Nelson Polsby has just passed away. Nelson was a giant of American political science, a leading academic authority on presidential elections, Congress, political party reform, and a host of other topics. His PhD thesis was one of political science's path-altering works, demolishing the intellectual underpinnings of the community power literature, which was then all the rage in the academy. He was also the greatest teacher I ever had and an extraordinarily sweet, generous, and funny man.
During my freshman year at Berkeley in 1992, I was lucky enough to gain a spot in Nelson's freshman seminar on Presidential Elections. Nelson taught the seminar once every four years, so I was in the right place at the right time. He ran the freshman seminar as though he was leading a graduate student seminar - expecting the best out of his young students, leading us toward genuine insights, and gently demanding intellectual rigor. He brought in some of the leading academics, journalists, and politicos of the day to talk with us, and somehow always managed to keep their egos in check, so that they would talk with us instead of at us. Nelson was a pragmatist, but a charismatic one, and by the seminar's conclusion, we had become his groupies. During the next three years of my undergraduate education, my legal education, and my academic career, I always tried to tackle problems in the clear-headed, intellectually honest way that Nelson did, not always succeeding, but doing far better than I'd have done without him as a role model.