South Asian scholar, humanitarian Elder retires after 53 years

The house was big enough to be a dormitory, with a wall safeguarding its occupants from the masses. Foreigners had lived in the compound during the British Raj, and there was more than enough room for the young couple staying there in 1951.

But Joe and Joann Elder were eager to move out. They had come to Madurai, a large city on the Vaigai River in southern India, to teach English and conduct research for their master’s theses. And they wanted to live among the people to get an authentic taste of life on the Indian subcontinent.

Finally, a missionary family in need of lodging arrived, and the Elders left the stifling walls for an authentic Indian house.

“The life bustled around us,” Joe Elder recalls. “It was much more like actually being in India.”

That two-year stay sparked an interest in India that stuck with Elder for the rest of his far-reaching career. Elder, one of the preeminent scholars on South Asia in the United States and an influential voice on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus since 1961, is retiring at the end of the school year. The professor of sociology, languages and cultures of Asia, and integrated liberal studies has forged a reputation as a caring instructor who taught through his stories and helped students experience India and Nepal firsthand through rigorous study abroad programs.

Elder, third from left, with his Tamil-speaking research team in Madurai, India, in 1963. Madurai had been Elder’s introduction to India when he traveled there 12 years earlier as part of an Oberlin College program. He had originally applied to teach English in China, but tense relations between the United States and China meant he was sent to southern India instead. (Photo courtesy Elder family)

Elder, third from left, with his Tamil-speaking research team in Madurai, India, in 1963. Madurai had been Elder’s introduction to India when he traveled there 12 years earlier as part of an Oberlin College program. He had originally applied to teach English in China, but tense relations between the United States and China meant he was sent to southern India instead. (Photo courtesy Elder family)

But beyond his academic contributions, Elder is regarded as a humanitarian who has pushed for social justice on campus and a Quaker peace activist who has mediated major conflicts across Asia.

“He’s a wonderful person,” says Professor Gary Sandefur, a longtime colleague in the Department of Sociology. “He’s a very thoughtful individual, very energetic. He’s less influenced by prestige or money — he seems not to care about any of it. One of our previous department chairs joked that he wasn’t sure that Joe knew how much money he actually made. That’s the kind of person that he is.”

And the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to spend a year and a half with his wife, 3-year-old daughter Shonti and 1-year-old son John (the Elders later had another son, Ed) in a remote Indian village, living in an old Indian army tent under a grove of mango trees the locals believed to be haunted — which he did for his dissertation research from 1956-58.

Elder believed that to study India — a nation in an ancient region that has fascinated him with “contradiction after contradiction after contradiction” over the years (such as the coexistence of vigorous democracy and the hereditary caste system) — he needed to learn languages, experience cultures and communicate with many different people.

Shortly after Elder arrived at UW-Madison in 1961 following a two-year stint as a faculty member at his alma mater, Oberlin College, he began shaping the newly-established College Year in India program to provide students with a similarly immersive experience. Henry Hart, the political science professor who recruited Elder to UW-Madison, created the program, the first of its kind in the United States. Elder took over as faculty coordinator in its second year and established it as a model for other universities around the country.

Students preparing for their year in India used to receive a letter from Elder that included the line, “Welcome to the toughest study abroad program that’s been invented.” In addition to requiring two years of foreign language study, the intensive curriculum included a summer orientation with Elder and a yearlong independent research project.

The Elder family (Joann, John, Shonti and Joe) after participating in the Holi festival of colors. Joann was a longtime undergraduate advisor in the Department of Sociology at UW-Madison and a leader among academic staff on campus. (Photo courtesy Elder family)

The Elder family (Joann, John, Shonti and Joe) after participating in the Holi festival of colors in northern India. Joann was a longtime undergraduate advisor in the Department of Sociology at UW-Madison and a leader among academic staff on campus. (Photo courtesy Elder family)

And nearly every year, from 1962 through last January, Elder has traveled to India over winter break to visit students, many of whom have gone on to their own scholarly careers.

“The experience of living in India for a year shaped and confirmed my abiding interest in India,” says John Cort (B.A.’74, M.A.’82, South Asian Studies), who spent the 1973-74 academic year in Varanasi, later served as a student monitor in the study abroad program and is now a professor of Asian and comparative religions at Denison University.

