Sam L. Witryol, professor emeritus of psychology who taught at the Storrs campus for more than 60 years, died on Aug. 3. He was 93.
Witryol joined the faculty of the Department of Psychology at UConn as a member of the clinical psychology program in 1949, after earning his undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Syracuse University. His early research focused on dimensions of social intelligence.
At that time, the psychology department was housed in temporary naval barracks, with limited teaching and laboratory facilities. Throughout the 1950s, the small faculty built up the department, as the field of psychology expanded to meet post-war demands.
Ten years later, his proposal to initiate a child and developmental psychology program became a reality. He headed that program for more than 30 years, and it developed into one of the country’s finest in the discipline. Organized within the department, rather than as an interdisciplinary endeavor, it became a model for other universities.
“Child psychology is all of psychology applied to children,” Witryol once said. “In that sense, we are among the last of the generalists.”
Witryol’s research specialty was children’s learning, particularly the development of curiosity in children, the role of motivation, and the effects of different incentives. The quality of his research was a significant factor in his receipt of an NIH grant for a graduate training program in the psychology of mental retardation in the 1960s. Much of this work was conducted at the Mansfield Training School, and he was a trustee of that institution from 1976 to 1991.
Although he retired as a full-time professor in 1992, he continued to teach one course a semester for many years.
“I like young people, they keep me young,” he was quoted as saying in a 1999 article in the UConn Advance. “And I’ve always remained interested in psychology. Every time I teach, I learn something I’ve never thought about before, or even seen before. It’s a constant challenge and discovery.”
The late Professor Skip Lowe, former head of the psychology department, was also interviewed for the article. “Sam Witryol, in some ways, represents the epitome of what a professor of psychology is about,” Lowe said. “He thinks, lives, and breathes psychology. And he’s still willing to talk about it at the drop of a hat to anybody who’s interested.”
Witryol’s service to the profession and to the University is also noteworthy. He served as an associate editor of Psychological Reports, and was on the editorial boards of several important developmental journals. In recognition of his research on learning and of his professional contributions, he was elected fellow of the American Psychological Association and of the Society for Research in Child Development. At UConn, he served on the University Senate for many years and was president of the local chapters of the AAUP and Phi Beta Kappa.
He also took a keen interest in UConn women’s athletics, and developed a strong camaraderie with the women’s coaches and their student-athletes. In 2009, members of the UConn women’s rowing team honored Witryol by naming their new Pocock racing shell after him, Witryol’s Wake, Professor Sam.
Predeceased by his wife, Witryol is survived by his three children, Amy, Faith, and Walter.