William F. Shipley, 1921-2011

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[Update: a memorial page for Bill, to which people can contribute thoughts, pictures, etc., can be found here.]

It saddens me greatly to report that William F. Shipley passed away on January 20, 2011. He was 89 years old. Bill was my first linguistics professor, my first advisor and mentor, my first academic collaborator, and my dear, dear friend. I already miss him more than I am able to put into words.

Bill completed his dissertation under the direction of Mary Haas at UC Berkeley in 1959, a grammar of the Native California language Maidu (published in the University of California Publications in Linguistics series in 1964, with a dictionary and texts published in 1963). In 1966, he left an appointment at Berkeley to be among the very first faculty to participate in the big experiment that UC Santa Cruz was at the time, and he retired from UCSC in 1991.

Bill’s commitment to documenting and disseminating what he knew about Maidu language and culture extended well beyond his retirement. 1991 saw the publication of his edited and translated volume of Maidu myths and stories (The Maidu Indian Myths and Stories of Hánc’ibyjim), some of which he later republished in a beautifully illustrated side-by-side Maidu-English format he had originally wanted. [I don’t have the reference at hand at the moment, but will replace this text with it when I do. — EB] About a decade later, Bill met Kenny Holbrook, the grandson of Maym Gallagher, the main language consultant for Bill’s work on his Maidu grammar, texts, and dictionary. Kenny had the aptitude and motivation to learn Maidu, and so Bill set out to teach him, not only to speak it but to understand its structure the way Bill did. The story of Bill’s work with Kenny is told in this 2004 Mother Jones article.

I was fortunate to get to know Bill as well as I did. I was an accidental undergraduate, with absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I stumbled into linguistics, and my first class was with Bill. I was sold on the whole of academia right then and there: I wanted to teach and impart knowledge like Bill did, I wanted to advise students like Bill did, and I wanted to care about what I do like Bill did. Later, when reading and appreciating his research, I wanted to do that like Bill did, too. Bill somehow saw all this desire in me and encouraged it. He asked me to be a reader for his courses, and even to teach one of his class sessions on my own; that’s how I learned that having to teach something is the best way to learn a lot about it in a very short amount of time. With his help, I wrote a term paper on Maidu syntax and he asked me to present it at a workshop; that’s how I learned how to do research, how to put together a conference abstract and handout, and how to write up a professional-looking paper.

Bill led by example. I learned things from him that he probably never imagined he was actually teaching me. Like how to listen to students with wild and crazy (or possibly even stupid) ideas without making them feel stupid; in short, how to treat everyone with respect. I also learned from Bill that a full and meaningful life takes effort: you have to participate in it to earn it. Bill led that kind of life, he threw himself into it — and he recalled events vividly, and would retell them if you asked. (And I always asked because he was such a great storyteller. You can get something of a sense of Bill’s storytelling abilities — and of his life in general — here.)

Now that I’m a parent, I know what Bill’s most important lesson of all was: how to love your children and enjoy spending time with them. Bill had no greater love than the love he had for his children Betsy and Michael, and he showed it in so many ways. I only hope that I can do the same for my own daughter. I wish she could get to know him, but at least she got to meet him.

Bill’s UCSC colleague Sandy Chung reminded me of a sign that hung in Bill’s office, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” I’m certain that all of us who knew Bill are feeling a deep loss with the coming to dust of this golden lad. But, as Bill sometimes said when there was little else to say, there you have it.

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