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Fifty years of teaching -
and still going strong
May 10, 1999
e's got a gravelly voice and a twinkle in his eye. And the first thing Sam Witryol tells his class each semester is "If you invite me to dinner, you get an A. If you don't, you get an F." He chuckles. "I found out that students can invite a professor to the dorm for dinner, so I give them a little encouragement. They're somewhat shy, you know."
Now in his 50th year of teaching on the Storrs campus, the professor emeritus of psychology teaches undergraduates three days a week - "Psychological Testing" in the spring and "Theories of Child Psychology" in the fall. A widower, he says the schedule gets him out and keeps him involved.
"I like young people, they keep me young," he says. "And I've always remained interested in psychology. Every time I teach, I learn something I've never thought about before, or even seen before. It's a constant challenge and discovery."
Department chair Skip Lowe, who came to UConn in 1970, remembers him as a fixture even then. "Sam Witryol, in some ways, represents the epitome of what a professor of psychology is about," Lowe says. "He thinks, lives, and breathes psychology. And he's still willing to talk about it at the drop of a hat to anybody who's interested."
Having earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Syracuse University, in social sciences and English respectively, Witryol had signed a contract to teach high school when the dean of the graduate school intervened. He thought Witryol should consider a doctorate, and suggested he pursue a Ph.D. instead. Talks with various faculty members included a young man in psychology. Witryol hadn't taken a single course in the subject, but he found the psychologist fascinating. "He was an excellent fundamental psychologist who not only knew child psychology but was a scholar in the field, generally. I decided I wanted to work with him," Witryol recalls. "I wanted to be in teaching anyway. This was simply at another level."
He arrived at UConn, his first choice out of several offers, in 1949. Though the psychology department was housed in temporary naval barracks, with limited teaching and laboratory facilities, he remembers being "impressed by the fundamental program that was here." Throughout the 1950s, the small faculty built up the department, as the psychology field expanded to meet post-war demands.
Witryol began in the area of clinical programs, then in 1959 he returned to his first love when he was asked to develop a child psychology program. The following year, he became head of the new division of child and developmental psychology, where he remained until 1988. Organized within the department, rather than as an interdisciplinary endeavor, it became a model for other universities. "Child psychology is all of psychology applied to children," he explains. "In that sense, we are among the last of the generalists."
Moving from clinical research, in which he had focused on dimensions of social intelligence, he began his work with motivation and the effects of different incentives upon children. "He found that they would do the most amazing things for incentives, even what seems like the most trivial kinds," notes Lowe. "That was, if not a revolutionary finding, certainly a very important one."
Then in the last 15 years, as Witryol puts it, "I came kicking and screaming into curiosity." Repeatedly saying "no" to a student who wanted to investigate dimensions of curiosity for his master's, Witryol contended that the research model was new and too much of a gamble where a thesis was concerned. But the student kept pestering and Witryol weakened, asking himself "I wonder what would happen if I let him do it?
"And when I said 'I wonder,'" he recalls, "I realized I was curious - and maybe it would be interesting to study."
Still intrigued by the human apparatus he likens to psychological nourishment, he says, "People are curious because they have to be. God built us that way." And with a grin he adds, "I say it's bread for the head."
Both consummate teacher and researcher, Witryol has made an impact in both areas, judging by "Sam stories" that friends and colleagues, including many former students, tell with relish and affection.
Donald Tyrrell, his first Ph.D. candidate and a recently retired psychology professor at Franklin and Marshall College, calls him "a special kind of man. He took a very personal and deep interest in all of his students, undergraduate or graduate. He motivated us, pushed us, pulled us, and got us through."
Another doctoral student, Robert Haaf, now a professor at the University of Toledo, laughs at the memory of their weekly meetings when Witryol never seemed to remember what his student was doing. "I would get so internally frustrated at having to repeat the same things over and over again. But you know what? That was some of the best training I ever had, because it forced me to say things concisely and clearly.
"I don't know whether it was intentional or not," Haaf adds, "but by the time I finished a project under him, I knew what I was doing. I've tried to emulate that with my students."
One suspects it was deliberate, if sly. Laying out his goals of teaching, even today, Witryol says, "Always, get them to think, to see relationships." But he points out, "First of all, they have to study or they have nothing to think about." It is a point of contention with a lot of his students, who cram just before exams instead of keeping up with assignments, day by day. "That displeases me, and I growl and I holler at 'em," he deadpans. As to the biggest change he's seen in students over the years, his one-word answer is serious: "Lazier. Not everybody, but in general."
It's certainly an alien idea for Witryol who, at 77, is still trying new things. In the last few years, members of the University's softball and women's soccer teams in his classes have given him an interest in sports - though not without some tug-of-war between professor and coaches. It has also brought him friendship with Len Tsantiris, the women's soccer coach.
Tsantiris calls him a role model, so much like the people he remembers best from his home country, Greece. "He doesn't give up, never. You know, that's a gift. I hope I will be like that. Here's a gentleman who has gone through so many things, and still looks to new ideas. And he always tries to lighten things up with a joke."
Says Witryol, "How else are you going to get through life?"