William David Timberlake, 76

October 17, 2019

William David Timberlake passed away October 17, 2019 of complications from a fall.  He was a professor of psychology in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Biology.

An interdisciplinarian by nature, Bill brought ethological and evolutionary perspectives to the laboratory study of animal learning and behavior.  He developed a behavior systems approach that put the organization of the animal at the center of investigation into learning and other behaviors, and resolved vexing scientific puzzles across numerous areas and disciplines.  He also co-created (with Jim Allison) an approach to reinforcement that has influenced many areas of study, including– in the human realm -- research into the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder.  

A recent issue of the international journal Behavioral Processes celebrates, critiques, and extends the wide-ranging research legacy that Bill leaves behind. Go to: sciencedirect.com   Former doctoral student Rob Bowers, who co-edited the special issue with Peter Killeen and Michael Domjan  (research buddies from other universities) described Bill as “an innovator and a leader, with a creative and open mind, respected deeply by all who knew him.” Bill himself would have been bemused by this description, for he was clear that he could not have done his work without his students or colleagues, who significantly shaped his thinking.  He had a similar appreciation for the animals who collaborated in their research.

Bill joined IU’s faculty after earning his PhD in psychology at the University of Michigan in 1969.  According to family lore, he and another junior faculty member built a giant snow rat outside the psych building one winter, then gleefully identified themselves to an inquiring photographer using the names of two senior colleagues. Bill managed to survive that prank and spent his entire career at IU, training scientists from multiple disciplines in critical and integrative thinking, working to ensure the welfare of animals involved in campus research, developing courses and publications in research ethics, and earning awards for research and teaching along the way.

Bill was especially pleased to have co-founded, with distinguished biologist Ellen Ketterson,  IU’s Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, which over the years became internationally recognized for its interdisciplinary training of graduate students interested in animal behavior. This institutional legacy cemented Bill’s dedication to removing disciplinary blinders and building bridges between fields.  

Science was Bill’s life work and passion. But he was much more than a scientist’s scientist.  He will be remembered by his children for introducing them to basketball, the joys of music, napping, figuring things out, goofing off, closely observing the world around them, and all things animal.  He will be forever appreciated by his wife for his willingness to explore non-academic pursuits both with and without her company.  Bill practiced Buddhism, trained and showed a beloved Saluki, crafted poems, wrote songs and silly ditties, and studied guitar, sacred harp singing, yoga, and drawing. He even trained for a time to become a Trager massage therapist.

Fellow students of Buddhism at Gaden Khachoe Shing Monastery fondly recall Bill’s playfulness, dry wit, and what one of his teachers called his “kind, true heart.”  Soft-spoken, with slow, hesitant rhythms, he was a helper to the core, whether it was assisting university colleagues to acclimate to campus and to explore their ideas, mentoring students to cultivate their own research interests, carrying downed tree limbs to a burn pile on monastery grounds, or kneeling by a wheelchair to console a crying resident in the memory care facility he lived in for a time.  

Music was a singular joy for Bill. The son of a Baptist minister, he served as a church choir director while an undergraduate at Pomona College in California.  As a junior faculty member at IU, he played lead guitar in an off-campus band called “Skin Deep.”  Later, he sang in the Bloomington Chamber Singers, the Potluck Family Singers, Sam and the Saras, and the Bloomington Peace Choir, and he was still taking lessons in guitar just months before his passing.  In 2017, while he was an appreciative member of the Better Day Club, an adult day program in Bloomington, students at IU created a short film that revealed his unending love affair with rock n roll.  Go to : vimeo.com/253274971 

Though “Old Timer’s” dimmed Bill’s fine mind in later years and led to heart-breaking episodes of frustration, it failed to overshadow his underlying kindness.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  As his wife, Holly, liked to say, “as Bill’s mind faded, his heart just grew more luminous.“  Bill will be dearly missed by his wife, Holly Stocking, daughter Anne Timberlake and family of St. Louis, MO, and son William Ryder Timberlake of Bloomington.  Two siblings, the children of the Rev. Dr. W.B. Timberlake and Louzelle Spradling Timberlake, survive him – sister, Patricia L. Timberlake of Portland, Ore., and Burman S. Timberlake of Los Angeles, CA.  He is also survived by a niece, Shane Fisher of Seattle.  

The family is profoundly grateful for the support of our teachers and fellow students at Gaden Khachoe Shing Buddhist Monastery.  We are also deeply grateful to our many friends and neighbors and for the support of Heart to Heart Hospice, loving caregivers, and the entire Dementia Friendly Community that is Bloomington (too many individuals to name, but you know who you are). We could not have survived Bill’s often swiftly changing health challenges without you!  

A very informal celebration of Bill’s life (read “Sixties-California”) will be held Saturday, November 23, 2019, at a time and venue yet to be determined. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Gaden Khachoe Shing Buddhist Monastery, 2150 E. Dolan Rd., Bloomington IN 47408, to The Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, IU Foundation, or to the Alzheimer’s Resource Service, IU Health Foundation.


Send Condolence

We want to extend our sincere condolences to your family. Bill was a very special person, and we feel fortunate to have known him.

Matt Christ, Sophia Goodman, and family

When talking with Bill, I never knew where the conversation would go. He would bring up interesting, funny, odd things that carried the ability to intrigue, educate or inspire laughter. Whenever I see a goofy animal picture, I think of Bill and probably always will. What fun he and Dr. Dolittle must be having now!


I only came to know Bill near the end of his life, during the last month or so of the 5 months my mother, Edie Reed, spent in the memory care unit at Garden Villa. That's when Bill showed up as a new resident. My mother and Bill had much in common--he a psychologist, she a therapist, both musicians, both spiritual seekers. Bill was a bright light for my mother during her final weeks. I found him to possess a fascinating and creative mind and a warm, cheery and playful disposition. My son Adrian and I so enjoyed our conversations with Bill, whose dementia manifested in poetic language and brilliant creative connections. For example, one day we walked together down the hallway, and as we passed the door to each room, Bill asked me, "So, are each one of these schools of thought?" After my mother's death in April, Adrian and I stopped by Garden Villa once or twice to say hello to Bill. My brief time with him revealed an extraordinary person that I feel lucky to have encountered. Through teary eyes, I enjoyed reading about his life in the obituary, and I share my deepest sympathies with his family and friends who clearly have lost a gem of a human.

Daniel Reed

   I took an animal behavior class with Dr. Timberlake at IU many years ago (around 1981-ish) and remember him very clearly as an excellent teacher who inspired curiosity in his students. I love the story about the giant snow rat! (My dad was also a psychology professor and I suspect he would have loved that story, too.) My deep condolences to his family and loved ones.

   Anne Haines