In Appreciation: Norman J. Slamecka (1928-2003)

Organized by Fergus Craik, John Furedy, Colin MacLeod, and Bennet Murdock, University of Toronto

Norman J. Slamecka and his wife Jan were killed suddenly in a pedestrian accident in Lewes, Delaware on August 2, 2003. Norman was born in Chicago, Illinois on September 20, 1928. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Western Maryland and received his PhD in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He was a US Marine veteran of the Korean War and, after a few years of practice as a clinical psychologist for the Veterans’ Administration, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. He then taught at State University of New York, Buffalo for a short while before coming to the University of Toronto in 1970, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. He spent his retirement years in Bloomington, Indiana, where he had friends in the Indiana University psychology department.

Norm always considered himself a “stone-age” verbal learner, but he was an active and skeptical researcher and department colleague. He did many experiments, not all published by any means, where he would test some “common sense” ideas because, as he was fond of pointing out, common sense is a poor guide to science. He made many important contributions to the field. Perhaps best known are the generation effect (1978) and his work on part-list cuing (1968), but he also did important work on the Ebbinghaus notion of remote associations (1964), spontaneous recovery (1966), and rates of forgetting (1985). During his stay the Toronto department had an active memory research group dubbed the Ebbinghaus Empire, and Norm contributed more than his share to stimulating discussion. He was the “Emperor” for many years, responsible for planning the meetings and organizing the speakers. His introductions were legendary, full of caustic wit and unmatched by any Emperor before or since. Nobody was late for EE when Norm was Emperor.

What follow are some selections of anecdotes and memories from Norm’s colleagues in all areas of psychology:

University of Toronto
About 15 years ago, at the height of student power and course evaluations, Norm was asked by a student about details of the exam he was going to give. Norm said, “Actually it’s quite simple.” The student waited expectantly. Norm then said, “I ask the questions and you give the answers.” Not very politically correct, but all Norm.

University of Toronto
As well as being an outstanding scholar and researcher, Norm Slamecka was more than slightly eccentric, but an amiable companion and a noted wit. I once voted him “The Funniest Man in Verbal Learning” and, although this was meant to be as much a dig at the aching tediousness of the discipline as it was kudos for Norman, he was indeed a very funny man. One of my happiest memories of him was during a Psychonomic meeting in St. Louis when, after a heavy previous night in the Starlight Lounge, a group of us skipped the morning talks to go round the zoo. Norm was in brilliant form – each fresh exotic vista evoking a further burst of comparisons and analogies. What the animals thought of us – a small gesticulating man muttering ironic comments, followed by a trailing group of helplessly laughing hungover humans – is not recorded.

One of my favorite Slamecka stories allegedly took place when he was at SUNY Buffalo. A graduate student, Janet Mistler, had set herself the task of finding if psychology had a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense: was there a set of key terms in various areas of psychology that everyone used? She elected to visit a series of faculty members and ask them “what are the words and phrases that are central to your work – the words that you cannot do without when you write your articles?” Previous faculty members had responded with such answers as “well … neuron I suppose, synapse, dendrite, axon …” or “stimulus, response, association, transfer.” But when the question was put to Norm, he pondered briefly and replied, “However, nevertheless, on the other hand, marginally significant …”

Norm Slamecka’s – let’s say ‘frugality’ – was legendary. He wrote longhand notes on the back of discarded typewritten sheets, trailed through the streets of foreign cities with his suitcase rather than take taxis, bought his clothes from Salvation Army castoff stores, took the student bus to a suburban campus rather than drive – the tales go on and on. At parties he was always “out of smokes'”and bummed cigarettes constantly. One sunny weekend afternoon my wife was sitting by the edge of an outdoor swimming pool on the university campus while the kids romped in the water. The pool and surroundings were crowded, but my wife caught a glimpse of a small man diving in from the opposite side. The diver swam across the pool underwater, plopped up like shiny seal at my wife’s feet, and with his first breath gasped, “Hi Anne – got a spare cigarette?”

However, nevertheless, on the other hand – it is only fair to record that Norm Slamecka was actually a very warm and generous man. As an ex-Brit I was always impressed by the fact that in a pub group he was a meticulous buyer of rounds when it was his turn; he bummed cigarettes, but never drinks. I valued him as a no-nonsense critic and well-informed colleague, while at the same time I appreciated his amiable eccentricities and often cutting wit. I will miss him a lot.

University of Toronto
I have several memories of Norm, presented here in no particular order … announcing the speakers at EE by reading their names and titles off a piece of masking tape on the inside of his jacket (his only jacket?) sleeve. … leaning over to me at EE sometime in the 1980s when Endel Tulving was giving a talk about multiple memory systems and causing me to laugh out loud when he asked, “So, does that mean that if I remember what I had for breakfast, it’s in Breakfast Memory?”… presenting a talk at Psychonomic in the 8:00 am slot – he thanked people for coming – and referring to his work as “so old fashioned it’s Jurassic.” In that same talk, he described a simple (but, as always, elegant) manipulation that resulted in A > B (I am afraid I’ve forgotten what the conditions were) and concluded that the theoretical implication was that A was apparently greater than B. I saw him as challenging theorists and not as denying the value of theory. … taking me aside after a colloquium in 1990, the first I had attended since my wife and I had separated, and talking to me about loss and sadness in a very understanding way. He told me of his 20-year separation from his daughter from his first marriage, and how they were only recently reconnecting. He was clearly sad for what he had missed but happy to have the chance to get to know her. It was in that conversation that I learned of his original training as a clinical psychologist. I honestly believe from that one encounter that he would have been a very good one. … sending me a note from Indiana when, several years after he retired, I saw that Marion Bunch had died in his 90s in Florida. I remembered Norm talking about admiring Bunch’s work published in the 40s, so I sent him a copy of the American Psychologist obituary. Norm wrote back, on a University of Toronto memorandum pad with “stolen from” hand printed above the logo, a nice thank you note in which he told me that “doing absolutely nothing was wonderful and that I should give retirement a try.”

