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In Memoriam: John Drummond Sprague

In Memoriam: John Drummond Sprague (March 14, 1934 – December 21, 2023) 

We are sad to announce the passing of John Drummond Sprague, beloved husband,  father, grandfather, esteemed professor, and mentor. Born on March 14, 1934, in Sandy  Creek, NY, John’s remarkable life was marked by his unwavering commitment to  knowledge, its dissemination through teaching, and political discussions, as well as his  love of music, travel, art, cooking, gardening, birding, knot tying, sailing, basil growing,  barometer tapping, photo-graphing, hat dying, banjo picking, and many other joys  associated with our camp at “The River” in the 1000 Islands region of the St Lawrence  Seaway in upstate New York. 

John was the cherished husband of Carol Weitzel Kohfeld and leaves behind a legacy  through his children: Michael Sprague (Lori Schwartz), Robert Sprague (Carolyn  Sprague), Peter Sprague (Robin Lynch), Nell Ruby (Matt Ruby), Kurt Kohfeld (Sandy  Kohfeld), and Karen Kohfeld (Klaus Rathe). His memory will also be cherished by his  grandchildren Irene Ruby, Parker Sprague, Gib Ruby, Milo Ruby, Lewis Sprague, Kristen  Kohfeld, and Katherine Rathe. He is also survived by Mary Sprague, mother of his  children. He was uncle, cousin, and friend to many. John is predeceased by his parents  Wendell and Lois Sprague, his brother Peter Radley (Mary Lou) Sprague, and his sister  Charlotte Ann Sprague. 

A distinguished scholar, John was a Fulbright Scholar who earned Bachelors, Masters,  and PhD degrees from Stanford University. With grants from the U.S. National Science  Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, his illustrious career as a professor  spanned 35 years at Washington University, where he became the Sidney W. Souers  Professor Emeritus of Government in the Department of Political Science in Arts &  Sciences. He served as Chair of Political Science, as President of the Midwest Political  Science Association, and a member of the Board of Overseers of the National Election  Studies and of the Political Science Panel of the National Science Foundation. The  American Political Science Association honored him with a named award. The John  Sprague Award is given annually to the best paper on political networks presented by a  graduate student at a political science conference in the previous year and includes a  cash prize. 

John often described himself as simply a “bench scientist,” but if that term connotes  someone who merely does experiments in a laboratory, it vastly underestimates John’s  contributions. He was theoretically and methodologically innovative, and he applied his  abilities to a wide range of important political and social problems in his seven authored and coauthored books. While it is impossible to determine which of John’s  contributions he would regard as his most significant, it is likely that most political scientists regard his work on the social context of politics to be his central contribution.  John was as much a sociologist as a political scientist, and his interest in the  consequences of social interactions drove much of his work. Paper Stones: a History of  Electoral Socialism (with Adam Przeworski) focuses on the historic opportunity costs  faced by Socialist parties in Europe as they sought electoral victories at a time when the  working classes did not constitute a majority in any country. Socialist parties could  pursue a pure “class-only” strategy or a “supra-class” strategy. The latter strategy forces  a tradeoff: Socialist parties gain middle-class votes at the cost of losing working-class  support. Empirically, how much support is lost depends on the political context, that is,  on the strength and party affiliations of trade unions and whether communist parties  compete for working-class votes. Paper Stones utilizes time-series data and an  extremely profound analysis of class structure and vote shares to estimate these  opportunity costs over long periods of time in seven European countries.  

Social context and its effects on voting in the US take center stage in Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication. John and his colleagues draw initially on the “Columbia  school” of electoral analysis, an approach emphasizing the effects of social interactions  on opinions and behavior. But they also incorporate ideas from the rival “Michigan  school” (which emphasized party identification as the central motivator of vote choice),  as well as the rational-choice principal that citizens seek information at minimum cost to themselves. Part of the project’s innovativeness was its research design: a three-wave  panel study in South Bend, Indiana, during the 1984 Reagan-Mondale campaign.  Sixteen widely varying neighborhoods were chosen, and interviewers were able to  identify and talk with 900 discussion partners of the 2100 main respondents. Voters’  social contexts were defined in terms of voting histories, contact with political parties,  location in specific neighborhoods, and church attendance. The analysis focuses on  “talk,” i.e., political discussions about issues and candidates. People talk with family  members, of course, but they also talk with people in church, in their neighborhoods,  and at work. They often pick people like themselves as partners, but they also talk with  people who are unlike them but are thought to be knowledgeable, and these  conversations influence their attitudes and vote choices. Receptivity to conversation  partners’ choices depends, in part, on the overall preferences of their neighborhoods.  The choices people make are thus not structurally determined; they are influenced by  neighborhood pressures, contacts with political parties, and their individual conversation networks.  

Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication remains an indispensable text in both  American and Comparative politics. More than 20 years after its publication, for  example, one of John’s former Washington University colleagues published a study of  voting in Brazil and Mexico with a research design and a theoretical underpinning that draws heavily on John’s seminal work. Research designs of the kind that John (and Bob  Huckfeldt) developed in Citizens are difficult and expensive to implement, but they are  central to understanding the political implications of citizens living not in isolation but in real communities with social and political organizations. 

Beyond academia, John was a renaissance man—known not only for his brilliance in the  classroom but also for his love of music, proficient skills as a chef, prolific gardening,  sailing (a voyage with Carol from Lake Ontario to Florida on board their sailboat ‘Red  Shift’ was a highlight), fishing, enthusiastic eating, and his passion for bird watching. His  home was adorned with copies of Sibley’s bird guide on every floor, a testament to his  detailed reports of bird life and accurate water level readings at his beloved St Lawrence River. 

John’s generosity extended beyond knowledge and academia. An avid cook, he was  renowned for providing friends and family with extensive novellas describing his favorite recipes. His dinner rolls – a recipe from his grandmother that he made sure to pass  down to grandchildren – were legendary. John’s dinner table was always a welcome  place for friends, colleagues and students stranded in St. Louis at holidays. His warmth  and kindness were encapsulated in his email sign-offs, always reminding recipients to  “be kind, be generous.” 

In celebrating the life of John Drummond Sprague, we remember a man whose impact  reached far beyond the classroom, leaving an enduring legacy of kindness, generosity,  and a deep appreciation for the wonders of the world. May his spirit live on in the  hearts of those he touched, and may his love for learning and life continue to inspire  generations to come. He is the epitome of the scholar-teacher in the best of all  traditions. A memorial service will be held at a future date.

This obituary was shared by St. Louis Cremation and be may be found here.