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Educator-psychologist Robert D. Hess dies at 73
STANFORD -- Robert D. Hess, the Lee L. Jacks Professor Emeritus of Child Education, died of Lou Gehrig's disease at Stanford University Hospital on June 30. He was 73.
Hess was one of the nation's pioneers in the study of child development and the social influences on children's intellectual growth. Among his major contributions was a landmark 1965 study of the way mothers communicate with and instruct their children.
He also studied the political socialization of children -- when and how they begin to acquire knowledge and attitudes related to the nation's political structure and problems.
"He really had quite a profound effect on the field," said Lee Shulman, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education, who had been a student of Hess' at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "He collaborated in studies that led to the creation of Headstart."
With Allison Davis and Benjamin Bloom, colleagues at the University of Chicago, "he pulled together ideas about the environmental deprivation of kids in poverty that lay the theoretical foundations for enrichment programs, such as Headstart and Follow Through," Shulman said.
Later, in the 1970s, Hess initiated a 12-year cross-cultural study with Hiroshi Azuma of the University of Tokyo comparing the interaction of mothers and children in the United States and Japan. Azuma called it the first major collaboration in the field between American and Japanese researchers.
"It set the model for other studies, which have grown in number," Azuma, currently a visiting scholar at the School of Education, said. "When we started the study, he was much more experienced [than myself], but he was always open to criticism, always open to others' opinions.
"The Japanese are not very assertive," Azuma said. "Japanese [people] close up and get silent when what they say isn't accepted. But Hess was so good at accepting different opinions that we had a marvelous working relationship.
"The way he handled very subtle problems of international communication made it possible," said Azuma. "If it were not Bob Hess, but somebody else, we probably would not have been able to continue the collaboration for 12 years. His openness and very genuinely sympathetic style of communication helped our collaboration."
In the 1980s, Hess focused on technology and the use of computers in the classroom. A study finding a gender gap in computer interest and usage received nationwide attention.
Hess was born in Tabor, Iowa, on March 10, 1920. His father was a Mennonite minister, from a long line of Mennonite ministers; Hess was the first in the family to break from the Mennonite tradition. He was reared on farms in Arizona and California, and educated in one-room schoolhouses.
He received his bachelor's in psychology from the University of California-Berkeley in 1947. There, he began his lifelong interest in the effects of social class, culture and social institutions on children. He received his doctorate in human development from the University of Chicago in 1950. He joined the faculty, eventually becoming chair of the Committee on Human Development and director of the Early Education Research Center.
Shulman remembers Hess in those days as "a very popular teacher." He taught courses about adolescents that were extremely well regarded and well attended." Eventually, Shulman said, his work on the political socialization and socioeconomic differences led to a turning point in Hess' career.
"When it became clear the kind of environment kids grow up in had an enormous effect on how they developed intellectually," Hess began his collaboration with Virginia Shipman of the Educational Testing Service, in which "he found important differences in the ways mothers talked to kids."
"These were studies that rejected the notion that kids didn't do well because of genetic or hereditary reasons."
After a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Hess joined the Stanford faculty. He was co- director of the graduate training program in Interactive Educational Technology.
Among his books are The Development of Political Attitudes in Children (1967) and Early Education: Current Theory, Research and Action (1970). Two of his publications were listed as "Citation Classics" -- publications that are unusually high in the number of citations in professional articles.
As his disease progressed, Hess was remembered by friends and colleagues for his cheerfulness and good humor, often reassuring others who were distressed at his symptoms, which eventually left him unable to speak except through a computerized voice machine. He took to writing short stories and autobiographical essays -- often discussing his illness, sometimes faxing a whimsical quip to friends.
As Hess became increasingly ill, "I think he showed his true character," a personal friend said. "He became so much more open to other people, more generous. His priorities shifted from work to family. Integrity -- it's so rare these days. He had it -- in his professional and his private life."
According to his daughter, Alyssa Reit, "He never complained --- it's pretty amazing, but he never complained about his illness or his past. He was always very much in the present with people."
Hess is survived by four children by his former wife, Betsy Hess-Behrens of Berkeley: Jared Hess of Menlo Park; Alyssa Reit of New York City; Devin Hess of Oakland; Bradley Hess of Richmond; and seven grandchildren.
Hess' funeral service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday, July 2, at Roller Hapgood & Tinney, 980 Middlefield Road at Addison, in Palo Alto.
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