William Robert Freudenburg, 1951-2010

March 10, 2011

An amateur woodworker, keen fisherman and renowned sociologist, William R. Freudenburg worked on risk management and offshore oil issues for more than 30 years.

He started his life in the academy as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, where he studied for a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He went on to complete a master’s degree and a PhD at Yale University, and subsequently held associate professorships at Washington State University, the University of Denver and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was at Wisconsin-Madison that he became known for his hobby of collecting and correcting misspellings of his name: he covered his office door with his favourite examples, the most memorable being “Professor Frighten Burg”.

Testimonials on a memorial website set up after his death suggest that far from being frightening, Professor Freudenburg was an inspiration to students. He excelled as a “talent scout”, getting the best out of those whose skills might have been otherwise overlooked.

Recalling his humorous approach, Shelley Barnes, one of his former students, said: “As my adviser for my undergraduate thesis, Bill would ask on a weekly basis if I was still rearranging my pencils. Little did I know that having your pencils in a row is a very important part of any writing process.”

In 1983-84, Professor Freudenburg served as a congressional Fellow at the US House of Representatives, and also held positions with the American Sociological Association and the National Academy of Sciences, among other organisations.

He finished his career at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was Dehlsen professor of environmental studies and sociology. He taught an immensely popular Introduction to Environmental Studies course, and it was not uncommon for his 400-plus students to applaud at the end of his lectures.

He was the author of three books on the risks of uncontrolled oil exploration and was honoured in November 2010, just weeks before his death, with a symposium at Santa Barbara - dubbed Freudenfest 2010 - that celebrated his work.

Away from the academy, he was an enthusiastic singer. Claire Mays, a social psychologist at the Symlog Institute in Paris, recalled: “My central memory of Bill dates from May 2001, when a French colleague at a seminar at the University of Gothenburg wanted to sing. Pulled and prodded by Bill, I found myself standing up, the three of us closely grouped in the corner of the dining room, singing La Vie en Rose.”

Professor Freudenburg died of cancer on 28 December 2010. He is survived by his wife Sarah and a son.


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