‘A giant in his field’: UC Berkeley professor emeritus Leo Goodman dies at 92

Photo of Leo Goodman
Leo Goodman

UC Berkeley professor emeritus of statistics and sociology Leo Goodman, who was considered a “giant in his field,” and a sweet and generous person, died Tuesday at the age of 92 due to COVID-19.

Goodman is remembered for not only his contributions in social science analysis but also for his joyful personality and patience as a professor, friend and father. Trond Petersen, campus professor of sociology and executive associate dean of the College of Letters and Science, said Goodman had “inner peace” and “thoughtfulness.”

“He was an incredibly gracious man, very generous and mild-mannered,” said Michael Hout, UC Berkeley Natalie Cohen professor emeritus of sociology and demography and former colleague of Goodman. “Working with him, he always had a great patience with anybody who was in the room.”

Goodman grew up as the son of Jewish-Ukrainian emigrants who faced violence from anti-Semites. He also worked under Jewish scholars who fled from Nazis, according to a tribute from a Berkeley Sociology newsletter published when he retired.

After earning his doctorate in mathematics from Princeton University, two years after receiving his bachelor’s degree, Goodman became a professor of statistics and sociology at the University of Chicago for 36 years, according to the newsletter. He joined UC Berkeley as a faculty member in 1986 and retired in 2017.

Several spoke about Goodman’s achievements in the social sciences. Hout said quantitative sociologists had previously used methods from fields such as engineering and physics for analysis, but it was difficult to apply those techniques to their data as it was not numerical.

“He figured out a rigorous way of using the insights of modern statistics to analyze that kind of qualitative data in a quantitative way,” Hout said.

Hout added that Goodman’s techniques revolutionized social science as a whole and are now taught in sociology departments worldwide.

Outside of academia, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of statistics Peter Bickel and his wife Nancy Bickel said they would watch movies with Goodman. Nancy Bickel described him as an attentive and dedicated friend.

Goodman was also characterized by his two sons, Tom and Andy Goodman, as not just a brilliant mind, but a loving father. They felt lucky to have been under their father’s wing and by his side.

Andy Goodman also said his father taught him and his brother to walk through life slowly in order to be thorough, and to not be intimidated by people they believed were better in multiple ways.

“I found letters from one summer where he’d handwritten seven, five or six-page letters to me that all ended with I love you very much,” Andy Goodman said. “He loved us tremendously.”

Contact Natalie Lu at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @natalie_c_lu.