Ernest G. Bormann was "A Real MENSH(or MENCH)" (THE OF YIDDISH PAGE 234, First Pocket Books April 2000) of consequence, someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character"
Ernie Bormann taught me many things. But two stand out as ways in which his legacy defines profoundly who I am. The first is the sense of discipline. I took Intro to Grad Study from Ernie, using Bormann's book on that subject. But it was his example rather than his book that defined the course. Every morning Ernie arose at the same time, did his constitutional trip around Lake of the Isles, ate breakfast with his family, went to his typewriter (later computer) and wrote; until exactly the same time each day, when he headed for campus. This account seemed so plausible to those of us who were learning what it meant to be a scholar because we could see that kind of discipline in all his work, and his insistence on that kind of discipline in us. There was no more important lesson to those maturing in the 1960s than this: that discipline gave rather than took freedom. To this day, moments or even days wasted shape guilt because I am failing the ideal I learned from Ernie that first semester in graduate school.
The other great lesson that Ernie taught was in the pattern of his scholarship. In a day of specialists, Ernie was a serial specialist: in sequence, operator of the campus radio station, debate coach, public address scholar, leader of the Minnesota Studies in Small Group Communication, leader of the Turtle Racers, back to public address scholar. I have, no doubt, left out some stages. Ernie was not exactly a renaissance man; he did not so much juggle balls in the air as he demonstrated how to develop mastery of a subject matter and then move to a more exciting project. Again, there was a freedom to know that a subject once chosen did not define the rest of your life if you knew how to master whatever subject was your occupation.
So, although I will miss Ernie, he will live on in my scholarship and in the students that I may have influenced to see themselves as scholars in the Bormann way. Tonight, I shall put on my Turtle Racer's cap, pour some fine wine in my Turtle Racer's cup, and lift it to my Turtle Racer's poster ("Behold the turtle who makes progress only when he sticks his neck out"), and to my great teacher Ernie Bormann and all those—Turtle Racers and others—who he so profoundly influenced. A life well lived! Indeed!
I am very proud to be an advisee of Ernest Bormann and his death hit me hard. I appreciated very much the thoughts of Drs. Klumpp and Cragan & Shields. Like Jim Klumpp, I have my own set of memories of Dr. Bormann. One was a talk we had early in my doctoral student career after his work had been publicly criticized in one of our journals. I asked him how a scholar handles harsh criticism. Dr. Bormann replied that he appreciated criticism when it came from a "friend of the project." He went on to explain that a "friend of the project" is motivated to make the work the best it could be, rather than self-aggrandize. Following Ernie Bormann's example, I strive to be a "friend of the project" as I respond to student work, presentations, and journal articles.
A second memory occurred at the University of Minnesota's weekly "Wednesday Noon Research" colloquium. A delightful visiting international scholar had been chiding the department about being so polite in their questions at these events (which I recognized as their "talking Minnesota" and best "friend of the project" style). Finally the time came for this colleague to present his work at Wednesday Noon Research. In the Q&A period Ernest Bormann quietly launched into a very smart and challenging line of questioning that left this colleague sputtering, by my recollection. When he was finished, with a twinkle in his eye and wry smile, Bormann quietly exclaimed, "Welcome to America."
Two final personal memories are very precious to me. Dr. Bormann took on advising my dissertation even though I was not working in an area even remotely related to his own interest. Now that I advise my own doctoral students, I realize what a push and labor of love this is for an advisor. He was a fantastic editor for my work and in his best "friend of the project" way, he challenged me to think beyond my comfort zone. I was a good student, but certainly not at the top of his heap. Dr. Bormann was kind when I finished my dissertation, but not effusive with his praise either. About a dozen years after my graduation, I returned to Minnesota to lecture at "Wednesday Noon Research." After dinner, I walked Ernie and Nancy Bormann to their car. As he ducked into the vehicle, Ernie turned to me, and quietly told me he was proud of me and what I had accomplished. That meant more to me than I can ever say.
