Remembering Fredda Blanchard-Fields

Fredda Blanchard-Fields

Fredda Blanchard-Fields

Fredda Blanchard-Fields, APS Fellow and Charter Member and Chair of the School of Psychology at Georgia Tech, died August 3, 2010. She was 61.

As director of the Adult Development Laboratory at Georgia Tech, Blanchard-Fields researched everyday social-cognitive processes, from adolescence to older adulthood. Recognizing that a great deal of psychological research has focused on ways in which cognitive abilities in adulthood decline with older age, Blanchard-Fields and her colleagues focused on investigating domains in which adults continue to grow and develop throughout the lifespan. Her research broadened the understanding of behaviors that are uniquely adaptive for adults over the lifespan and contribute to their competence in the social realm.

Blanchard-Fields grew up in California, where she attended San Diego State University and received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. Following doctoral work at Wayne State University, she joined the faculty at Louisiana State University, where she taught for 10 years before joining the Georgia Tech in 1993. The Georgia Tech College of Sciences and the School of Psychology plan to honor Blanchard-Fields’ memory with a symposium on cognitive aging in the spring of 2011.

In memory of Blanchard-Fields, her family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Skin Cancer Foundation. For more information, visit http://support.skincancer.org/goto/fredda.blanchard-fields.

Denise Park

University of Texas at Dallas

Fredda Blanchard-Fields tangoed her way through life possessed of a wisdom, elegance, and joie de vivre that was unmatched. Fredda’s charisma and innate charm were as remarkable as her scientific and professional achievements. She made numerous seminal contributions to the study of emotional development across the lifespan. In addition, at the time of her death, she was both Editor of Psychology and Aging and Director of the School of Psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She was the author of a major textbook on lifespan development (with John Cavanaugh) and recently finished a term as chair of an NIH study section. She was a devoted mother, beloved mother-in-law, and an adoring and glamorous grandmother. Fredda made friends everywhere — with cabdrivers, shoe salesmen and street vendors — and there was no maître d’ on Earth, however haughty, that could not be charmed into seating Fredda and her party of friends. Early in a friendship spanning 30 years, we bought matching Mexican wedding dresses at a street market and wore them to dinner. Fredda danced the night away with a rose in her teeth. Fredda brought joy into my life and into the lives of many others. Every day for her and with her was a day for celebration. She had a fabulous undertone of drama in her voice and a characteristic chuckle that I can hear even now.

Laura Carstensen

Stanford University

It was 1986 when I first heard of Fredda Blanchard-Fields. I was an assistant professor at Indiana University; Fredda was on the faculty at Louisiana State University. She had published an article that appeared in the first volume of Psychology and Aging, now the flagship journal of our field. By the time I finished the article, I knew I wanted to meet her. The reason that this memory is so vivid is that it was rare to read an article that concluded anything at all positive about aging. Looking back, this article was among the first, if not the first, to suggest that emotional reasoning, especially about hotly charged social dilemmas, improves with age. Decades later, it is clear that Fredda was correct. She had extraordinary intuitions about emotion, and they informed the hypotheses that she put to rigorous test after experimental test. Some of what she knew she learned in the laboratory. Much of what she believed she learned from life. She loved deeply. She was passionate about science (and about the tango). She was unfailingly fair and honest. She knew what to take seriously and she knew when to laugh – and Fredda laughed a lot!

Cynthia Adams

Lane Community College

I could speak about Fredda’s generous heart, passionate soul, and her unconquerable spirit — because all these things are true, but too abstract. For me, she will always be the thousands of moments spent together laughing, musing, eating (sushi at her favorite Japanese restaurant in Atlanta; salmon in Oregon), enjoying red wine (Malbec especially), shopping (at our favorite boutique in Eugene, complete with champagne), being silly (watching and chatting about certain never-to-be-named TV shows), supporting each other emotionally, challenging each other intellectually, and just talking. We did a lot of talking. There were relationships to analyze, career moves to encourage, research ideas to ponder, her family to celebrate, and endless decisions to discuss (“Countertops — granite or marble?”). These are the things I will miss and the memories I will cherish. Above all, Fredda’s enormous capacity for unconditional love and trust in friendship will remain with me always.

