Michigan Memories

Michael Hanagan

Chuck and Louise Tilly knew how to create an intellectual environment. In Ann Arbor, at the University of Michigan between 1969 and 1984, Chuck was the director of the Center for Research on Social Organization (CRSO). The CRSO was located a few blocks from the main campus, in the Perry School, the former experimental nursery school. Chuck’s position entailed an office, a secretary, some meeting and office space, a few research assistants and a printing budget. Chuck made the most of all of them. He distributed financial support and office space astutely to cohorts of graduate students who assembled at the Perry School to work on their own research projects and, invariably, to debate, critique and discuss their mentor’s work. In countless lunchroom conversations, students learned about and argued over Chuck’s current projects.

During the early years at Perry, the Xerox machine must have run round-the-clock; he freely distributed early versions of his papers to everyone around him. In time these handouts evolved into the CRSO working papers: a long-lasting series that came to include Chuck’s writings, those of many of his students and anyone else whom Chuck thought exceptionally interesting. The papers helped develop a shared intellectual agenda among disparate groups of graduate students in anthropology, history, political science and sociology. Newcomers and visitors were sometimes handed a bundle of working papers by way of introduction.

At the center of this flurry of activity was Chuck Tilly, freely available in his office to a background of classical music. As an adult scholar, I’m a bit shocked to recall that, for those arriving before the Perry School was locked for the night, Chuck could be consulted routinely at 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. The light shining from his office, night after night, reportedly sometimes until dawn, was certainly a lesson that even for someone as brilliant as Chuck, productivity came at a price.

The Tilly environment was designed to appeal to the whole graduate student. For many of us, the high point of the week was the Friday volleyball game in the Perry parking lot, where Chuck gained a reputation as a vigorous player.

And oh, we followed him home. Every Sunday his students and anyone in the Michigan community interested in the particular topic attended a seminar at his home, accompanied by snacks and wine and beer. At these seminars on Hill Street we encountered a broad array of scholars, some world famous, some unknown. I remember talks by Anton Block, Natalie Davis, Eric Hobsbawm, Yves Lequin, Franklin Mendels, and George Rudé. Most speakers were recruited locally; Chuck’s students of that period almost all gave their first paper presentations at the Sunday seminars.

Visitors to the Tilly home sometimes encountered unfamiliar obstacles. One wintertime I remember a long-awaited talk by the great English labor historian, Edward Thompson. He was passing through Ann Arbor and Chuck had captured him for our seminar. Thompson was a master lecturer who could captivate an audience. Midway through his talk, in the hush during a Thompsonian pause, the Tilly’s large Labrador, Nero, suddenly erupted from a couch where he had settled unnoticed and leaped towards a warmer location, near the fireplace but just behind the speaker. Even the almost imperturbable Edward Thompson was a bit flustered. But seminar participants, long accustomed to Nero’s migrations, were entirely unfazed. We took Nero for granted just as we took for granted the interdisciplinary cooperation, the shared training in social theory, and the personal ties that in many cases would last for decades.

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