Eugene A. Wilkening, Professor Emeritus of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, passed away Oct. 15, 1998, in Middleton, Wis. at the age of 82.
Wilkening was one of the most well known rural sociologists in the United States and the world. He received the two highest honors of the Rural Sociological Society – election as the Society”s president during 1962-63, and selection as a Distinguished Rural Sociologist in 1981. Wilkening was also a long-standing member of the American Sociological Association, in which he was elected a fellow and elected to serve on the association”s council from 1964 to 1967.
Wilkening was born July 7, 1916, in Oak Ridge, Mo., and grew up on his parents” farm. After graduating from the University of Missouri with a B.S. in agricultural economics, he worked for two years as a rural rehabilitation supervisor in the USDA”s Farm Security Administration. He received an M.A. in rural sociology from the University of Missouri in 1939, and worked as a research assistant for the USDA”s Bureau of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri from 1940 to 1941.
During his service in the U.S. Army and while serving as an instructor in rural sociology at North Carolina State College, Wilkening pursued graduate studies in sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology in 1949. He then returned as an assistant professor to North Carolina State, where he made some of his many contributions to the theory and research literature on the adoption and diffusion of agricultural innovations and technologies.
Wilkening authored nearly 100 articles, bulletins and reports during his career, and is still well known for his seminal work on the role of the family in the adoption of new agricultural technologies. His many articles have made their mark on colleagues, students and rural America.
Based on Wilkening”s innovative work on adoption and diffusion, he was recruited in 1951 by the Department of Rural Sociology at the UW-Madison, where he continued his influential adoption-diffusion research for more than two decades. Wilkening was one of the key figures during this very productive period in the department”s history, when it solidified its status as the nation”s leading rural sociology department and trained more than a half-dozen graduates who would go on to serve as presidents of the Rural Sociological Society. He served as chairman of the department from 1955 to 1959, a time of major growth in Wisconsin rural sociology, and was an exemplary departmental citizen and contributor to the department during his 32 years on the UW-Madison faculty.
Wilkening was also strong contributor to the UW-Madison”s Land Tenure Center. From 1965 to 1969 he served as director of research for Brazil at the LTC – an important assignment given the fact that Brazil was one of the most important countries in the LTC research portfolio at the time.
While most of Wilkening”s former colleagues associate him with his pioneering work in the adoption and diffusion of agricultural innovations and with his contributions to Brazilian development, he also played an influential role in introducing environmental sociology and quality-of-life studies to the discipline of rural sociology in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Wilkening was one of the founders of the Task Force on the Rural Environment of the Rural Sociological Society, and chaired the task force from 1972 to 1975. On the UW-Madison campus, Wilkening was a pivotal early link between the rural sociology department and the Institute for Environmental Studies. Wilkening”s IES affiliation led to nearly a decade of work in Wisconsin”s Kickapoo Valley at a time when a federal dam was under construction. The dam was never finished,
and the Kickapoo Valley today is a locus of alternative agriculture and eco-regional development – things for which Wilkening stood. In addition, he was a major contributor to the literature on rural and farm families and the role of farm women in decision-making. Finally, through collaborative work with one of his Ph.D. students, Richard D. Rodefeld, Wilkening did some of the earliest and most influential research on the social organization of corporate farming.
Wilkening was also revered for his contributions to graduate training at the UW-Madison. He served as major professor to nearly 30 UW-Madison sociology/rural sociology graduate students. Through graduate committee service and his seminars on social aspects of technological change and on rural social change, Wilkening influenced hundreds of Wisconsin graduate students in sociology, rural sociology, agricultural economics, communications, agricultural journalism, and other fields. He was an enormously caring, patient, and effective advisor to two generations of undergraduate and graduate students. Wilkening left his mark on the rural sociological profession globally through his mentorship of nearly 20 international graduate students, many of whom have gone on to careers of distinction in their home countries. Wilkening became Professor Emeritus of Rural Sociology in 1983.
Wilkening was a gentle man who impressed nearly everyone he met as being a kind and caring human being. He was also a great lover of the natural world. In the early 1970s, he and his family started a sizable patch of restored prairie on their home lot in Madison, at a time when it was quite unfashionable to do so. He truly cared for Wisconsin”s and the world”s natural resources, nearly as much as he cared about students and about the next generation of sociology and environmental studies professionals.
A memorial service for Wilkening will be held at the First Unitarian Universalist Society, 900 University Bay Drive, Madison, at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7. The family has suggested that, in lieu of flowers, contributions be made to the First Unitarian Universalist Society or to The Nature Conservancy, 633 W. Main St., Madison, WI 53703.