“That year was my first taste of fieldwork, which is still a central element of my research today.”

In the classroom, Elder, the longtime director of the Center for South Asia, has taught courses on Indian civilization and social structure and has developed others on Gandhi, Muslim societies and global cultures. Students arriving at Elder’s office to turn in take-home exams have often found him waiting with Indian samosas, tea or other treats.

“He makes people feel that they are worth something, and in a big university, that’s something that’s very appreciated,” says Joan Raducha (B.A.’72, Anthropology; M.A.’76, South Asian Studies; Ph.D.’82, Buddhist Studies), a former student and longtime friend of Elder’s who served as director of International Academic Programs in the Division of International Studies from 1995 to 2005.

Elder hasn’t been afraid to confront contentious issues, either. He led a challenge of the ROTC policy of discrimination by sexual identity in the late 1980s and created a certificate program in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies in 2003. And his influence extended beyond campus and, even, the United States.

“He makes people feel that they are worth something, and in a big university, that’s something that’s very appreciated.”

— Joan Raducha, former director of International Academic Programs

Born to Presbyterian missionaries in Iran, he became a Quaker in college and got involved with conflict mediation in 1965, when he was part of an international team carrying messages between India and Pakistan after bloody clashes in the Kashmir region. He’s since worked on Quaker peace efforts in Vietnam, North Korea and Sri Lanka.

“He’s just a humanitarian, through and through,” says Rachel Weiss (B.A.’94, Art History and South Asian Studies; M.A.’98, South Asian Studies), a former student who is now the assistant director of the Center for South Asia.

Now, though, Elder is ready to spend more time with his wife, a longtime undergraduate advisor in the Department of Sociology, and turn his focus to several writing projects, including belatedly turning his dissertation research into a book. He plans to continue serving as a faculty fellow for Bradley Learning Community and the International Learning Community on campus.

He says he’ll miss daily interactions with students, the challenge of distilling complicated ideas into coherent lessons, and the constant search for new lecture material. After 53 years at UW-Madison, he’ll no longer have a readily-available, sit-down audience.

“Fifty-three years seemed to go fast,” he says with a smile.

38 Responses to “South Asian scholar, humanitarian Elder retires after 53 years”

  1. John Newman says:

    I was Joe’s ‘guinea pig’ for the Tibetan language component of the College Year in India Program in 1976, a crucial period in both my academic training and my personal development. Joe allowed me and the other students maximum freedom to explore, make mistakes, learn, and fall in love with India and its people. On my return to UW-Madison I took classes with Joe that showed me his outstanding skill as an administrator was matched by his teaching and scholarship.

    Thanks, Joe, from one of the hundreds whose lives have benefited from your kindness, enthusiasm, and incredible energy.

    John Newman
    John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur
    Professor of Asian Religions
    New College of Florida

  2. Rekha Shukla says:

    I remember in those graphic religious stories we had as kids, a story that taught how if you met God and your teacher at the same time you should bow to your teacher first. For he is the one who would have taught you how importance of all else in the world, including God. Bowing to you Joe ji. Always.

  3. Julie (Hamper) Hiebert says:

    Joe Elder had such an impact on my life! I fell in love with Indian studies as an freshman undergrad at Mr. Holyoke college, and wanted to go to India to see if this great love would diminish or perhaps grow stronger once there. Thanks to the College Year in India program I went to Madurai in ’78/’79 along with other eager college students from various universities, and lived in the heart of this ancient, incredible town. I went on to graduate school in Sanskrit &Indian studies and am teaching undergrads about India to this very day!

  4. Rasa Valiauga says:

    Professor Elder is one of the kindest individuals I have encountered during my time at UW-Madison. He truly cares for his students and wants them to succeed in whatever their passionate about.

  5. George Petty says:

    Thank you Joe, and best wishes.

    George Petty
    85-86

  6. Claudia Card says:

    Best wishes, Joe! It has been a pleasure knowing you. I’m still teaching fulltime, too, now in my 48th year with no plans yet for retirement. May you and Joann have a long and happy retirement.

