J. Richard Udry, esteemed population studies scholar and Carolina Population Center’s Director from 1977 – 1992, died at his home on Sunday, July 29, 2012. He was 83.
Dick Udry joined the UNC faculty as Associate Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Sociology in 1965. He became CPC Director in 1977 when the center was focused on providing family planning technical assistance to developing countries rather than conducting research. Early in his directorship, Udry changed the structure and purpose of the Carolina Population Center and, today, it still closely resembles that structure and purpose. He created the Faculty Fellows program, an elected group of UNC faculty members who choose to conduct population research at CPC.
Under his leadership, CPC applied for and received hundreds of grants from NIH. At the time, NIH rarely funded social science research. The CPC History website profiles his first decade as director, titled Rebirth with Research Focus. He is also responsible for expanding CPC’s research portfolio and impact. Read about that in CPC’s History section Growth and Expansion.
Udry is perhaps best known for creating the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a longitudinal study of U.S. adolescents that started in 1994. It was built on the American Teenage Study which started in the 1980s and ended in 1991. Add Health completed the 4th wave of data collection in 2008. The project is now led by Kathleen Mullan Harris and is still a Carolina Population Center project. The data is used by thousands of researchers worldwide in a wide range of disciplines including sociology, psychology, criminology, education, economics, biostatistics, epidemiology, medicine, genetics, maternal and child health, nutrition, aging, environmental science and geography, among others.
Carolyn Tucker Halpern is Professor of Maternal and Child Health at UNC and a CPC Faculty Fellow. She started working with Udry in 1986 and worked closely with him on the Add Health project. She remembered: “Dick’s genius at delegation always reminded me of Captain Jean-Luc Picard on “Star Trek Next Generation.” Like Captain Picard, when Dick (who sometimes referred to himself as the “Grand Pubah”) made a decision to do something, he would simply say “make it so,” and having assembled such an incredible staff at CPC, it would get done and done well.”
CPC’s current Director, S. Philip Morgan, was a CPC postdoctoral scholar when Udry was Director. Morgan said: “When I was a CPC postdoc (1980-83), Dick was Director. He took my parking pass away… (Yes in 1980, post docs had parking passes!). When I complained, he said “you’ll get over it... go back to work.” Both statements were accompanied by a very broad smile; conversation over. Dick was a scientist first. He thought description (especially of understudied phenomena) was very important, but he also collected data to test potential causal mechanisms. His work mattered! There are at least a half dozen of his many articles (over 400) that are fundamental to how I think about social science. His work has been cited over 17,000 times. But most importantly, he took lots of us to lunch early in our careers and expressed genuine interest in our work and lives. He was generous with his advice, ideas and data. Dick was always up for a good debate, but he insisted that folks take evidence seriously. We miss him and remember him fondly.”
In 1994, Udry served as Population Association of America President. Colleagues supported Udry’s selection as a PAA Honored Member and a splendid academic biography highlights Udry’s contributions to the field. Read it here.
Ronald R. Rindfuss became CPC Director in 1992, taking the reins from Udry. Rindfuss, Research Professor of Sociology at UNC and a CPC Fellow, offered this tribute:
“Dick will be sorely missed at UNC. His academic achievements are well-documented, but there are so many other aspects of Dick that made CPC and UNC the institutions they are today. He creatively and ambiguously defined 'population' for CPC: 'Population research is like pornography, I know it when I see it' – a broad, welcoming but not engulfing definition that the Population Association of America embraced as well. Meetings were always better if Dick was there. Not only could he cut to the important issue that needed resolution, but his wit – spot on and a tad bit acerbic – made even a meeting on the most tedious topic bearable. He saved his creativity for things that really mattered, and deciding where to eat lunch was not one of them. Dick, and those who joined him, ate lunch at the same place every day – at least while the restaurant was in business. And, of course, Dick was a brilliant research center administrator. He hired talented staff, gave them the latitude to excel, and when they did he promoted them. I still remember how he would describe his responsibility as CPC director: figure out what resources and facilities population researchers need and put them in place before the faculty even know they need them. That’s a philosophy tailor made to move population science forward, and that is certainly what has happened at CPC. Thanks Dick.”
Udry co-authored more than 400 articles which have been cited by other scientists more than 17,000 times. He was dissertation advisor to many students who have gone on to significant roles in the population field. He was also mentor to many faculty, students, and staff whose careers were influences by his work.
CPC named its distinguished lecture series to honor Udry’s legacy. The 2013 J. Richard Udry Distinguished Lecture will be presented by Amy Tsui on February 28, 2013. Tsui was CPC Director from 1997 to 2001. The lecture will be held in Chapel Hill.
A gathering in remembrance of Udry will be held November 2, 2012 in room 405 of CPC East (University Square East, 123 West Franklin Street) from 3:30-5:00pm, with a reception to follow.
The Chapel Hill News published Udry's obituary on August 19, 2012.