Department of Psychology
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Our Former Colleague, Dr. Larry Stettner, Passed Away

Date: 5/10/2017

                                                                                                         Larry Stettner (1938-2017)

     Dr. Larry Stettner, retired Wayne State University Psychology Professor and past President of WSU’s AAUP, died after a heart attack in Southwest Harbor, Maine, on May 1, 2017.  Born in Brooklyn and an honors graduate of Brooklyn College, he received his Ph.D. in Psychology from Stanford University in 1963.  Hired into the Biopsychology Area of the WSU Psychology Department, he and his family moved to Detroit.  In 1967, he was awarded a year’s leave and an NIH grant for research at the NIH Lab in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  His research interests early in his career involved animal models.  He studied learning in birds after brain lesions and co-authored a widely reprinted 1968 paper in Scientific American, “The Brain of Birds”.  His teaching and research reflected his ethological perspective.  His course on animal behavior was popular and former students report that his primatology course was unforgettable.  He formed an affiliation with the Detroit Zoo that allowed his students to carry out observational studies of primates.  In one course, students studied a troop with female adults, but no male adults, and watched leaders emerge.  Later in his career he focused on several aspects of human behavior: human sexuality, facial expressions of emotion, and alexithymia.  One of his frequent collaborators in the study of alexithymia was Dr. Mark Lumley.


     Larry was active in establishing the faculty union at WSU, was a member of the union’s negotiating team many times, and served as AAUP President.  He greatly enjoyed teaching and was known as one of the most accepting, supportive professors in the Department.  Absolutely exuberant about his subject matter and his students, he received the President’s Excellence in Teaching Award in 1987.  The framed award document was proudly displayed in his office until he retired and then in his home study in Maine. 


     Larry was a dedicated researcher who motivated graduate students to be creative and thorough.  In the 60’s and 70’s, the “Comparative Psychology” lab upstairs in Old Main housed a variety of animal subjects for faculty and graduate students.  Among them were crickets, snakes, tarantulas, iguanas, fish, quail, crows and, of course, white rats.  While students were given a lot of freedom in the lab, they were also held to high standards. He served on many dissertation committees as students found him both a solid researcher and a warm mentor.  He was a dependable, enthusiastic player on the departmental softball team for many years. Several students remained friends after leaving WSU and he delighted in following their careers.


    After retiring in 1998, Larry and his wife Fran moved to Southwest Harbor, a small town in Maine, where they had summered for many years.  City dwellers their whole lives, they immediately became part of the fabric of life on Mount Desert Island and seemed to know everyone.  Larry became a community organizer and impresario in three ways: croquet, live music groups, and good food.  Back in Detroit, Larry had taught a small group of friends to play croquet.  After moving to Mount Desert Island, he taught endless numbers of people there, won the Claremont Croquet Classic one year, and placed several other years.  He taught and inspired his young protégé, Ben Rothman, so well that he became a national croquet champion and teacher.  Larry had a croquet court on the lawn of his home that he tended carefully, welcoming friends to an opening game the day before he died.


     As he was fond of a coffee shop in Southwest Harbor, he made it his business to assist them in booking live music groups and came to know many groups that he promoted in various ways.  These connections were useful when he decided, during conversations over poker games with a chef who was between jobs, Bill Morrison, to embark upon a huge project at the age of 70 that would involve numerous challenges.  Larry and Bill decided to open a natural foods soup kitchen that would sell food during the tourist season to make the money needed to feed those who need food and social interaction in the winter.  The soup kitchen opened in 2009 and provided 10,000 bowls of free soup that winter.  Its success grew from there with music groups performing at soup kitchen events and a large current following of those who donate, those who volunteer, and those who just enjoy the food and conversation.  Larry and Bill wrote a book describing their project, Cooking for the Common Good (2010), that is available on Amazon. The intent of their project was to build a year-round, strong sense of community in Southwest Harbor.  Larry would be proud that the headline for his obituary in the Mount Desert Islander  was “Community Activist Stettner Dies”.


     Larry’s wife Fran Wehmer Stettner (also a Wayne State University professor) passed away February 23 after suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease for many years.  A devoted caregiver, he made sure she had the best of care.  Larry is survived by numerous colleagues, friends and relatives who felt his warm acceptance and were inspired by his love of life.  The family members who survive him are his son Andrew and daughter-in-law Jeanny and their three children; his son Mark and daughter-in-law Judy and their two children; his daughter Janet and her two children; his daughter Peggy and son-in-law Bob Manchester; and his former wife, Judy.  In addition to his seven children, he is survived by two great-grandchildren.  A memorial for Larry will be held on Saturday, May 27, at 1:30 pm at Camp Beach Cliff, 264 Beech Hill Road on Mount Desert Island.  Donations may be made to The Common Good Soup Kitchen, P.O. Box 265, Southwest Harbor, Maine, 04679.


     One of Larry’s most important legacies may be his own philosophy of life and how he lived it every day.  He was an eternal, fearless optimist and an amazing problem-solver.  He adopted and espoused a word, “melborp”, which is “problem” spelled backward, that he learned about from an auto worker and poet from Detroit, Jay Robinson.  The idea is that something good can come from most problems so that the opposite of a problem is a melborp or a challenge, an advantage.  He had many stories that illustrated how a problem can turn into a melborp.  It is hard to imagine anyone who could combine the qualities of being optimistic, sensible, warm, and giving as well as he did.  He himself might have written these words from the poem, When Death Comes, by Mary Oliver:


               When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

               I was a bride married to amazement

               I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.