|Professor Palmer's Legacy of Service Will Endure Beyond Retirement in Departmental Service Award
June 01, 2011
by John Syme
|Watson Professor of Psychology Ed Palmer
One day in 1970, Ed Palmer noticed the increasing amount of time his young son was spending in front of the family television set.
The freshly minted professor, newly arrived at Davidson College, soon began focusing his fledgling psychology career on the effects of mass media on children. He published papers, delivered lectures, fielded reporters’ calls, and brought together research in the emerging field in his first co-edited book, Children and the Faces of Television (1980) and as author of Children in the Cradle of Television (1987).
Now, after more than four decades of research and teaching as a much-beloved favorite among students, faculty and staff, Edward Leo “Cool Breeze” Palmer is retiring as Chair and Wayne M. and Carolyn A. Watson Professor of Psychology at Davidson College.
Palmer’s scholarship has been a labor of love, a professional testament to his well-known personal compassion and curiosity about the real lives of real people.
“They were young. They were our children. They were watching television,” began a 1992 Davidson Journal magazine cover story by Palmer, who has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University's Center for Research in Children's Television, at UCLA, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Exeter in the UK, and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. In 1993, Palmer won Davidson’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award. A decade later, he co-edited another cutting edge text, The Faces of Televisual Media: Teaching, Violence, Selling To Children (Routledge Communication Series).
Through it all, including a long stint (1985-99) as a formative chair of the burgeoning psychology department, Palmer’s classroom teaching has been his richest experience.
|A lifelong musician, Palmer plays piano and sings bass in "The Four Coursemen" faculty quartet. (l-r) Dennis Appleyard, Ed Palmer, Durwin Striplin, and Dave Grant.
“I’ll miss the vibrance of the students the most. They teach me a lot,” Palmer said during office hours one day in his last semester before he would become professor emeritus. On his desk, on the walls, all around were mementos, letters, poems and photographs of students, some of whom long ago bestowed upon Palmer his cherished moniker “Cool Breeze.”
Palmer is well-known for his patient ear, for always taking time out for the human touch, for his humbly gracious thank-you notes, for once even rebuilding an old car for a student in need. He is known for carrying the bass line in concert and ballgame appearances of The Four Coursemen Barbershop Quartet, composed of fellow Davidson professors, for his early and continued strong advocacy for WDAV, for his songs of love and support for and about friends, even for a collection of sermons and prayers he wrote while volunteer-pastoring in local churches.
When the American Psychological Association awarded Davidson’s Psychology Department its inaugural Departmental Award for the Culture of Service in the Psychological Sciences in 2007, the department paralleled the concept to create an annual award of their own, which was quickly and unanimously named the Edward L. Palmer Psychology Award. “We name the award for Ed because most of us have things we can reflect on privately, and we can say, ‘Ed was there for me, and he made me feel better,’” said Cole Barton, the C. Louise Nelson Professor of Psychology.
Radio Days, Fast Cars, Spirited Music
Neither psychology, nor even academia, were foregone conclusions for Palmer. But his early life held the seeds of what was to come for him, and thus for Davidson College.
Growing up in Hagerstown, Md., Palmer showed an aptitude for music by accurately reproducing songs being played on the piano in the duplex unit next door. His mom wanted him to grow up to be a minister, so there were also lots of hymns all around for him to sing with her. He got a vocal scholarship to Gettysburg College. There’s his love of music, which has played a central role in his life ever since.
In high school, Palmer had contributed half the cost of a family car from his paper route, and still recalls fondly the ’48 Packard he drove to college. There’s his passion for classic wheels, another lifelong theme.
As an undergraduate, Palmer switched from a chemistry major (“too much rote,”) to business administration, and soon put his mellifluous bass tones to work as an undergraduate at the local CBS affiliate radio station in Hagerstown. One late shift, he accidentally said, “Stay tuned for the NBC news,” but overall it was good work and he liked it. There’s his first connection to radio.
|Palmer with this year's winner of the Ed Palmer Award in Psychology, Sarah McIlroy '11.
