Duncan, psychology professor, dead at 71

By Kate Shepherd

University of Chicago psychology professor Starkey Duncan, Jr. passed away due to complications from heart surgery on May 15 at the University’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital on campus. He was 71.

“I think, unquestionably, he will be remembered best for his work on sequences of events that occur during human social face-to-face interactions; these sequences, he discovered, are lawful and can be analyzed,” said David McNeill, professor emeritus in psychology.

Duncan, the father of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, studied the interactions between children and parents, said Howard Nusbaum, chair of the psychology department. The San Antonio native theorized that the simple “peekaboo” game that parents play with young children impacts how kids learn to interact in situations such as conversations. Duncan and a student had recently been researching the interactions between parents and children with autism.

The well known data-mining program THEME, which discovers hidden sequences in data, is based on Duncan’s work. The academic world will also cherish Duncan’s research on how and when people take turns speaking during conversations, McNeill said.

Duncan and colleague Donald Fiske published Face-to-Face Interactions: Research, Methods and Theory in 1977. He co-authored Interaction Structure and Strategy in 1985 and wrote numerous journal articles over the years.

As the psychology department’s director of undergraduate studies, Duncan played an active role in the University’s athletic programs and served as the faculty adviser to the Folklore Society. He was a familiar face at U of C basketball games and took an interest in helping U of C athletes balance schoolwork and athletics. McNeill said that Duncan was the University’s representative to the NCAA for many years.

Members of the Folklore Society loved Duncan, who played the banjo, Nusbaum said. “I’m sure that a lot of undergraduates remember Starkey and the help he gave them,” he said.

“He also had a wry sense of humor that I greatly miss,” McNeill said of his colleague.

Duncan is survived by three children, a fiancée, a sister, two nephews, and seven grandchildren. A service was held in his memory on May 19 in Bond Chapel. Donations can be made in his honor to the University’s Starkey Davis Duncan, Jr. Fellowship Fund, according to a University press release.