
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 9, 2010

Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year Samuel Eldersveld was born. He was born in 1917.

Samuel Eldersveld, legendary professor emeritus of political science and a former mayor of Ann Arbor, died at his home on Friday at the age of 92.

Eldersveld taught at his alma mater for more than five decades and as mayor of Ann Arbor worked to provide equal rights for all the city's citizens. Throughout his academic career, Eldersveld also traveled to many countries throughout the world to further his studies and research in political parties, and wrote 22 books and countless articles. As Political Science Prof. Hanes Walton, Jr. put it, Eldersveld was an “absolute giant in the field (of political science).”

Eldersveld was born in 1917 in Kalamazoo, Mich. and grew up in Muskegon, Mich., where his father was a minister. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Calvin College in 1938 and received both his master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1939 and 1946, respectively.

After earning his master’s degree, Eldersveld joined the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant, serving as a communications officer in the Philippines during World War II. After the war, he returned to the University where he finished his doctorate and later joined the faculty.

Eldersveld was elected mayor of Ann Arbor in 1957, running as a Democratic candidate, which was quite a feat at the time, when Ann Arbor was known for its conservative politics. Eldersveld became the city’s first Democratic mayor since 1929 — defeating an incumbent who had held the position for the 12 years prior to his election.

Lucy Murphy, Eldersveld’s daughter, said her father ran for mayor of Ann Arbor — much to her mother’s chagrin — because nobody else in the Democratic Party expressed interest in the position. Murphy said her father convinced her mother to let him run because he said he had no chance of winning.

“He and a small group of people, who were trying to revitalize the Democratic Party in Ann Arbor, were trying to get someone to run for mayor,” Murphy said. “Nobody wanted to run for mayor because they all knew they would lose. He was twisting arms and finally someone said, ‘Well, what about you? You keep asking people to run for mayor. Why don’t you run?’”

Though he was busy at City Hall, Eldersveld continued to teach at the University while he was mayor.

According to University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald, Eldersveld would ride his bicycle to City Hall at 7 a.m. every morning. Then he would return to campus to teach his political science classes at 10 a.m. After class let out, he would ride back to City Hall to complete his work and attend various meetings during the evening.

Murphy — a professor of history at Ohio State University — said Eldersveld repeatedly demonstrated that kind of dedication.

“Even though the mayor’s job was considered a part-time job, he did everything,” she said. “That was typical of Dad. He would do so much. He didn't feel like he was limited. So, when I was a kid, we would always be late to everything because he’d be doing 14 things during the day.”

Eldersveld was considered a pioneer in ending racial discrimination in the city, and according to Murphy, was the first Ann Arbor mayoral candidate to campaign in the city’s African American neighborhoods and churches.

She added that in the 1960s, when many congregants left St. Andrew's Episcopal Church — where Eldersveld was an active member for six decades — because the ministers voiced support for the civil rights movement, Eldersveld stayed at the church.

Eldersveld continued his dedication to social justice as mayor, creating Ann Arbor’s Human Relations Commission, which aimed to eliminate racial discrimination in housing, banking, education and business in the city.

Eldersveld decided not to run for reelection in 1959. In 1964 he became the chair of the University’s political science department — a position he held until 1970. As chair, Eldersveld turned the department into one of the top political science programs in the country.

Eldersveld continued to teach classes as a professor emeritus at the University until 2000 . In October 2001, the University’s Board of Regents established the Samuel J. Eldersveld Collegiate Professorship in Political Science. A collegiate professorship is one of the greatest honors the University bestows upon a faculty member.

Walton co-authored multiple publications with Eldersveld and taught a course on American political parties with him.

“He did these enormous breakthrough works on political parties, and to get a chance to work with him was just unbelievable,” Walton said. “One of the great benefits of coming to the University of Michigan and joining the faculty was to get an opportunity to work with him. He was the preeminent scholar. You can’t say it any other way.”

Eldersveld’s research was focused on comparing and analyzing political parties and political elites. He loved to travel and did so frequently, as he traversed the globe in order to conduct research as he studied the political systems of India, the Netherlands, Sweden, Great Britain, Poland and China.

In the classroom, Walton said Eldersveld was a “dynamic” teacher who was loved by his students and respected by his peers. In 1999, his former students published a book in his honor, "Comparative Parties and Party Elites: Essays In Honor of Samuel J. Eldersveld." He was also presented with a career achievement award from the American Political Science Association in 1986.

Walton helped Eldersveld write the second edition of his book "Political Parties in American Society." Walton said that while working on the book, the pair would meet for either lunch or dinner every Wednesday at the Red Hawk Bar & Grill. Walton said those weekly meals allowed him to get to know Eldersveld on a personal level.

“He was an absolute decent human being,” Walton said. “Lots of people have great skills and immense talent, and Sam was certainly one of those individuals. But, in addition to that, he was an individual fundamentally committed to social justice.”

Murphy said her father was a fun-loving person who cherished his family, enjoyed sports and appreciated all things Ann Arbor.

“He loved Michigan football,” Murphy said.

Eldersveld is survived by his wife Els Nieuwenhuijsen, his children Samuel Eldersveld and Lucy Murphy, his grandchildren Bethany Gomez and Colin Murphy, and his great grandson Finnegan Murphy.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor.