Accidental Sexologist

When he was young, William Simon wanted to change the world. The late University of Houston sociology professor changed the way we view sex instead.

As the nation entered the 1950s, it became increasingly clear to many of the party faithful that the Marxist analysis did not fit American reality. "The proletarians were not doing what they were supposed to be doing," noted another of Bill's erstwhile socialist friends, William H. Friedland, now a retired professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Instead of rebelling, workers seemed to be aping the middle class and buying houses in the suburbs.

With help from a noted literature professor and critic named Austin Warren, Bill wangled his way into college despite being a junior high dropout. His brother Myron, then an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, had shown Warren some of Bill's writings, and based on those poems, short stories and a novel-in-progress, Bill was admitted provisionally to Michigan for a year; he would be allowed to stay if his grades were good enough. He worked as a university groundskeeper and "went to class when he could," Myron said, but he ran out of money and dropped out.

In 1953, Bill married Marlene Bragman, who already had a master's degree in sociology. He re-entered the University of Michigan and began taking classes. Meanwhile, they attended an American Sociological Association meeting, where Bill's astute comments caught the ear of Reuel Denney, co-author with sociologists David Riesman and Nathan Glazer of the 1950 sociological blockbuster The Lonely Crowd. That book portrays America's evolution from an "inner-directed," individualistic society to an alienated, materialistic, "other-directed" society bent on conformity.

Dick Jaffe: Bill "did become a lightning rod" at the University of Houston.
Deron Neblett
Dick Jaffe: Bill "did become a lightning rod" at the University of Houston.
Standing up for civil rights: Bill speaks at a rally at Southern Illinois University.
Standing up for civil rights: Bill speaks at a rally at Southern Illinois University.

Denney invited the couple to Chicago, where he took Bill and Marlene to Riesman's home in Hyde Park. Riesman was a superstar in the University of Chicago's sociology department, arguably the powerhouse of American sociology departments, and he was impressed with Bill. Meanwhile, Bill had discovered that he had just enough credits from his undergraduate classes in Michigan to take a test, offered that year at Chicago for the final time, that would let him waive the entrance requirement of a bachelor's degree. "He did so well on most of the test that they decided to let him in as a master's degree student, even though he'd failed the math portion," Marlene said. Then, before he took the M.A. exam, she tutored him in math and statistics, and "he passed at the Ph.D. level." While at Chicago, Bill got a job at the National Opinion Research Corporation, where Marlene also worked. Bill based his doctoral thesis on one of the so-called longitudinal studies that he managed for NORC, one that followed college students and their career choices over a long period of time.

After Chicago, in 1963, Bill taught sociology at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale while hanging onto his job as a study director at NORC. Among his friends and fellow faculty members there were the scientist-philosopher-inventor-designer Buckminster Fuller and futurists John and Magda McHale, the latter two of whom became UH colleagues when they headed the school's Center for Integrative Studies.

The Simons' home in Carbondale was a magnet for students, who often ate and partied there and sometimes were rewarded with celebrity guests, including the comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory. "Bill was great," said then-first-year graduate student Jim Elias, now a professor of sociology at the University of California at Northridge. "We all glommed onto him because he was very charismatic, and a number of women students fell in love with him." He was a brilliant teacher and generous promoter of his students' careers, Elias said.

Always the political activist, Bill was faculty sponsor for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a firebrand champion of civil rights. He was even arrested at a sit-in protesting segregation at a local restaurant. "He was so highly skilled and adept verbally, and so very persuasive, that you knew what this man was saying came from the bottom of his heart," said Elias's wife, sociology professor Veronica Diehl Elias.

The civil rights movement was in full bloom in the spring of 1964, when Bill drove to Miami University in Ohio. There, a civil rights coordinating group, including most of the gurus of the movement, was training college students for the Mississippi Freedom Summer, a major voter-registration campaign aimed at that nearly feudal state that repeatedly used subterfuge to prevent black citizens from voting. Attending the same meeting was John Gagnon, who'd been a fellow graduate student at Chicago. "Bill was uneasy that nobody was really saying how dangerous it was going to be," Gagnon recalled. "He thought the adults were not being very responsible." The brutal murders of three Mississippi Freedom Summer foot soldiers the following June 21 grimly confirmed Bill's fears.

Gagnon then was based in Bloomington, Indiana, at Kinsey's Institute for Sex Research, where he was studying sex offenders in prison. "Would you want me to explore your getting a job at Indiana?" Gagnon asked Bill. "He said, "Sure.' I don't think he had any passionate interest in doing sex research back then, but things were winding down for him in Carbondale."

In the summer of 1965, the Simon family, which by now included three sons, David, Jonathan and Adam, arrived in Bloomington. Bill promptly wrote a grant proposal to do a probability sample focused on the sex lives of college students and won federal funding. Then he and Gagnon landed a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for a study of personal adjustment within the homosexual community.

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