  7. Charles Scott says:

    Congratulations, Joe, and all best wishes to you and JoAnn in your retirement. I remember your involvement and contributions to our Afghanistan Relief Effort back in 1979 and thereabouts. I wonder if you have recruited someone to take your place in the India program. Hope so, since it would be a shame to have it go extinct. Thanks for all you’ve done for UW-Madison.

  8. Ralph Nicholas says:

    Joe Elder has done more to make India and South Asia a vital part of American higher education than any other person. The Wisconsin College Year in India program has drawn more scholars into the field than some major graduate programs. He was a great leader for the American Institute of Indian Studies at a difficult time. He is the most modest person in the universe with the least reason for modesty. We are all awaiting the contribution he makes in the next chapter. Welcome to the company of retirees, Joe.

  9. Kathleen Sell says:

    Joe has been a core faculty member of the Integrated Liberal Studies Program and the Bradley Learning Community for decades. His genuine interest on and high regard for students and colleagues, his warmth and kindness, his incredible energy and, most of all, his commitment at ground level to making this world a better place, are truly inspiring. It’s been a deep honor to work beside you, Joe.

    Kathleen Sell
    (Emeritus, ILS)

  10. Cindy Haq says:

    Dr. Joe Elder is one of my life heroes not only for his intellectual rigor, but for his deep commitment to social justice and humanitarian values.

    We worked together on the early development of global health programs at UW in the early 90s. Joe reminded us that health is about more than medical care, but about identity, family, culture and community.

    We have been enriched and enlightened by Joe’s contributions.

    Cindy Haq MD
    Professor of Family Medicine

  11. Terry Geurkink says:

    Joe, I know you will use your boundless energy to do productive things in your “retirement”. I was in the CYIP in 1968-69, in Varanasi, and the experience was a tremendous eye-opener in so many ways. I happened to become friends with 2 medical students, one from Bombay and one from Tanzania, and those associations sparked my interest in medical school. I have had a long career in emergency medicine, and during the past few years, in semi-retirement, I have worked in various Indian Health Service hospitals, and that year in India has helped me to understand the various sub-cultures I deal with.

    Best to you and your family,

    Terry Geurkink, MD

  12. Sandra Splinter BonDurant '90 says:

    Congratulations Professor Elder on your retirement! Although it’s been over 25 years since I took your “Civilization of India” course, I will never forget the kindness and compassion you showed me when I became ill my sophomore year while taking your class or how I hated to miss your class as it was one of the most intellectually stimulating class I had ever taken! Nor will I forget the day when my Mom called to ask, “What does an “I” mean for your grade in Civilization of India?” after opening the letter with my grades. After almost having my first college heart attack I called your department to talk to you and was told you had left for India for break and that you would be in touch when your returned! Two days later someone called to tell me that my “I” was because you had not had time to grade my final paper before leaving and that I was not to worry as the grade would be updated when you returned and it was! Thank you for your awesome teaching and I wish you and your wife great relaxation and enjoyment in the coming years! On Wisconsin.

  13. Zach says:

    I’ve been one of Joe’s IT consultants at the UW for three years. He was always a lot of fun to work with, very cheerful and upbeat. Never had him as a student, though, but my girlfriend did and always asks about how he’s doing. I can’t think of a single person that doesn’t just love the guy.

    And the department was just about to buy him a new computer, too! Darn.

  14. Thank you, Joe, for being such an inspiring role model for all of us at UW.

  15. Margy Robinson says:

    I was both a student and staff with Joe. I think of him with incredible fondness. Memories include him falling asleep during a bicycle rickshaw ride across Varanasi, wonderful meals at Joe’s home to welcome Virendra Singh, the Hindi instructor from the program who has to come to teach in Madison during the summers, and the feeling of support for creative ideas to further the program’s goals. The most abiding impact for me is the belief that one can overcome bureaucracy with enough creativity and determination. I thank Joe for demonstrating that and for consistently supporting the full year-long study abroad experience when many programs have shortened to semester or quarter-long programs. CYIP is unique in its demand on students to stay and really delve into the culture. Thanks for everything Joe!

  16. Chelsea-Leigh Flucus says:

    Congrats and Best Wishes Joe! It was a pleasure and honor to be a student of yours. I remember meeting you on my 1st day of college in your global cultures class. Thank you for always giving your best and pushing me to be the best person I could. Enjoy your retirement!

