William Cameron Townsend
Stimulator of linguistic research among ethnic minorities and champion of their cultural dignity
Compiled by Calvin Hibbard
Honors and later life
Townsend taught classes in linguistics at the two oldest universities of the Western hemisphere, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos of Peru. In 1966 a doctorate, honoris causa,was conferred upon him by the University of San Marcos. In addition, he received decorations from five Latin American governments. In 1972 Townsend was proclaimed "Benefactor of the Linguistically Isolated Populations of America" by the Seventh Inter-American Indian Congress. This document is signed by H.E. Dr. Galo Plaza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States.
Townsend was for many years interested in the geographical area of the Caucasus in the then-USSR, a territory unique in its great diversity of languages. Under the auspices of the USSR Academy of Sciences Townsend and his wife, Elaine, traveled throughout that region as well as several others. Their travels included many visits to educational and linguistic institutions and were the basis for Townsend's book They Found a Common Language (published in 1972 by Harper & Row, New York, later published in Spanish by the Secretariat of Education of Mexico). Townsend's long experience in bilingual education in Guatemala, Mexico, and South America won him wide recognition and respect as evidenced by his invitation to address the UNESCO Congress on Bilingual Education in October 1972 in Turkmenia, Central Asia. As a result of his optimistic presentation there, the President of Pakistan invited the Townsends to visit his country the following year as official guests of his government for the purpose of consulting with educators regarding the difficult problems they face because of multilingualism.
In retrospect, it hardly needs emphasizing that during his long career Townsend was not one to sit in an office. He was usually out among the workers where the action was. He made his home in Guatemala from 1917 to 1934, in Mexico from 1935 to 1946, in Peru from 1946 to 1963, and in Colombia from 1963 to 1968. After 1968 he and his wife made eleven trips to the then-USSR from their home in North Carolina.
Yet somehow he found time to write. As has been mentioned, his first book was his 1952 biography of General Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico. This book describes the great social changes that took place during Cárdenas' regime as president. It was Townsend's involvement in social development that inspired his writing endeavors. His booklets, such as his 86-page "The Truth About Mexico's Oil" (1940), treat more popular issues; he also wrote many articles for the press. His other writings are listed in the bibliography that follows.
Townsend was an extraordinary combination of
the idealist and the down-to-earth social workera mixture that sometimes
amazed his friends and confounded his opponents. He was successful according to
his declared purposes and those achievements brought him international acclaim.
This success he attributed not to himself but to the power of God to whom he
constantly looked for strength in the face of world needs too vast for puny