Harry Singer was a native of Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up in a Jewish family of modest means. Born on September 4, 1925, he was the second of three sons. The family's economic plight during the depression years required the boys to engage in even more part-time employment than was typical of youth in the neighborhood. Harry is remembered by his boyhood friends as a serious and studious lad, one who worked a bit harder at selling newspapers and other pursuits than the other boys did, and one who saved most of what he earned. After attending the public schools of Cleveland, Harry entered Case Western Reserve University in 1945 as a psychology major. Highly determined to succeed in life through education, Harry's keen intelligence and tenacity enabled him to work his way through college, completing his B.S. degree in psychology in 1949. Having impressed his college instructors, Harry stayed on at Western Reserve, and by 1952 completed his M.A. degree, also in psychology.
Harry's love for university life, and especially for the University of California, first became evident in 1953, when he headed west to California to study with Professor Jack A. Holmes, a new faculty member in the School of Education at Berkeley. Holmes had been Harry's favorite professor at Western Reserve. Following two years of elementary school teaching in Oakland, Harry plunged into graduate study, completing the Ph.D. in educational psychology under Professor Holmes in 1960. In the meantime, he and his wife Harriet were married in 1955. Over the decade that followed they had two children, a daughter Deborah, born in 1960, and a son Abraham, born in 1965.
At the time of his death on August 25, 1988, Harry Singer had earned a reputation as one of America's leading reading theorists and researchers. He published over 120 journal articles, yearbook articles, and book chapters, as well as three college texts. He served as President of the National Reading Conference from 1978 to 1980, and received the Oscar Causey
Award for Research and Distinguished Service to that organization in 1984. Among his other awards were the Albert J. Harris Award for an article, “IQ is and is not related to reading,” presented by the International Reading Association in 1975, and the Service Award from the same association in 1979. Most recently, with his close and long-time colleague Irving Balow, Harry became the first faculty recipient of the University of California's Presidential Research Award for School Improvement. Recognized by that award was the authors' report on proficiency assessment and its consequences in California.
Professor Singer's work at the University of California, Riverside, began in 1960, when he occupied a temporary position as lecturer. After spending the following year at the University of Arizona, he returned to Riverside in 1962, where he remained for the rest of his life. His service to the campus included one year as acting chair of his department and two terms as chair of the faculty. He was serving his second term as faculty chair at the time of his death.
Harry Singer will be remembered for his intellect, for his intensity, and for his warmth and caring of close friends and graduate students. His major publications were his books, beginning with Speed and Power of Reading in High School with his mentor Jack Holmes in 1966. Both Holmes and Singer became known during the middle and late 1960s for their “substrata-factor theory of reading,” a controversial theory which aroused considerable interest among reading scholars of the day. By 1970 Singer and Robert Ruddell, his Berkeley colleague, compiled the leading theoretical orientations to their field in one major book. Published as Theoretical Models and Processes of Reading, the book went through three editions over a 15-year period. It remains the single most impressive guide to reading theory in the English language.
As a committed University faculty member, Harry frequently differentiated between “teaching his colleagues” and “teaching students.” Those of us who co-authored works with him, including all of the under-signed, could add that he also rather enjoyed teaching his co-authors. While most of Harry's thinking and writing was aimed at the scholarly community, he endeavored to make his own work and that of others intelligible to students and public school teachers. His book with Dan Donlan, Reading and Learning from Text, represented his finest effort in that regard. At bottom, however, one cannot gain the truest sense of Harry's devotion to teaching by discussing the merits of a textbook, even his own textbook. He was a true and committed mentor to his students, one who expected and demanded maximum commitment and effort from them. Once that was in evidence, he became their steadfast advocate, sponsor, friend, and, if need be, defender.
As a perpetual memorial to the memory of Harry Singer, an endowed graduate student fellowship has been established on the Riverside campus in his name.
Back when I was a lowly assistant professor I sat in the back of plane headed out of LA for NRC at the Don Cesar in Florida. During that period the pink Don could accommodate our conference with a great location right on the beach and a ton of history with photos of famous actors and actresses in the bar area. Harry was sitting next to Ed Fry in the front of the plane and I was in awe of these heavy weight scholars. Later on I got to know Harry as we worked together on the UC and CSU Learning from Text Project (LFT) that involved numerous professors and students from both systems with a particular focus on disciplinary literacy in economics, philosophy, western civilization and so on. At that time, the term “disciplinary literacy” wasn’t on the radar. Harry asked me to direct the high school portion of this research and I immersed myself in history and biology classes at Garden Grove High School in the early days of qualitative research.