John C. Cavanaugh

Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education

No one I have ever met in psychology could command a small group discussion, a standing room only crowd in a ballroom, or the maître d’ at a trendy restaurant with equal dexterity and aplomb like Fredda. She pushed limits — whether they were the traditional paradigms of cognitive aging research or her students and colleagues — to get results. She lived her life believing that if you weren’t living to the fullest, living large, then you weren’t living. The two of us shared a lot, from the day I met her 30 years ago when she was a graduate student and we discussed socioemotional contexts of learning, to sharing our passion for chocolate in Marshall Fields, Bloomingdale’s, and Dilettante, to collaborating on three editions of a textbook. She was a wonderful friend and colleague. There’s no way to really capture all that Fredda meant to me, to others, and to the field. Her death is a tragic and untimely loss for us all and for future generations.

Yiwei Chen

Bowling Green State University

Fredda was my graduate mentor and later my colleague and friend. I was perhaps her first doctoral student who found an academic position and continued to do research in the field of psychology of aging. Her passion about the positive aspects of aging was contagious and she always sent “positive energy” to me. From editing grammar errors in my first manuscript to advising my research projects in her last months of life, her patient guidance and kind encouragement shone at the every step of my adaptation to a new life in the United States. I am grateful that I had the opportunity of inviting Fredda to my hometown in China. We laughed together when we climbed the great Yellow Mountain of China. It is truly hard to imagine going to conferences without hearing her energetic laugh again! I have and will continue to miss her dearly.

Tom Hess

North Carolina State

I first Fredda met in 1985 at a Gerontological Society meeting in New Orleans (how appropriate!). It was hard not to be drawn to this engaging, vibrant woman who was so full of life. Over drinks, we shared our experiences of being young faculty members at technologically oriented universities, thus beginning a long-standing friendship and a tradition of Bombay Sapphire martinis at conferences. We also shared an enthusiasm for a contextual perspective in the study of adult cognitive functioning, co-editing two books that championed such a cause in a field largely dominated by more traditional cognitive-experimental approaches. Fredda’s influential work on attribution processes and everyday problem solving nicely illustrated the adaptive nature of cognitive functioning in middle and later adulthood, thereby reinforcing the importance of such a perspective. Her work examining the intersection of emotion and cognition in later life is also noteworthy, and perhaps in some way reflects the passion that characterized her own approach to life and relationships. Although incredibly saddened by her untimely passing, my life was enriched through knowing Fredda, and I am already smiling as I recall down-time on my sabbatical at Georgia Tech, lounging in her living room on lawn chairs, and enjoying the unique charms of “Green Acres” on TV.

Christopher Hertzog

Georgia Institute of Technology

It is difficult to synthesize my many memories of Fredda. What rises above all else is that she lived fully, laughed joyously and heartily, and experienced life deeply in her heart. Fredda believed that modern psychology over-valued the analytical mode of being over the experiential mode. She believed strongly in the value of grounded emotion as a healthy and well-adjusted part of existing in the world, and her style of living reflected that belief. Her ability to be present with people — to listen, to relate, to empathize — was extended to friends, to previously unknown students at conferences, and to just about everyone else. This was one of her greatest gifts — her ability to connect with people at a deep level. She accepted as a first principle that caring for and connecting with people was the best way to live, to love, and to work. The esteem that so many people had for her attests to her ability to be fully present with them in the emotional moment. She will be deeply missed by all whoever experienced that connection with her.

