Vanderbilt political scientist noted for expertise on Communist China dies

Derek John Waller, a retired Vanderbilt University political scientist who taught and wrote extensively about the politics of Communist China, died on Dec. 31, 2009. The Sewanee, Tenn., resident, who was 72, had suffered from pancreatic cancer.

Waller, a professor of political science, emeritus, taught Vanderbilt’s first course on the Communist Chinese system of government during a time of keen American interest in China’s turbulent political and cultural developments.

The British native was a graduate of the London School of Economics. He earned his master’s at Indiana University and doctorate at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 1969. Waller was conducting research in Hong Kong during the summer of 1971 when he managed to secure a visa to visit mainland China. Waller’s trip occurred several months before President Richard Nixon’s famed visit to the People’s Republic of China.

The Tennessean later reported on his trip, noting that he had walked across a bridge into Red China. Waller was quoted in the article as saying “everyone was friendly, in marked contrast to official propaganda. There were placards everywhere condemning the United States and its policy in Vietnam.” During that same trip, Waller visited West Pakistan, where he found strong evidence of “massive economic aid from Russia.”

Waller was a former associate dean and director of the Vanderbilt’s East Asian Studies Program. He developed Vanderbilt’s International Studies Program in London and served as director of Vanderbilt-in-England.

Waller was a collector and dealer of rare books on Tibet and India. His publications included The Pundits; British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia (1990), which was translated into Japanese, and The Government and Politics of the People’s Republic of China (1981).

“Derek was a wonderful professor who was deeply admired by faculty and students,” Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science and acting department chair, said. “He was a class act in every sense of the word and will be greatly missed.”

Erwin Hargrove, professor of political science, emeritus, and former department chair, remembers Waller as “a delightful colleague who loved to travel to faraway countries, including Singapore, India and Burma. He was deeply curious and versatile in his knowledge of a wide range of subjects.”

During his retirement he volunteered for the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and Sewanee Elementary School and was secretary of the University of the South’s Friends of the Library board.

Waller is survived by his wife, Gayle McKeen; son, Daniel; daughter, Juliet (Alan) and grandson, Eli. A memorial reception will be held in Sewanee in January at a time to be announced later.

Media contact: Ann Marie Deer Owens, (615) 322-NEWS

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