Dr. Sampo Paunonen

Dr. Sampo Paunonen

Sam Paunonen:  Colleague, Mentor, and Friend

Sampo Vilho Paunonen, better known as “Sam,” passed away on December 29 after an intense battle for several weeks with a sudden illness. He was 63. Sam received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. here at Western in the Department of Psychology. Aside from a brief position at the University of Toronto, Sam’s entire academic career was spent in Psychology at Western, starting as a Research Associate in 1984 and progressing up the ranks to Professor, which he earned in 1997.

Sam was one of our country’s most respected personality researchers. He authored or co-authored more than 90 publications, many of which appeared in the most prestigious peer-reviewed journals of his field. Among his many professional accomplishments were the creation of a non-verbal personality measure suitable for use across cultures, and important advances in the use of personality measures for predicting behavior.

For the graduate students Sam supervised, he was above all generous: Generous with financial support from his research grants; generous in offering collaboration on various research projects; generous with his time in meeting and mentoring. In the years after his students graduated, Sam remained a mentor to them. With any phone call to Sam one could be sure of an enthusiastic greeting and friendly advice. In his interactions with students (as with everyone else), Sam was direct and frank, with a decidedly down-to-earth style of talking.  But at the same time he was gentlemanly and friendly, and he quickly made new graduate students feel at ease.  

As a supervisor, Sam combined a spirit of constructive criticism with a legendary thoroughness and attention to detail: Any manuscript draft that landed on Sam’s flawlessly tidy desk would soon come back covered in comments written with his famous blue felt pen.

Besides being highly esteemed by his graduate students, Sam was much appreciated by undergrads. He taught difficult and demanding courses on such topics as personality theory, psychological measurement, and test construction, but his relaxed and informal style of lecturing—and particularly his humorous digressions—made the experience enjoyable. This quote from a student’s comment in Rate My Professor nicely summarizes his dexterity in the classroom: “This class might be the hardest class I have ever taken, but I do not regret it. I love this prof, he is funny, and makes lectures interesting.” In 1991-1992 he was voted Western Undergraduate Psychology Association Psychology Professor of the Year.

Putting his academic accomplishments aside, what most of us will remember is Sam the individual.  He was a disarmingly unpretentious and friendly guy who was as far from the prototype of the stuffy professor as you could get, and his areas of expertise extended beyond academia and into auto mechanics, construction, electrical work, and masonry. He once mentioned that the ceiling in his garage had not been properly constructed and was sagging a bit. This bothered him so much that he replaced the ceiling himself one weekend – the right way this time. A long-time colleague of his remarked that you could “chat with him about almost anything that involved doing things the right way: using proper grammar, reliability, the correct way to install roof shingles using a chalk line, and debating whether music should be recorded in digital or in the old analog format.” In fact, Sam loved a spirited debate about anything – such as the relative contributions of Lennon versus McCartney to the Beatles (he was pro McCartney) or who made the best pizza in town.

Sam’s friends and colleagues from his graduate student days will recall many stories that set the pattern for his life – his work ethic, determination, willingness to help his fellow students, and unrelenting desire to find the right solution. And through it all of course, there was his sense of humor and down to earth unpretentious manner. For example, Sam began his work in the nonverbal measurement of personality for his dissertation by developing hundreds of “stick-figure” drawings as test items. These items were the source of much kidding from his fellow students and many outrageous suggestions were made for items. But Sam knew what he was doing and just smiled at the raucous suggestions. This work was very successful and got his career off to a very productive start.

Sam’s determination to find the right solution had its hilarious moments. One day he posed the question to his colleagues “I wonder if it takes more energy to roll toilet paper off the top or bottom of the roll?” He set to work with several fellow students to develop an algebraic solution to this problem. A short time later, another graduate student at the time who did his undergraduate degree in physics, wandered into Sam’s office to see what the commotion was all about. He calmly pointed out that they were not taking into consideration the force of gravity or the initial force applied to tugging on the toilet paper roll. He calmly wrote a formula on the board and left. Sam quipped “well, I guess a degree in physics is good for something”.

Another time, Sam set out to work through a factor analysis by hand, “to really see how it works”. A few days into this project, the eminent Douglas Jackson walked into Sam’s office and suggested with considerable amusement that the computer had been invented for such tasks. Sam retorted “yes, but do we know that the computer is doing it correctly?” There are so many more stories from this era that could be told. They all illustrate what a remarkable and wonderful guy he was.   

Sam was respected, admired, and genuinely liked by all his many friends and colleagues.  He will be missed.