In Memory: Across The Decades with Alex Zautra, PhD

Alex Zautra, PhD
Alex Zautra, PhD

Authors (in order):
John Reich PhD, Emeritus Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University
Laurence A. Bradley PhD, Professor of Medicine, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Mary C. Davis PhD, Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University

John Reich:

In the late 1970s, I sent a copy of the now-classic Brickman and Campbell paper, Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society, down the hall to ASU’s newly-hired Clinical Psychologist, Alex Zautra. His specialty was Community Psychology, and as a Social Psychologist I thought that he represented exactly what all psychologists should be doing (and I still do, incidentally), making  all work relevant to the real world. I thought that he’d be impressed with the brilliance of the thinking. To my utter disbelief, he sent back a note claiming that the paper was wrong, given that for some things you never adapt to zero, as adaptation level theory would predict.  “Think how good you still feel about your first publication…that still feels good, right?” In true psychologist fashion, our disagreement led us to develop an experimental manipulation to study the hedonic impact of self-caused vs. externally-caused daily events. Our data confirmed our predictions and ended-up as our first joint publication in 1980.

Well, 36 years later, our most recent study of that issue is now in preparation for submission. During the past 36 years, I never had a meeting with Alex Zautra that did not spark ideas and projects.  We were joined in those activities by extraordinary colleagues and outstanding graduate and undergraduate collaborators.  I am one of the luckiest academics anywhere; I got to know well, and to work productively with, Alex Zautra.  And we must have been correct in our investigation and rethinking of the Brickman and Campbell paper: That first publication still feels good.

Laurence Bradley:

I first met Alex in the early 1990s when we both began to publish papers on factors that influence pain among persons with rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or fibromyalgia. I soon realized that Alex was a very special person who had no fear of sharing his thoughts about his research and who really liked persons who shared with him. Indeed, Alex had an enormous desire for sharing and he was certainly kind enough to invite one of my graduate student trainees to spend a week with his team to learn the daily processing method that he had helped develop that she wished to employ in her dissertation. More recently, Alex and Mary Davis welcomed one of my former post-doctoral fellows who had just become a faculty member at the Arizona State College of Nursing. And, of course, they recently published a paper together. I knew that all would be well for my former fellow and for Alex and his colleagues in Psychology and Medicine.

Although Alex and I did not write any papers together, I knew I could always count on him and our friendship at any time. Just a few weeks before he passed, Alex asked if I would friend him on Facebook. Of course, I did so right away. Alex sent me some posts and some beautiful photos of the outdoors. He seemed to be beginning to lighten his academic load which I thought was great. I’m very sorry I never saw him during this last period of his life. But, I’m also very proud and happy that we were good friends and colleagues.

Mary Davis:

From the beginning of our collaboration in the late 1990s, I was struck by Alex’s talent for bringing people together. He was a veritable hub of social connections, both professional and personal. Need to tap into expertise on resilience in public policy or urban planning?  Alex knew just the people to bring onto the team. Need a plumber or a dog groomer?  Alex knew those folks, too. It was a source of some amusement:  Is there anyone Alex doesn’t know?  Maybe it stemmed from his early training as a community psychologist, this penchant for acting as a catalyst for potential relationships. Nothing seemed to bring him more deep satisfaction than watching the alchemy between people he introduced to one another as they shared ideas, common purpose, and fun.  Sometimes that alchemy resulted in sustained collaborations between local organizations, like prisons and retirement centers, and research teams at the university, translating research into practice in the community. Often it resulted in his students making connections with other colleagues across the country, helping to launch them into their professional lives. And occasionally, that alchemy resulted in marriage, as it did between two of Alex’s friends who met playing a game of pool at a happy hour he organized.  And he was thrilled just as much by the personal as by the professional bonds he helped to foster. His master plan, it seems, was to create opportunities for people to mingle, and through these exchanges to generate insights and even friendships.

In each ecosystem, there are “keystone” species that exert profound influences on other organisms within that system. Alex was that sort of keystone among his family, friends, and colleagues, and the social bonds he helped to create are perhaps his most enduring and important legacy.