  17. John Fleckner says:

    I remember sitting in the Elder’s living room where our seminar was being held because tear gas had made the campus inhospitable. With patience and encouragement I somehow made it through the semester and produced an acceptable research paper. Mostly I remember a truly humane, committed scholar.

  18. William Canak says:

    A Quaker mensch! Joe Elder’s positive influence on generations of Wisconsin Sociology Ph.D. students will continue as they emulate his natural grace, intelligence and integrity.

  19. Nathan Bell says:

    Professor Elder created an amazing program that provided the turning point in my life. He’s a true “guru.”

    ’06

  20. Zach Larson says:

    Professor Elder was my faculty fellow at Bradley Learning Community, my academic advisor, the founder of the College Year in Nepal program I did, professor for a half dozen of my favorite classes, writer of a dozen letters of recommendation over the years, and the most loyal friend and mentor I’ve ever had. Congratulations on making such a tremendous difference in the lives of countless people like me.

  21. Budhendra R. Joshee says:

    I worked with Joe ji for 25 years. He always put me out of trouble. Very good family friend as well as my boss.

    Enjoy your retired lifr Joe ji.

  22. Katlyn Caraballo says:

    I had the privilege of taking Joe’s Intro to Global Cultures course, as well as his Senior Capstone seminar for the Global Cultures certificate. He is a fascinating human being and deserves every award that he has received. I wish him a happy and healthy retirement, knowing full well that he will continue to serve his community, both here and abroad.

    -Katlyn Caraballo, Class of 2008

  23. Laurie Tellier says:

    I took Dr. Elder’s Introduction to Indian Civilization class in 1971. When I joined the Peace Corps as a nurse in 1977, the closest I could get was a post in Kabul, Afghanistan. Fortunately, India was just an adventurous bus trip through the Khyber Pass and a few Pakistani trains away. India was every bit as fascinating as I hoped, and helped further a life long interest in the region and public health.
    Thanks Dr. Elder, for inspiring a college sophomore who had barely ever left Wisconsin

  24. Lynn Burlbaw says:

    Joe’s letter and my 1968-69 year in Hyderabad shaped the rest of my life. I chose India because it was available as a place to study, not because of any prior interest, but India occupies a place in my reading life and the experience has enabled me to better serve international students at my university, whether from India or not. Thanks for a good start in life, Joe.
    Lynn, CYIP 68-69

  25. Kaustubh Prasad says:

    I first registered for Professor Elder’s class on Indian Civilization thinking it would be an easy A, and an elective that won’t take much of my time.

    Little did I realize that this class would leave such a huge impact on me. I was born and brought up in India and having lived in India for 17 years, I thought I’d know everything there is to know. But, Professor Elder through this class gave me a much deeper understanding of my own country. I learned more about India in those 4 months than I did in my 12 years of Indian schooling before that. I did manage an A, but it was the hardest and perhaps the most valued A I ever got.

    Thank you Professor Elder. You have given several generations of students knowledge and a perspective that will only become stronger and broader with time.

    Kaustubh Prasad, Class of 2003
    New Delhi, India

  26. Robert Fyrst says:

    I was blessed to have taken several classes with Joe (it is what he preferred I call him). Thanks to his encouragement, I continued my studies for many more years. And now, I try to bring his wisdom into my own college classrooms to my students. Thank you Joe for inspiring me and for helping me to always be a lifelong learner.

  27. Harry Webne-Behrman says:

    Joe:

    I was fortunate to be a freshman in your first “Thought of Gandhi” class in 1973 and totally relished the opportunity. You exposed me to teachings and ideas that have stayed with me all my life, including your engaging, respectful teaching style. Later, in my work as a mediator, it was a privilege to learn of your excellent work and important contributions.

    Best wishes to you and Joann on this next phase of the Journey… you are wonderful inspirations to countless people.

  28. Ranjit Dasgupta says:

    I had the opportunity to meet Professor Joe Elder few times. A person full of energy, charm and love for India. His service and dedication to UW South Asian Studies department and Center for South Asia will ever remain an example of excellence. Thanks, Joe. Wish you a happy retired life.

