In memoriam: Vern Bengtson, professor of gerontology, social work and sociology

In a USC career that spanned over 50 years, Bengtson explored the roles of faith and family across generations.

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Professor Vern Bengtson, a social psychologist known for his work on intergenerational relations, passed away on Friday, November 8. He was 78 years old.

“For over half a century at USC, Vern Bengtson defined excellence in gerontology through his important research, dedication to students, and commitment to exploration,” said USC Leonard Davis School Dean Pinchas Cohen. “His findings around family, religion and social change challenged many societal assumptions and are part of his legacy as a global giant in our field.”

Bengtson, who also served as a research professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and a senior scientist with the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, originated the Longitudinal Study of Generations, an exploration of family dynamics that tracked up to four successive generations of California families for nearly 50 years and yielded rich insights about aging, conflict, values, faith and spirituality.

“Vern was the quintessential gerontologist and scholar,” said Maria Aranda, executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging and an associate professor of social work. “His work was a living testament to the study of enduring family interactions across generations, contemporary transmission of spiritual beliefs, and the centrality of religion in American families. He understood the greater plan of his work and played a key role in mentoring and supporting faculty, students and staff.”

Born in 1941 in Lindsborg, Kansas to a devoutly religious Evangelical Christian family, Bengtson earned his bachelor of arts degree from North Park College. He completed a master’s degree and PhD in human development and social psychology at the University of Chicago, earning his doctorate in 1967.

His experience as a religious graduate student attending school in the 1960s alongside predominately non-religious peers prompted Bengtson to explore why some people conform to the religious views of their families while others do not.

This research question would come to define his long career and led Bengtson, who joined the faculty of the newly formed USC Andrus Gerontology Center (the future home of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology) in 1967, to start the National Institutes of Health-funded Longitudinal Study of Generations. After eight waves of data collection, respondents represented 350 different families spanning the Silent Generation, who came of age during World War I, through late 1980s-born Millennials.

Bengtson’s survey results led to findings that ran counter to prevailing notions around the decline of familial influence, support and spirituality. In fact, he found that the values, attitudes and beliefs of grandparents and parents continued to be transmitted across generations.

Along with frequent USC collaborator Merril Silverstein, now the Marjorie Cantor Endowed Professor in Aging at Syracuse University, Bengtson was currently co-leading a John F. Templeton Foundation-funded study to better understand spiritual beliefs and pro-social values in the absence of religion among Millennials and their families

Bengtson was the former holder of the AARP University Chair in Gerontology. He also held a joint appointment in the sociology department of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Known for his theories on aging course and for a love of teaching and mentoring, Bengtson taught at USC for over 40 years and was an admired lecturer, earning three major awards for teaching from the Dornsife College and chairing 34 dissertations.

He was the author of more than 260 articles and 19 books on gerontology, theories of aging, sociology of aging and family sociology. His recent book, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down Across Generations, surveyed the religious beliefs and spirituality of multiple generations of more than 350 families.

Bengtson was a past president of the Gerontological Society of America, which recognized his research and teaching excellence with its Robert W. Kleemeier Award and a Distinguished Mentor Award. He also received two MERIT awards for research from the National Institute on Aging. Additional honors and awards include the Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association’s Section on Aging and the Life Course, the Ernest W. Burgess Distinguished Career Award from the National Council on Family Relations, and the Reuben Hill Award from the National Council of Family Relations.

Bengtson was preceded in death by his daughter Julie Bengtson Gregory (Michael). He is survived by his wife Hannah Gruhn-Bengtson, his daughters Erin Stephens (Alex) Kristina Bryte, and four grandchildren, Boz, Zoe, Zadin and Tyler.

A memorial service will be held at 1:00 pm on December 7 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, CA. Donations in Bengtson’s honor can be made to Trinity Episcopal Church (1500 State Street, Santa Barbara 93101) or Wilderness Youth Project (www.wyp.org).

Top: photo by Bob Riha, Jr.