Professor Robert Whitman Dies at 78

Posted 05/15/08
Robert H. Whitman, professor of Russian emeritus, died recently in Berkeley, Calif. He was 78 years old.

Professor Whitman was trained as a linguist. He earned a bachelor of arts from Hamilton College and a Ph.D from Harvard University and joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1959.

He left Wesleyan in 1963 and spent a year in the USSR, then returned to teach and continue his research at Cornell University, the University of Indiana, and the University of California at Berkeley, before returning to Wesleyan in 1971. He was a visiting professor at Yale for one semester, served as chair of the Educational Policy Committee, and taught courses in Old Russian literature and the history of the Russian language.

Professor Whitman founded a program in linguistics, with the participation of members of the anthropology, philosophy, English and psychology departments, and for many years taught popular courses in general linguistics, directing numerous honors theses written by students who went on to become professional linguists. He retired from the Wesleyan faculty in 1997.

“Bob had an extraordinary ability to inspire students to do sophisticated work, both in tutorials and in class, giving students confidence in their insights by exploring the most fruitful dimensions of what they had to say,” says Whitman’s former colleague Priscilla Meyer, professor of Russian language and literature. “He enlivened department meetings with his love of linguistic play, and was enormously generous with his time to colleagues as well as students.”

Meyer adds that in 1975, Professor Whitman took over a five-days-a-week Russian language class for a month to replace an incapacitated colleague.

Professor Whitman is survived by his wife Fran of Berkeley, Calif., his daughter Julie Zai, and grandchildren Claire and Andreus, who live in Franktown, Colo.