Dr. James Gundlach’s talk “Tackling Auburn Football: Losing by Winning and Winning by Losing” on Tuesday, July 5th offered those in attendance a view into the life of a man who started life on a drought-ridden farm in Southwestern Oklahoma, meandered through the Korean War into the University of Oklahoma and to UT Austin and who currently resides an old plantation outside of Auburn, Alabama. Against all odds, James Gundlach overcame a childhood of moonshining and near starvation to become an award winning professor of Demography at Auburn University. As he spoke, I was reminded of scenes from the movie “Winter’s Bone,” the story of a teenage girl’s struggle to provide for her family in impoverished, rural Missouri. Alternately tragic, entertaining and morally uplifting, Dr. Gundlach’s Sociological eye stood him in good stead as he faced enough adversity to fill several novels. Audience members encouraged him to write a memoire, a very good idea.
Standing up to powerful university interests who supported the use of directed reading courses as substitutes for real Sociology classes, Dr Gundlach was the main informant in the New York Times expose on the use of these substitute courses to elevate athletic GPAs. The eventual elimination of these courses came only after his early retirement and with much effort on his part. But this is only one of many stories with which James Gundlach regaled the room, among them: his research into the effect of Country music on suicide, his efforts to rehabilitate teenagers who were living on the street and how he became a Sociologist.
One of the humorous anecdotes began in high school when he described taking typing classes to meet girls. His proficiency landed him in an administrative position in the army rather than the demolition technician job he requested to ensure his enlistment. Through the influence of his well-educated roommates, he started using the library to check out books, his first: Das Kapital which started his love affair with Sociology. Soon, with their help and hours of discussion, his reading list included the Modern Library’s top 100 influential books of the 20th Century. James attended Oklahoma University on the GI Bill, completing his undergraduate degree in Sociology and transferring to the University of Texas at Austin to work under Dr. Frank Bean on a doctoral degree in Demography. Accepting a teaching position at Auburn University in his fourth year, he and his family moved to Alabama, where his work in statistics helped to change the way courses were delivered and assessed. Dr. Gundlach’s goal in teaching statistics and methods was to take the fear out of learning, opening reluctant minds to a new Sociological perspective. He and his family continue to reside on the plantation in Auburn, where we hope to hear that he is writing his autobiography for a new Ken Burns documentary. James Gundlach’s life is certainly the stuff of great novels.