Donald K. Grayson — Renowned UW Archaeologist and Quaternary Ecologist Retiring after 43 years

Don Grayson, photo by Mary Levin
Don Grayson, photo by Mary Levin

In archaeological and paleoecological circles around the nation and the world, to mention the UW Department of Anthropology is to invite the response, Oh, do you work with Don Grayson? Author, innovator, systematist, and synthesizer, Don has written prolifically (and continues to do so) on archaeology, zooarchaeology, paleontology, behavioral ecology, prehistory and history. Throughout his career he has specialized in the archaeology and natural history of the Great Basin and Paleolithic France, megafaunal extinctions, the peopling of Americas and the fated Donner Party expedition along the Oregon Trail. He has made significant contribution to archaeological method and theory. Indeed he literally wrote the book on zooarchaeology methodology in 1984 that remains the primary reference for practice in the field 34 years later. He is as happy excavating packrat middens as Neanderthal refuse and has a particular affinity for small furry critters in the rodentia order despite his reputation in the area of megafauna extinctions. No doubt, a chance encounter with the Pleistocene giant beaver (Castoroides) would be the ultimate experience!

Indeed, many of us — students, faculty, and staff — have been fortunate to work with and learn from Don Grayson over the years. Throughout his career, he has taught by design and by example. His Bones class (ARCHY 481) has been at the core of our undergraduate and graduate curriculum since the Pleistocene, and countless generations of students have learned to connect research questions to exacting empirical methods of faunal analysis in that class. He has taught NSF proposal writing to graduate students for decades as well, and students in the archaeology program have had remarkable success with NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants as a result. Don’s Extinctions class almost always fills and has long wait-lists of students eager to learn from such an eminent expert and excellent teacher. Colleagues in the archaeology program have learned from Don’s commitment to the welfare of the program, his tireless and precise work ethic and his incisive reasoning.

Don advised and influenced countless undergraduate and graduate students over the years, none so much as the 22 students he supervised to PhD degrees and others he advised at the University of Washington, a large number of whom went on to illustrious careers in archaeology and ecological anthropology themselves. With apologies to the many not contacted at short-notice for this piece (an unsystematic, non-random sample), the following quotes reflect the respect, appreciation, and adoration of Don’s former PhD students:

“Don Grayson was a remarkable mentor and professional model. During his career, he made numerous significant contributions that enhanced our understanding of zooarchaeology, Great Basin prehistory and paleoecology, Pleistocene extinctions, and the early history of archaeology. Don not only provided me with intellectual training, but an understanding of professional ethics and work standards. It was an honor and a privilege to have been trained by him and to work with him.”

Dr. R. Lee Lyman (1982), Professor Emeritus,
University of Missouri

“In terms of my personal interactions with him ... well, the teaching never really ends, does it? Certainly, I continue to rely on him for steady and thoughtful advice (as Don has said many times, better to hear from your friends privately about your mistakes, then have them pointed out publicly). And I have continued as well to co-author with him: it is an exercise in nerd nirvana, as we argue over evidence (having long ago made the pact that nothing goes into a joint paper unless we both agree on it), and wrestle over the logic, syntax and text of what we're writing about, often literally one word at a time.”

David Meltzer (1984), Professor,
Southern Methodist University

“It’s almost impossible to convey Don's contribution to my education — given his way of framing scholarship and problem-solving are part of my core. He taught me what being a scientist was. He taught me to be a clearer writer. He taught me about rigor and high standards. These have affected my scholarship — and how I teach my own students. I sometimes sense Don at my shoulder, asking me," … are you sure, why don't you consider that?” He's always there, pushing me a bit.”

Virginia Butler (1990), Professor,
Portland State University

“Grayson was a perfect mentor for me. He demanded excellence, but was also very caring and supportive. His model has been the foundation for my own approach to research, teaching, and mentoring grad students and I will be forever grateful to have had him as an advisor.”

Jack Broughton (1995), Professor,
University of Utah

“I learned academic professionalism from Don. He taught me how to write a grant proposal, give an effective conference talk, prepare a manuscript for publication, review a paper for a journal, and apply for academic jobs. He was always available and willing to read and give feedback on drafts of anything I wrote, or preview my presentations. In fact, he would read drafts with amazing speed (often before I was even ready to think about revisions!). I am very thankful to have learned these things, under his careful guidance, before I became a professor myself.”

Kris Bovy (2005), Associate Professor,
University of Rhode Island, Kingston

“Don guided me to a PhD with the highest expectations, and he has continued to guide me through the perils of academia. His is the voice of reason reminding me to do well, but also to enjoy my family and my life, and for this I will be forever grateful.”

Catherine (Foster) West (2009), Research Assistant
Professor, Boston University

“I cannot express the depth of my appreciation for all that Don has taught me over the years. He has taught me that the struggle over the details and understanding the complexity of the past is worth it. And the tools Don provided me to succeed I am now passing on to my students. This is how his academic family tree has grown and spread its many branches. It is a real joy to call Don a colleague, but even more so to call him a friend. And I will always appreciate how he presided over my wedding (not too many PhD advisors will do that for their students … I'm really fortunate).”

Lisbeth Louderback (2014), Assistant Professor and Curator,
University of Utah and Utah Museum of Natural History

For these and many other reasons we are sorry to see Don move on to new pursuits. Fortunately for us, he has agreed to continue teaching on a part-time basis for another few years. Sign up now! The classes are sure to fill!!


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