  29. Anakewit Boonkasame says:

    My class in Bascom last semester preceded Professor Elder’s famous Indian civilization class. More often than not, I answered questions from a few students after class. When I saw Professor Elder walking into the room, I stopped in order to erase the blackboard and collect my belongings. Almost always, Professor Elder told me to continue answering questions and offered to erase the blackboard for me. His words as I remember were “I can erase the blackboard, but I cannot answer calculus questions.” For a senior faculty member with his status to show such kindness to a junior like me is truly inspiring. I wish Professor Elder a wonderful retirement.

  30. Andrew Aurbach says:

    My heartfelt congratulations to Joe. He was an inspiration during my undergraduate years, and we had many discussions of Quakerism and global impact. Best wishes for the next phase in life.

    Andrew Aurbach ’90

  31. Ann Marie Waterhouse says:

    Joe Elder clerked my husband’s shamanic-Quakerly memorial at the Meetinghouse the end of February this year. He was so present, gracious and patient with the 65 of us who came to share stories and memories. I never had to worry whether things would be “well in hand.” Thank you, Joe Elder! And congratulations on your retirement.

  32. Congratulations to Joe and thank you for your inspiration, kindness and generosity. You changed the course of my life and so many others, and have helped make the world better through your actions and example. I wish you all the best for your retirement and hope to see you again some time in Madison or elsewhere.

    Cheers,
    Shreeyash

  33. Dave Black says:

    Will really miss Joe. About 20 years ago, I was talking to my dad about this amazing Sociology class i was taking in grad school and the amazing Prof who taught it. My dad said “I know him.” He knew Joe when my dad was doing Christian interfaith work in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Joe was an undergrad at Oberlin in the late 1940s/early 50s. He saw Joe briefly on the campus of Ohio University (where we lived at the time) in the early 70s when Joe was on a speaking tour about the Vietnam War, telling of his visits North and South Vietnames prison camps on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee. Dad came up for a visit that summer of 1994 and we enjoyed a picnic meal in Joe’s office with me, my Dad and Joann Elder. It was so much fun. Joe is an incredible human being, much younger than his 80+ years in spirit and vigor.

  34. Pete Loveland says:

    I was just a student in a sociology course taught by Professor Elder and I am sure that he has long forgotten about me. I can tell you that he never made me or any of my classmates feel like just another student. Joe always treated us with the utmost respect and displayed a passion for teaching that kept us fully engaged. I will always remember dropping off a take home exam in his office, just before Winter Break, and being treated to eggnog, cookies, and entertaining tales of his past experiences. I will always remember Professor Elder for his kindness and enthusiasm. Congratulations on his retirement and thank you for all that he contributed to so many UW students.

    Pete Loveland ’91

  35. Jim Van Eimeren says:

    Congratulations, Joe!

    I also started teaching in 1961 at CSU / Long Beach in California, but retired in 1999. Seven more years of part time classes don’t really count, so my hat’s off to your career. I taught graphic design, computer graphics and film animation.

    I graduated from UW Madison in 1953.

    Hope you enjoy your retirement as much as we are enjoying mine! This month we celebrate our 60th wedding anniversary with a Caribbean cruise.

    Jim Van Eimeren

  36. Jim Yeadon says:

    Thank you, Professor Elder, for my time in your classes in 1969-70. You were a terrific teacher. You will be missed at the UW – of that I have no doubt. Also, my best wishes to all your family! And thanks also for your support of gay rights and gay marriage. You are truly one for the ages!

  37. P. Kamala says:

    There is nothing that I could write that could possibly do service to the great blessing of knowing Joe Elder in one’s life. I am more than grateful to every lucky star I may have to have met him, to have his concern and caring for us through the years since then.
    He is of monumental stature, which we all know, and upon which, we all agree.

  38. Terin Miller says:

    Joe: You’ve been a family friend, a mentor, counselor, adviser, and connection to my own family almost all my life. You and Jo Ann are always connected in my mind and heart with the Social Science Building, and my father and mother, events in our living room as well as campus. You were as welcome a sight as my parents would have been on a visit to my College Year in India in 1981-82 in Varanasi. Your avatars are everywhere…:) Congratulations on retiring. I’m sure my father probably would have wished you’d retired when he did so you two could chum around helping people. Know you’re loved, and will be missed.

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