Gerald Erchak, who taught anthropology at Skidmore for more than 30 years, died on January 19 of cancer at his home in Saratoga Springs. He was 70 years old.
Gerry was born on October 11, 1945, in Morristown, N.J., to parents Michael Erchak and Gloria Midroy Erchak. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1967 and went on to graduate school at Harvard University. In 1970–71 he won a Fulbright grant to study and teach anthropology at the University of Liberia. He earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1976.
In the 1970’s he was an instructor at SUNY-Geneseo before joining Skidmore’s faculty in 1976. He retired as a full professor in 2007.
Gerry’s scholarship was broad and deep as he delved into the evolutionary, psychological, and cultural forces shaping human behavior. His work encompassed sex roles and gender relations, child development, education, domestic abuse, the evolution of the mind, HIV/AIDS attitudes and policies, and other issues in African societies and across cultures. From 1976–86 he was one of 12 scholars in a Ford Foundation project to conduct cross-cultural studies of gender differences. In 2004 he contributed an essay on human hair-growth patterns for the catalog accompanying the exhibition Hair: Untangling a Social History at Skidmore’s Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum.
As sociology colleague Bill Fox remarked, “Gerry was culturally literate, endlessly curious, and sharply witty. He loved being a professor. A genuine intellectual, he ‘thought otherwise’ and encouraged students and colleagues to do the same.” Economist Mehmet Odekon said, “I have 34 years of fond memories of Gerry, and the fondest ones are from the most recent eight years. I will remember him as a kind and compassionate friend.”
Gerry’s work took him not just to African nations but also to Micronesia, Brazil, and elsewhere. He shared his findings and insights in papers at regular anthropological society meetings; numerous articles in journals such as Liberian Studies, Current Anthropology, Adolescence, and Cross-Cultural Psychology; and chapters in books from the Encyclopedia of World Cultures to Children of Different Worlds: The Formation of Social Behavior. He was the author of two books, Full Respect: Kpelle Children in Adaptation and The Anthropology of Self and Behavior. In 2004 he was a commentator for several episodes of the National Geographic television series Taboo.
Ruth Andrea Levinson, a retired education professor who did research with Gerry in Brazil, recalled his “sweeping and penetrating analysis of all things cultural, sociopolitical, historical, intellectual and culinary.” She also noted his “acerbic wit and inability to be politically correct, and his legendary popularity as a teacher.”
Gerry taught a wide range of anthropology and interdisciplinary courses, including in the Liberal Studies program, whose cornerstone course, “LS I: The Human Experience,” he helped create. He was also active in University Without Walls and its prison program.
Lisa Aronson, recently retired from the art history faculty, said students “adored him for his honesty, compassion, and humor” and recalled, “Gerry was the other Africanist at Skidmore when I arrived, only to hear him tell me, in his typical feisty fashion, that he did not believe in African studies. Yet he always lit up when he lectured about his work among the Mende in my African art classes.”
He also enjoyed co-teaching two travel seminars in Africa with UWW’s Chris Whann in the early 2000’s. “Our Ghana trip was one of the highlights of my personal and professional life,” said Whann. “We had been back about 48 hours, when he learned that there was an opening to teach something the following year. I got a note from him saying, ‘Why don't we do the Swahili Coast?’ That led to an amazing encore in Tanzania.” Whann added, “I was proud to be able to share those experiences with, and learn so much from, Gerry.”
Gerry’s service to Skidmore included sitting on many faculty committees, helping to shape the non-Western cultures requirement in Skidmore’s curriculum, and even cooking with international students. When he retired, he said, “I have spent most of my adulthood at Skidmore; it is an extension of my house and myself.”
Survivors include three sons, Ivan of San Diego, California, Alexei of North Easton, Massachusetts, and Wyatt of Troy, New York; a daughter, Abigail, of Minneapolis, Minnesota; a sister, Donna, of London, England; his former wife and mother of Wyatt and Abigail, Jane Sandbo of Minneapolis; his former wife and mother of Ivan and Alexei, Jenee Erchak of Saratoga Springs; a niece, Clarissa Ward, of London; and grandchildren Sonja, Clover, Ethan and Mason. Gerry was predeceased by his parents and his sister, Andrea Erchak.