Professor Alan Walker has been a sociologist and social gerontologist at the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield over the past 40 years. On October 25th, Sheila Peace, Past President of the BSG, was invited to Sheffield to take part in a celebration of Alan’s career. As she came to learn, Alan had received a written letter inviting him to be part of a celebration held at The Diamond Centre. The event was organised by Alan’s wife Carol Walker alongside colleagues such as Lorna Warren and the Head of Department, Professor Kate Morris. He did not know what was to take place.
Picture of Alan and Kate Morris (Head of Dept)
Sheila reports: It was a pleasure for me to attend this event and pay a tribute to Alan from the British Society of Gerontology (BSG). I felt that I was speaking, not only personally but also on behalf of my academic colleagues within social gerontology. I have known Alan since I joined the British Society of Gerontology in the late 1970s almost 40 years ago. As a social geographer by first discipline who never received training in the area of social gerontology, apart from my own PhD research, I have learnt from my colleagues and key texts. Alan, now an eminent Sociologist was someone who had worked as a career young researcher with Peter Townsend, and later the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Through his work came my understanding of the political economy of ageing; recognising the importance of social quality as we age, and the value of international and interdisciplinary discussion.
There were 12 speakers at this event with an opening video message from Rt Hon. Professor the Lord David Blunkett who had many kind words for Alan’s work and the way in which he provided material that politicians could use to underpin strategic developments. He was followed by Professor Adrian Sinfield who had worked with Alan at Sheffield and is now Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and University Fellow, University of Edinburgh, and then Professor Gerd Naegele, Director of the Institute of Gerontology, TU Dortmund with whom Alan has worked over the years concerning the social quality of ageing. I was the next speaker and my comments ranged over the past 20 years where personally I and many other social gerontologists have been able to benefit from the guidance and direction of Alan as a thoughtful and compassionate Director and leader of both UK wide and international research projects and programmes. I was fortunate to be both a member of the Growing Older programme funded by the ESRC (1999-2004) and then later through his Direction, the European Research Areas in Ageing (2004-2012) and Futurage (2009-11).
In light of these programmes and initiatives Alan went on to encourage the participation of older people within research development. This was seen within the New Dynamics of Ageing Research Programme (2005-20015) funded by 5 UK Research Councils and the Canadian Institute of Health Research. Again I was able to take part in this programme which enabled us to show how research in the field of social gerontology and ageing studies is able to make an impact on peoples lives. It is not surprising that in 2013 Alan became the Economic and Social Research Council’s first Impact Champion a true indication of success.
I think there were several contributions made by the NDA programme. First, the way in which there was a coming together not only of academics from different disciplines on individual projects, but also through a cross-fertilisation of ideas across projects that were captured in edited texts. The academics all learned new skills. Added to this, a second success was the way in which members of the Older People’s Reference Group were linked to each project. I am sure that Alan is very proud of this programme and also of the continuity he managed to direct regarding research funding for work in social gerontology and ageing studies. I am also sure that his own continuity by staying at Sheffield meant that he had a great supportive basis to ground this work.
We heard about this background at the celebratory event where three members of staff: Lorna Warren, David Phillips and Maurice Roche spoke about their colleague. And then there were the students. Alan has supervised more than 50 PhD students many from the Hong Kong, Chine, Japan and Taiwan where partnerships have been developed with Sheffield. We heard from Dr Ruby Chau and also Dr Steven Corbett about Alan as a research supervisor and it was good to hear that they are now both busy: Dr Chau as Marie Curie Research Fellow at Sheffield and Dr Corbett as Lecturer in Social Policy at Liverpool Hope University. The event ended with a tribute from Baroness Professor Ruth Lister who had come up to Sheffield from the House of Lords that afternoon to pay tribute to Alan and especially his association with CPAG.
Picture of Alan with some of his post-graduate students
This was a truly exceptional event that was enjoyed by all and I want to return to my starting point and Alan’s association with and role in the BSG. Alan is a founding Fellow of the BSG, a Learned Society where members will often say that they find the organisation friendly and welcoming, open to all disciplines who wish to study ageing and later life. Alan was also the first person to receive what was called the Alan Walker Award introduced by Tony Maltby then a member of the Executive Committee. This is now the BSG’s Outstanding Achievement Award and Alan maintains an ongoing interest in how this is developed and recognised. He has brought such academic strength to the Society as a true scholar and alongside that a skilful mastery in steering research development that has demonstrated the importance of ageing and later life as central research topics that should be recognised by funding bodies. We need to maintain this commitment. I end my comments by acknowledging the passing of time and how as social gerontologists we all come to experience the topic we have spent so much time studying and reflecting upon. I wonder if we will age more successfully? Finally, I would like to thank Alan once more for his expertise and for his friendship to us all. After 40 years I do not think we are saying ‘goodbye’.
Emeritus Professor of Social Gerontology
The Open University
Past President of the British Society of Gerontology (2014-2016)