Norm was unusual – in his clothes, in his legendary care with money – but a quality that I remember as I sit and think about him is his warmth and attentiveness. When he spoke to me, he would look me directly in the eyes, often putting a hand on my shoulder in a warm and almost fatherly way. I liked him personally, and I thought he did excellent work. The generation effect is one of the largest effects I can think of, and clearly has educational implications, and I would say that part-list cuing is a major influence on modern views of inhibition in memory, such as retrieval induced forgetting.

I just had a look at his citations on the Web of Science. He had over 1500 career citations, including 10 articles that broke the 40 barrier. Among these, his seminal 1968 part-list cuing article had 191 and the 1978 generation effect paper had 464, up to the present. Norm Slamecka was a dedicated scientist and a memorable colleague. The sad fact is that his wife Jan died with him in the same accident, and they were constant companions for many years. He leaves his daughter by his first marriage and a grandson. He will be greatly missed.

University of Toronto
Norm was a visitor at the institute of human learning when I was a graduate student at University of California, Berkeley. I lived in fear that I might be on the receiving end of his sharp wit and might never rise to psychology again. Towards the end of his stay at Berkeley, I learned that he had a very kind and caring side to him and that his wit could be supportive as well as critical.

Brandeis University
I’ll never forget the day when I came to Norm’s office looking for a reprint of one of his articles. Norm didn’t purchase reprints, but did have a small collection of Journal of Experimental Psychology issues that ended shortly after the journal name was changed to Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. Norm said something like: “Mr. Kahana, here it is, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Levitation, Mesmerism and Clairvoyance.”

University of Toronto
On several occasions, Norm and Jan took care of my dog Ben. Once I mentioned that Ben looked askance at the drinking of alcohol. Norm instantly said, “Well, I look askance at running around with a tennis ball in your mouth.”

University of Toronto
One of my new graduate students blew into town looking for a place to live. Discovering Toronto was more expensive than he anticipated, and living on a graduate student stipend, he spent a month looking around to no avail. Finally he appeared in my office with a smile on his face. He had found an affordable apartment in North York. Excitedly, he told me the story of how he was able to take over the lease of a professor who couldn’t stomach the “rapacious rent charged in this city.” Who else but Norm?

I also recall a beautiful sunny day in San Diego attending a Psychonomic conference. I had found a cheap airline ticket that required certain travel times, so I arrived a day early. Standing on the deck of the convention hotel, looking out at the glorious ocean, who appeared but Norm. Of course, he had also found the cheaper airfare. Happy to see him, I suggested we order a beer, stare at the ocean, and recall the glory days of experimental psychology. “Not at these prices,” he said. He then told me about the motel he was staying at for $29.95 per day and how they served cans of beer in the lobby for 79 cents. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the lobby of “La Casita” drinking cheap beer from the can.

Rice University
I still smile on recalling an EE occasion in which I was surprised by the unusually bounteous lunch he was unpacking. “That’s a pretty good lunch, Norm,” I prodded. “Yeah,” he retorted, “I found it on the train.”

Washington University in St. Louis
I hardly know where to start. Norm would pick papers out of the trash at subway stops rather than putting a quarter in the box to purchase one. Once he had left his battered old seersucker sports coat in my house. It was in bad shape and I had nowhere to return it, so I stuffed it in his departmental mailbox. He appeared later that afternoon wearing it at a function, and was almost asked to leave until I intervened.

I first met him in 1973, when I had just completed my dissertation on part-list cuing, following up his work, and wanted to meet him. It wasn’t hard to spot him, I discovered, because he was the only one in the Zodiac Room of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis wearing an elegant three piece suit and an old pair of Converse tennis shoes. Many years later at another Psychonomic meeting, Norm spotted my wife and me in the lobby. “Come see Jan,” he insisted. “She wants to see you.” We tried to get him to call. No, she’s there, he said. We got to the room with Norm firmly clutching my wife’s arm. Norm knocked but quickly opened the door. Jan shouts, “I’m in the tub,” so I decided to wait in the hall. My wife is straining to break Norm’s grip, but to no avail. He brings her right into the bathroom where Jan is, indeed, in the tub. Jan handled it so well that it occurred to us later that she might have faced this situation more than once in her life.

In 1985 a special issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition included a special symposium for Hermann Ebbinghaus, to honor the centennial of his great book Über das Gedächtnis (On Memory), first published in 1885. Norm wrote a wonderful lead article about the current state of the field, with some 12 commentators’ remarks following his. Norm had the last word and ended his rejoinder this way: “In closing these remarks, I would like to add that participating in the Ebbinghaus centennial was a most salutary exercise, and it is my fond hope that we all be here to do it again in honor of the bicentennial.” That hope cannot be realized now, but in the passing of Norman J. Slamecka we have lost a kind, dear friend who was a clear thinker with a fine wit.

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