The LFT project generated lots of tech reports that became journal articles and it helped support teachers and professors research in the disciplines. In addition, this work added to our understanding of analogical reasoning in biology classes, the use of graphic organizers in history, and a host of other inventive insights that included Harry’s influence on content area comprehension and, at the early literacy stage, phonemic awareness. All that is to say, Harry’s interests and brilliance in exploring all facets of literacy were remarkable. I learned from Harry and I enjoyed a long-term friendship with Harry and his family, hanging out in his backyard near UC-Riverside to discuss our article drafts. We traveled to Hong Kong to present some of this work we toured the city.
Harry was a larger than life figure in literacy with a substantial library at UC-Riverside in the Education Building. He brought in speakers from around the world and organized a Learning from Text Conference at Lake Arrowhead for all the participants in the project. Harry’s idea was to ensure there was ample time to walk in the woods and talk research at this wonderful conference site, supported by UCLA. Suffice it to say that the major names in literacy in the UC and CSU systems were all there.
One of the lessons Harry taught me that I use sparingly was “knowing when to fold em” (to quote Kenny Rogers from The Gambler, a tune I love to play in Drop D tuning). We were in one of the early LFT meetings where Harry had been invited to be the Director of this significant grant project but Harry believed strongly, as I recall, that the teachers and others in the project should have access to funds they could elect use in whatever way they saw fit for their classrooms. When the guiding state funding board group said, “no” Harry said, “fine, then I’m not going to direct this research!” Needless to say, it worked and resulted in an amazing project. Harry’s name and reputation won out and he was a superb leader for this massive, multi-university research. As Assistant Director I was able to affiliate as a Research Associate at UC-Riverside and many of those studies are referenced today.
So, that’s the professional Harry and I also got to know Harry as a great friend. Ed Fry had a summerhouse near the beach in Laguna in an era when we used to write on little typewriters. Laguna is heaven in the summer with excellent waves, sailing and snorkeling. Ed loved all of those activities having grown up by the beach. If you walked past the typewriter, despite Ed being a prolific writer, it was covered in a thick patina of dust, which I think is a great ode to summer at the beach!
In those days, NRC was a place to present studies but also to have debates, and late into the night discussions over beers. I can recall Harry and others, well after midnight, sitting on a lobby floor still talking research. Harry was interested in the whole spectrum of ideas in literacy and he even put up with my conversion to a qualitative researcher at a time when statistics left qualitative research to “illuminate” our understanding of phenomena.
In those more rowdy times at NRC, there was a Red Shoe Award that featured a really ugly disco style Red Shoe for conference behavior beyond the norm. Harry won it one year and I refused to be seen on the plane with that thing in plain site. He relented and stashed it away somewhere.
One other facet of Harry’s genuine interest in getting literacy research to be accurate and reliable actually disrupted my circadian rhythms. When I roomed at conferences with Harry I could pretty well predict that sometime in the middle of the night a light would go on at the desk and Harry would be rewriting one of our papers. Again, as an early career assistant professor, this was more than a little worrisome. But Harry took ideas and their power seriously. This care was nicely balanced by his leaping into a hot tub in Palm Springs at NRC, much to the shock of the crew already in the hot tub!
When Harry passed away his many friends and students assembled at his remembrance session at NRC in Tucson. I didn’t have a guitar with me but I’d written a blues tune for Harry. Yetta Goodman graciously let me borrow her guitar and brought in to the session in a hard shell case. When I opened the case, it was identical to my brother’s 1947 00-17-concert style Martin guitar! There was some cosmic force at work. We all got up on stage and shared our stories about Harry and that included Bob Ruddell and Jay Samuels among other major figures. It was humbling and comforting and I’ll always have Yetta to thank for that moment. I still have the Martin that my brother gave me as he moved more into banjo and four string guitars. It has a nice sound and I’ll record the tune for Harry.
Tom Bean, January, 2018, Virginia Beach, VA