After college and a year spent at a national business consulting firm in Philadelphia, he knew that that was not the life he wanted. He went back to school, first for a B.D. degree from Lutheran Theological Seminary (Gettysburg, Pa.) in 1964. Over time, several run-ins with some church leaders who seemed to him a bit too interested in the trappings of worldly status left Palmer cold. Ultimately, he decided church leadership was not for him. “I respect that source from which they do what they do,” he says with a smile, kind but bare. There’s his spirit, broader than any church. (He still keeps in touch with his roommate from seminary.)
A flash forward to 1970 finds Palmer defending his doctoral dissertation in social psychology at Ohio University on the eve of the Kent State shootings. The following semester, he was in Davidson with his wife and young son, soon to be joined by his little sister.
When his new boss, department chair William Gatewood Workman, picked him up from the airport in a ’50 Chevy ("The Fungus") that Workman used for fishing, Palmer recalls, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. But soon, he was right at home in Davidson, where he would work on a succession of cars of his own, including a ’76 Valiant and a '66 Nova that he finally gave to Goodwill before the neighbors complained too loudly.
His radio experience landed him on the board of the fledgling campus station, WDAV. At one point, he had the bittersweet duty of advising President Sam Spencer that the time had come to hire professional management that could bring the station beyond its undergraduate eclecticism to become what it is today, a unique asset to the college as one of the nation’s premier classical music stations.
He served as chair of the department for the first time from 1985 to 1999 the year the new Watson Life Sciences Building opened, named for Wayne M. and Carolyn A. Watson, the same benefactors who created his own named chair.
| Palmer was tuned in to the potential harm of the video screen early in the debate over the effects of television viewing.
During those 14 years, he never signed on for more than three years at a time, and viewed the leadership role as one of facilitation rather than bossiness.
“They had the gifts, and I was going to help them do what they do well,” he said.
The department he had joined as a fourth member would grow over time to today’s nine regular faculty members and two adjunct faculty. Always there was care to balance the department among life-sciences and social-sciences subdivisions.
“We have a foot in both,” Palmer said, “including behavioral neuroscience, behavioral pharmacology, social, cognitive, memory, industrial organization…. It’s always been a hybrid. It’s been a breadth that can serve well when you go out into the workplace.”
Good For Davidson: Thank You, Miss Martin
Amid all the research and teaching responsibilities, Palmer continued pursuing his love of music, heeding the words of choir director Parker B. “Wags” Wagnild, his mentor at Gettysburg: “Make something else your vocation. Make music your avocation,” Wags had told him.
“I mostly do it for my own pleasure, and the pleasure of others,” Palmer said of his fondness for jazz, for the more idyllic and reflective classical composers, for singing old-time hymns in nursing homes, and of course for The Four Coursemen. “I’m a singer. That’s what I would see myself as most being.”
As for the life of the spirit, he recalls when he confided to a departmental colleague that his mother had always wanted him to be a minister. “You are,” his colleague replied.
In retirement, Palmer said he plans to “run a little while the road is good,” with a family project or two for his kids. Also, a return even more toward musical keyboards, learning to transpose original compositions to paper via cutting-edge equipment like the Broer and Wood studios in the Sloan Music Center.
And he plans to continue the work that formed the bulk of his professional career.
“I want to write a book for educators, parents and healthcare professionals, to inform them of both the benefits and the downsides of televisual media for children,” he said. No comment, yet, on rebuilding any more classic cars.
As for the two kids who started it all, sitting in front of that television set in the early 1970s, they seem to have gotten a good balance, of just enough of television and of their dad. Palmer’s son is a radio program director/announcer, his daughter, a psychology professor.
|Palmer enjoys his introduction at the 2011 Retiree Recognition Ceremony recently in Duke Family Performance Hall.
Does he have any advice for young professors now just getting started as he was then?
“I’d tell them not to be so tight in the classroom, worrying, ‘Am I going to fill the minutes?’” he said. “If you can sit a little loose in the saddle, that seems to bring a lot to the classroom.
“Teaching is like radio announcing,” he reflects. “Stuff is always going out, and you don’t always know if it’s being heard…. Did you have an outstanding teacher? Drop ’em a line. Tell them what they meant to you. I got a lot of lines.”
He still recalls his own teacher, Miss Martin, who said she saw him as a college professor. (Thank you, Miss Martin!)
“Davidson has indeed been good for me,” Palmer said, “and I hope in some small way I’ve been good for Davidson.”
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.