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May 6, 2012
Tarnai helped build world class survey center
Thursday, May 10, 2012
PULLMAN, Wash. - John Tarnai, director of the Washington State University Social and Economic Sciences Research Center (SESRC) since 1996, died May 6, 2012, following a two-year battle against lung cancer.
Tarnai, who earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from WSU in 1982, joined WSU’s survey research center in 1981, became its associate director in 1990 and has directed the unit for the past 16 years.
"John provided WSU with the intellectual and administrative leadership needed for building a world class survey research center,” said WSU Regents Professor Don Dillman, deputy director of the SESRC. "There are only a handful of universities worldwide that have the staff and technological expertise needed for designing and implementing high quality survey research, and we are one of them.”
Dillman, who helped found the research center in 1970, served as its director 1986-1996. He is recognized nationally as a major contributor to the development of modern mail, telephone and Internet survey methods.
"I often feel like I’m just one of the main beneficiaries of the intelligence and administrative skills of someone who knew far better than I did how to develop a survey research center,” Dillman said. Dillman said he was able to conduct much of his pioneering research because of the expertise and technology Tarnai brought to the SESRC.
"John was truly a lifelong learner,” said Rita Koontz, administrative manager at the SESRC. She said she admired "the quiet resolve he had to stay sharp in all aspects of life,” from conducting pioneering survey research, to administering the department through significant growth and changes, to being active in professional organizations and staying physically fit.
Tarnai was instrumental in helping to develop one of the country’s first CATI systems (computer assisted telephone interviewing) at WSU in 1984. His research included diverse and in-depth analysis of social science data gathering in a variety of formats, including mail surveys, telephone surveys, Internet surveys and self-administered questionnaires.
During the 31 years Tarnai was with the SESRC, the unit grew from a five-member unit to a full-time staff of 26 people working in three locations. Tarnai was the principal or co-principal investigator on nearly 600 projects with awards totaling nearly $25 million.
Under Tarnai’s leadership, Koontz said, the SESRC successfully transitioned from a university supported research group to a self-supporting unit in the mid 1990s. Tarnai set a high bar for professionalism, she said, and expected the group to be "continually in the process of being better than we were the day before.”
Danna Moore, associate director of the SESRC, said Tarnai fostered a spirit of cooperation and collaboration in the unit, but also gave people the freedom to be innovative and push forward with new ideas.
"John was just phenomenal in a lot of ways,” Moore said, not only the way he worked with data, but also the way he worked with people.”
Once people join the SESRC they tend not to leave, she said, with quite a few employees logging more than 15 years and a handful more in the 20-30 year range.
"That’s a testament to John’s leadership,” Moore said.
In 2011, Tarnai was elected president-elect of the Association of Academic Survey Research Organizations (AASRO), an organization he helped found in 2008. AASRO is a professional group of more than 60 survey research centers at public and private universities across the country.
In addition to his professional affiliations, Tarnai served on the WSU University Recreation board of directors since 2001.
Tarnai is survived by his wife, Chris Paxson, a research associate with the WSU ADVANCE project, and daughter, Berit Paxson-Tarnai. A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Thursday, May 10, in the Terrell Library atrium on the WSU Pullman campus. Personal stories or remembrances of Tarnai may be sent to Rita Koontz at Koontz@wsu.edu, or Don Dillman at Dillman@wsu.edu.
Condolences may be sent to the family at 515 SW Cityview, Pullman, WA, 99163 or email@example.com. Memorial donations may be sent to Stephanie Kane, AASRO Treasurer, c/o Social Science Research Unit, University of Idaho, PO Box 444290, Moscow, ID, 83844-4290.