As the years went on, Ernie kindly followed my work. The last time I saw him in April 2007, was in the twilight of his life. Several of us spoke on a panel at CSCA in honor of his Symbolic Convergence Theory. As we talked at dinner that evening, Ernie remembered that I has just published a new book and asked me about the project and about my work with NCA. I will never forget his kindness. I will always be in awe of his brilliance, his love of learning. He is a role model for a scholar, and we share a love for the discipline of communication. I venture to say that all of his students would comment on these things and we are proud that he lives on in us and in our students.
We are saddened to report that our friend and mentor, Ernest G. Bormann, has passed away. He suffered a heart attack in his home on December 22nd, 2008, and was transported to a Minneapolis hospital where he died a few days later. His wife, Nancy, said that there will be a memorial service for him later in the spring. We will make a post when we have further information concerning that service. Ernie is survived by his wife, Nancy, their four daughters (Lisa, Ruth, Ellen and Sally) and four grandsons. Ernie is also survived by his brother, Dennis, who is Professor Emeritus in Communication at the University of Nebraska.
The Communication Studies Department at the University of Minnesota, where he was Professor Emeritus, and the communication discipline, has lost one of its greatest scholars. The faculty and students will miss him but his presence will live on in the lines of research and the body of scholarship he contributed to the discipline. His many students will mourn his passing. His gentle mentoring of scores of Minnesota graduate students created a generation of professors who have attempted to follow in his footsteps. Fortunately, before he died, he was able to witness the establishment of the University of Minnesota Foundation's Symbolic Convergence Theory Graduate Student Fellowship in his honor.
Dr. Bormann was a combat veteran of WWII. After the war in Europe, he returned to his home state of South Dakota where he received his Bachelor's degree from the University of South Dakota in 1949. By 1953, he had earned his Masters and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa. While at Iowa, Ernie met Nancy and it was there that he also formed a lifelong friendship with Sam Becker. The combined scholarship of these two former roommates at Iowa is truly impressive. After briefly teaching at Eastern Illinois and Florida State, Ernie accepted an appointment at the University of Minnesota in 1959. There he taught public address, group communication, research methods, and communication theory. He retired from active teaching in 1995, but continued with his scholarship, especially his work on Symbolic Convergence Theory which blended the study of small group communication with rhetorical theory.
Professor Bormann wrote a number of books including: Communication Theory; The Force of Fantasy: Restoring the American Dream; Speech Communication: A Basic Approach (co-authored with Nancy); Discussion and Group Methods: Theory and Practice; and Forerunners of Black Power: The Rhetoric of Abolition. In addition, he authored or co-authored scores of articles and book chapters. His article in QJS, "Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Realty," received the Charles H. Woolbert Research Award in 1983. This article launched a series of studies and publications that formed a body of scholarship that built the rhetorical method of fantasy theme analysis and grounded the general communication theory, Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT). The SCT bibliography now exceeds 1,000 original studies. In addition to the Woolbert Award, Ernie also received the Distinguished Service Award (1990), the Distinguished Scholar Award (1992), and the Distinguished Mentor Award (2000), from the National Communication Association (NCA). He also has been honored by NCA via the Ernest Bormann Research Award given annually to a deserving scholar for a book on small group communication. In 1988 he received the B. Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award from the International Communication Association and in 2004 he was inducted into the Central States Communication Association's Hall of Fame.
In his last years of retirement, Ernie focused on his family's annual trip to the north shore of Lake Superior for the month of August. This getaway from the Twin Cities allowed him to golf and play with his grandchildren. He also got to watch his daughter, Lisa, paint landscapes that she shows at Twin City galleries. He continued to write plays, children's books, and work on Symbolic Convergence Theory. Finally, to use a cliche that truly applies to Ernie, we will not see a man of his stature soon pass this way.
John Cragan and Donald Shields
In response to inquiries received by the Department, here is the link to where interested parties can contribute to the Ernest Bormann Symbolic Convergence Theory Fellowship