Distinguished professor emeritus Samuel G. Armistead, one of the world’s leading scholars of Spanish literature and language, died of natural causes on Aug. 7 at his Davis home. He was 85.
His scholarly work ranged from the ballads of Spain and North Africa, to the Faroe Islands; from the improvised poetry of the Canary Islands; to the dying language of the Isleños of St. Bernard Parish, La. He wrote some 30 books and more than 500 articles.
His colleagues considered his work on the “romancero” (oral tradition and ballad), especially Sephardic folklore, to be one of his crowning achievements. Armistead clearly embraced the field: He was known for breaking out into medieval ballads in class.
“Sam Armistead was the real soul of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese,” said his friend and departmental colleague, Professor Robert Blake.
“Wherever our faculty traveled in the world, scholars would ask about Sam,” Blake said. “His stature in the field of Spanish letters is that of a giant, a pioneer in oral tradition studies.
“He was conversant in nine world languages,” Blake added. “Yet, he was humble, kind and generous. We all love him without exception. He will be sorely missed.”
Armistead joined the UC Davis faculty in 1982; he served as department co-chair from 2000 to 2002. He had taught at Princeton (his alma mater), UCLA, Purdue and the University of Pennsylvania before coming to UC Davis, and he taught at many other institutions as well, as a highly sought after visiting professor.
He received an honorary doctorate from the Universidad de Alcalá (Madrid) in 2010 and was named a corresponding member of the Real Academia Española in 2009. Ten years earlier he received the highly prestigious Antonio Nebrija award from the University of Salamanca (Spain).
He grew up in Philadelphia and attended William Penn Charter School, guided by his mother, an avid reader and historian. She was fluent in several world languages, a talent that he inherited and would cultivate as an adult.
Having expressed a desire to learn Spanish, a young Armistead went to Cuba to stay with family friends. This trip sparked a lifelong curiosity about Hispanic culture, languages and literature, which later became the subject of some of his most productive scholarly work.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Princeton, and went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees at Princeton. It was also the place where he met the renowned Spanish historian Américo Castro, who would become Armistead’s mentor and leave an indelible mark on his academic formation.
His survivors include his wife of 30 years, Annie Laurie, a Davis yoga instructor; and a brother, Harry Armistead of Philadelphia.
A celebration of life is scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center.