Remembering Jim Green

Submitted by Haley Lee on
Jim Green (L) with wife Carol (R) and student and collaborator Huma Haque (C)
Jim Green (L) and Biff Keyes (R) with joint student Dao The Duc (C), Commencement 2008

By Stevan Harrell, Professor Emeritus

The Anthropology Department lost one of its most valuable and colorful members when Principal Lecturer Emeritus James Green died last May. Jim was a celebrated teacher, author of two widely-used textbooks, a pioneer in international educational exchanges, an athlete, a storyteller, a great-grandfather, and a faithful friend and revered mentor to many generations of students and junior faculty.

Jim was from the other other Washington—Spokane to be precise—and went through the Ph.D. program in our Department, writing his dissertation, “Social Networks in St. Croix, United States Virgin Islands,” under the supervision of David Spain, Simon Ottenberg, and Charles Keyes.  

Before finishing his dissertation (these were the good old days of the academic job market), Jim was hired as Assistant Professor of Modernization Processes at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. When that program had a late job opening in 1971, the chair called the late Bud Winans, then chair of our department, and asked if he had any bright graduate students who needed a job. Thus started Jim’s partnership with Larry Epstein, resulting, in Larry’s words, in “a series of stunts, which eventually gained us a local reputation as the campus bad boys.” 

The unusual academic politics and the famous Ice Bowl football weather of Green Bay in the 1970s eventually drove both Epsteins and Greens back to the Northwest, where Jim took a position in the UW School of Social Work (leading to his first textbook, Cultural Awareness in the Human Services) then in the Graduate School, and finally back to the Anthropology Department, as Lecturer, rising in time to the rank of Principal Lecturer. 

It was as an undergraduate teacher that Jim made his biggest mark, university wide. We had a “four-field” course called ANTH 100, which had to be taught every quarter not only to keep up the Department’s enrollment numbers, but also to provide minimal income for graduate students serving as teaching assistants. No tenured faculty members wanted to touch ANTH 100, since it involved complex connections (or lack of same) among archaeology, bio-anthropology, sociocultural anthropology and (tokenistically) anthropological linguistics. Jim volunteered, perhaps originally because it was a job. 

Jim’s ANTH 100 became famous. I don’t know how many times I would mention his name to undergraduates who would ask “isn’t that the guy who knuckle-walks in his lectures on hominid evolution”? But his fame spread way beyond the Wet Side of the Mountains. Professor Emerita Miriam Kahn recalls that 

“In the summer of 2000, I was standing at a snack bar inside the main lodge at Yellowstone National Park, getting a bite to eat before going outside to watch Old Faithful erupt. As I opened my wallet to pay for my snack, the young woman behind the counter noticed my University of Washington faculty ID card and let out an excited shriek. “Oh, my gosh, are you from the UW? Do you know Jim Green?” When I said that not only did I know him, but that I was a colleague of his in the Anthropology Department, the young woman, a fresh UW graduate working at Yellowstone for the summer, raved on and on about his remarkable talents and the ways in which he influenced her forever, both professionally and personally. She said he was the best teacher she ever had in her life!”

Even with his talents and popularity, Jim eventually found ANTH 100 to be a burden, and he proposed to cut down on the big lectures and teach a more specialized course, on the anthropology of death in various cultures. It became even more famous and popular than his introductory course—in one pre-registration period it was over-subscribed by more than 400 students. Even though he couldn’t let all 400 in, he was a soft-touch and ended up overloading more than he maybe should have. The course resulted in an even more widely-used textbook, Beyond the Good Death: The Anthropology of Modern Dying. The course also got Jim known in a few circles as “Dr. Death,” a title that, with his usual good humor, he ended up embracing. 

Jim also contributed materially to the education of graduate students, none more than Dr. Huma Haque. Jim met her when he received a Fulbright fellowship as an exchange professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Huma was eventually admitted to our Ph.D. program, where she proved an outstanding learner, and eventually a distinguished academic in her native country. Jim was more than a mentor to Huma, becoming, in her own words, a father figure. Jim lived with her family in Pakistan, and Huma with Jim and Carol in Seattle. When Jim left us, Huma wrote an elegy in Urdu, then translated it into English: 

Why is the heat so scorching today?   

What happened to the shade over my head?

Why is there so much pain in my heart?

Why is everyone saying, 

that my father is dead?

Someone please tell these people

fathers do not let go of the hands of daughters ever.                                      

My father is on a trip to heavens

but he is not dead.

For only the body dies

and a father is way beyond a mere body.

A father is that memory

that lives for eternity in a child’s heart.

A father is the love that lives in 

a child’s heart beat for ever

like the breath.

A father is the tree whose shade covers 

the head of a child eternally.

A father is that moment of love, which is

absorbed by the spirit of a child

in a way that, it becomes an integral part of the child’s self.

A father is like the rock, 

that takes the lightning falling on the child

on his own back.

So go and tell all these people

that, my father is on a trip to heavens

He is not dead.

I remember once on a long day-hike in the Cascades, I asked Jim if teaching and writing about death made him more or less afraid to die. He said neither. Jim left us on May 3, 2021, survived by his wife Carol, daughter Allison, daughter-in-law Arline, and son Matthew. 

Thanks to Allison Green, Huma Haque, Larry Epstein, and Mimi Kahn for contributions to this tribute.