William Cameron Townsend
Stimulator of linguistic research among ethnic minorities and champion of their cultural dignity
Compiled by Calvin Hibbard
Establishing another work, in Peru
In 1944 the SIL work in Mexico was well under way with trained personnel. But in the fall of that year Townsend was called to California by his wife's illness and subsequent death. Hurt, but not incapacitated, he returned to Mexico and began laying plans for responding to an invitation from the government of Peru to begin work in that country. In 1946 he married Elaine Mielke, a former supervisor of special education in Chicago, and a few weeks later the two of them led a group of 20 young SIL linguists and support personnel to begin work in the eastern rain forests of that land where some 40 indigenous groups were scattered over thousands of square miles of jungle. Most villages were accessible only by river. These people spoke languages that had never been analyzed or written.
After a six-week survey of the topography by air and by river, Townsend and his colleagues set about solving the enormous logistical problems posed by this vast inhospitable jungle. First a centrally located supply hub had to be carved out of the jungle. They settled on the shoreline of a lake named Yarinacocha. It would also serve as an ethnolinguistic study center. At first the problems seemed insurmountable, but help began to come from friends in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. To solve the problem of transport, civic groups and friends donated small float planes so the linguists could be flown to remote villages. Most notable was the gift of a twin-engine Catalina flying boat, the "Moisés Sáenz," a gift of Mexican friends to the Peruvian government for the work of SIL. For twenty years this amphibious plane, honoring the Mexican educator who invited Townsend to Mexico, flew thousands of miles in Peru's Amazonia.
As results from the linguistic studies became available, the Peruvian government, at Townsend's suggestion, set up a specialized school at Yarinacocha to train gifted Indians as teachers. They would teach basic education first in their native languages and, progressively, in Spanish. Small, single-engine float planes and the "Moisés Sáenz" were used to bring teacher candidates to Yarinacocha from widely scattered and isolated streams of the jungle. The program continues to this date with a Peruvian director who designs the courses and Peruvian educators who teach in Spanish. A bridge to the vernacular languages is supplied by SIL linguists who supplement the instruction by translating difficult parts of the lectures and some text materials into those languages to ensure comprehension. Once the students are satisfactorily trained, the government, through its specially created bilingual education system, appoints them to be official school teachers in their villages, paying them rural schoolteacher salaries.
Another of Townsend's dreams was to promote international goodwill. Airplane donations were one effective way of doing this. Through persistent visitation and encouragement Townsend persuaded leading citizens and officials of various cities in the United States to donate small, high-performance, short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) aircraft to a number of countries where SIL worked. Each plane was presented to the ambassador of the receiving country by the mayor of the donating city. These ceremonies became occasions for heightening international friendships and publicizing common goals.