Margie Lachman

Brandeis Univeresity

I met Fredda Blanchard-Fields in 1981 at the International Congress of Gerontology in Hamburg. Her mentor (G. Labouvie-Vief), a student of my mentor (P. Baltes), introduced us. We felt an immediate connection and remained close colleagues and friends over the years. Fredda shaped the field of aging in many ways, and we will continue to benefit from her legacy. Where others saw decline she found growth and wisdom. Her insights and outstanding contributions as teacher, mentor, colleague, researcher, author, study section chair, journal editor, and department chair are among her many gifts to us. She advanced our discipline by integrating the study of aging with social psychology and neuroscience. I will always treasure the many wonderful times we shared, professionally and personally. During a memorable dinner in Berlin, Fredda revealed her color choice for the cover of Psychology and Aging — Tango Red. When the meal was over, she picked up her dancing shoes and was off to tango into the night.

Ulman Lindenberger

Center for Lifespan Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Human Development

Fredda’s intuitive grasp of people and social contexts transformed formal encounters into meetings of friends. Her warmth and wit opened people up, and her Mediterranean temperament made people feel cheerful and belonging who only minutes ago felt stressed and separate. Many of the most joyful social gatherings at conferences and similar occasions I associate with Fredda. She was a frequent and sought-after academic consultant at the Center for Lifespan Psychology in Berlin. I am particularly grateful for her substantive contributions and advice on the Institute’s former research project on wisdom. I will miss Fredda’s vivacious and welcoming presence and try to learn from it.

Anderson D. Smith

Georgia Institute of Technology

For Fredda, the glass was always half full. She was the most positive person I have ever known. I would seek her out when I felt down about something because conversations with her always made me feel better. Even with the multiple roles she played as a teacher, mentor, scientist, Chair, journal editor, and grandmother, she would always find time for a conversation. I will miss her greatly. I will miss her as a colleague, as a friend, and sometimes even as a therapist. ♦

Observer Vol.23, No.8 October, 2010

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In 1984 I was an undergraduate student in Pre-Med Psychology working as a research assistant to Dr Blanchard-Fields at LSU. I took her passion and intellectual grasp of the positive psychological aspects of aging and its influence on me for granted, but was extremely grateful for her generous, understanding nature, especially regarding the emotional maelstrom that was the final stage of my coming out process. She was actually the only faculty that I trusted enough to divulge frankly in my dilemma. She actually went further than any person in a mentor’s role had at that point in supporting my path.

Within a two years an early HIV diagnosis transformed thoughts of a long term career in medicine or psychology into the realm of futile musings. My belief in the beauty of aging a la Fredda went from being a tool in an intellectual and professional armamentarium to a bittersweet nostalgia of a future old age that I would never experience.

It steadfastly informed me however, in all of my life experiences with older adults. Over the years when I would explain her theory of the way that changes in emotional motivation may be read as mental decline I would get a spark of understanding from my listener and a faint gauzy memory of her sharp features, melodic voice and infectious laugh.

After extraordinary medical advances, by 1999 a medical career became once again a possibility. I became trained as an echocardiographer. After five years working as a clinical cardiac sonongraper, I was presented with the opportunity to perform and manage research at Columbia’s Clinical Cardiovascular Research Laboratory for the Elderly.

My work here over the last five years has constantly reminded me that her wisdom about emotional aging was spot on and years ahead of its time. The care and study of older adults has become my life’s work and is made all the richer for having an alternative understanding of developmental psychology in later life.

Just one anecdote — during a lecture on perinatal development she described a study about breast feeding, maternal bonding and emotional development. It was about the same time that she had introduced confounders in epidemiology and study design. I asked a question about the possible confounder of breast size — the lecture stopped, a hush fell, Dr Blanchard-Fields looked warily, pondering how to address a potential sexist remark.

I went on to explain that I thought since mothers with larger breasts produced more milk, their infants would be more satiated (remember I had extremely limited sexual experience or curiosity with women). Her responding laugh began several harmonics above “high-pitched”. She struggled to regain composure and address my bewildered face as the room of over 75 undergraduates roared in laughter. It remains one of the funniest memories of my life and will always be indelibly marked with the sound of her laughter.

Thank you, Fredda….

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