(The following obituary for my old friend and professor, Robert Lawless, was written by his wife Anita Raghavan.)
Family, friends, colleagues, and students celebrate the life of Robert Lawless
Robert Lawless, Professor of Anthropology, Wichita State University, passed away peacefully on February 2, 2012 of heart failure at HCA Wesley Medical Center, Wichita, Kansas. Family and friends were by his side at the time of his passing. He did not suffer. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance at about 4 am and had passed away by 9:26 am. He had gone to work the day before and was in good spirits. He complained of chest pain at about 4 am on the day of his death. He had been battling heart disease for roughly seven years.
Robert was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and grew up in Sand Springs. Oklahoma. His father taught instrumental music in the public schools of Sand Springs and Tulsa, Oklahoma. As a youngster Robert played the trombone in his father’s band and was a drum major. Music and music appreciation was an integral part of his life till the very end.
After graduating from Sand Springs High School, (he frequently and without much prompting regaled friends with his high school cheer song) he left Oklahoma for a Journalism degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1959. He was a journalist in San Francisco and left to join military service. He volunteered for the National Security Agency and went to the Army Language School in Monterey, California where he studied Russian. He was stationed on the border of the former USSR and Germany. There he learned German. He helped to gather information for the USA about the maneuverings of the Soviet army. He was honorably discharged and chose to teach English Literature at Brent School - Baguio, Philippines. Interest in studying further led him to a Master’s degree program in Asian Studies from the University of the Philippines, Manila. He learned several Philippine dialects and languages. He married Aida Arribas and they had a son, Andrew and a daughter, Ilona. At two years old Andrew was diagnosed with autism. Robert’s ongoing advocacy for people with special needs grew with this personal milestone in his life. He was a social justice activist for positive change in several local and international areas of the world.
Interest in pursuing a PhD led him back to the USA where he worked as an editor for two publishing companies, John Wiley and Sons and Prentice Hall, and to the Anthropology Department at the New School for Social Research, New York. He engaged in anthropological field work among the Kalingas of the North Luzon highlands in the Philippines. He graduated in 1975. He did international rice research and helped gather information for the UN. He did field work in Haiti while in Florida. He learned Haitian Creole. His research focused on a comparative holistic and evolutionary examination of foraging, agricultural, and industrial peoples. He spent 7 years doing research among urban scavengers in Manila, investigated peasants in the Central Plains of Luzon, studied neo-colonial warfare on the island of Timor and lived with headhunters in the North Luzon Highlands. For several years he investigated the social organization of hospitals in Manhattan and the survival values of street people on its Lower East Side. He attempted to teach himself Spanish.
In 1978 he joined the Anthropology faculty and the African Studies faculty at the University of Florida and served there as an Associate Professor for 14 years. Since 1982, he concentrated on work in Haiti, investigated its tourism, sociopolitical structures, coffee production, and religion. Much of his work used an integrative approach to the study of the cognitive and ecological aspects of people’s beliefs and behaviors. He married Anita Raghavan in 1988. In 1992 they moved to Kansas where he joined the Anthropology Department as a socio-cultural anthropologist and as an undergraduate advisor at Wichita State University. He served as the department chair from 1996-1999. He had three children with Anita, a daughter Sharmini and twin sons, Kylen and Tavrick. Tavrick was diagnosed at birth with Down syndrome. This intensified his interest in a comprehensive and fulfilling life for people with special needs.
Robert amassed a record of scholarship, including several recognized books, especially one on Haiti, and many articles in international journals. He was a prolific writer using a style that was succinct and powerful. He served as a journal and book review editor and he reviewed numerous manuscripts and grant proposals submitted for research funding. His field research during a 10-12 year long stay in the Philippines included work among urban residents and more isolated tribal groups such as the Kalinga. He also did field work among immigrant ethnic groups in New York and among communities in Haiti. He served in various roles in professional organizations including the association of Philippine Anthropologists and The Association of Third World Studies. He was directly involved in the drafting of position papers for the Aristide Government in preparation for the restoration of representative government in Haiti.
Robert enjoyed teaching and saw teaching as a primary medium for dispensing his knowledge and experience to an audience of students. Throughout his career, he touched thousands of students who enjoyed his academic energy, his knowledge, and his wit. He served on many Masters and PhD dissertation committees, thus influencing generations of new students in the field. He cared immensely about his students and took great pride in their many accomplishments.
Robert loved his family both biological and “adopted.” He was a foreign exchange “dad” to many, “adopted” several children and young adults, and was a local guardian to international students. He enjoyed keeping up with their achievements, their joys and tribulations.
He is survived by his wife Anita Raghavan, daughters Ilona and Sharmini, sons Andrew, Kylen and Tavrick, granddaughters Mackenzie and Kerrigan, and his brothers Jerrold and Lyndon.
He also leaves behind a number of professional colleagues and friends who treasured their friendship with him, a large number of students who loved him as a teacher and a mentor, and a community of friends and acquaintances both locally and beyond. A private service was held at 2:00 pm on February 7, 2012 at All Faith Affinity Mortuary and Funeral Home in Wichita, KS. A Robert Lawless Memorial Fund has been established and can be reached C/o Rev. C. Pace-Adair, PO Box 48045 Wichita, KS 67201-8045. The memorial fund will support the diverse academic and social issues that Robert cared about.