Richard Saunders Pittman
19 February 1915 - 21 August 1998
Richard S. Pittman was one of the early leaders of the
Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL).
He led the organization's advance in the continent of Asia and
was a gifted linguist, statesman, writer, educator, and mentor. He
responded to his Christian, humanitarian and professional calling with amazing energy, awesome
dedication, and great ability, at considerable personal cost, and with
Dick Pittman was born in 1915 to a Christian family in Illinois. He went to high school
and college at Asbury in Wilmore, Kentucky, where he became acquainted
with Catherine (Kay) Matthews (b. 25 January 1914). They graduated in 1935, and were
married on the 31st of December, 1936. In 1938 Dick received a Graduate Fellow Scholarship to
study and to teach Spanish at Wheaton College.
Kay, Mary Louise, and Dick Pittman
In the spring of 1940 Dick and Kay took two carloads of students from Dick's
Spanish classes to Mexico. There they met Cameron Townsend, and, as those who
knew Townsend might have expected, they wound up attending the 7th session of Camp
Wycliffe in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas that summer. In the fall Dick and Kay,
with their two year old daughter Mary Louise (later Marilou) travelled by
truck to Mexico to take over from Townsend the Aztec (Nahuatl) language
in Tetelcingo, Morelos.
They were based in Tetelcingo for 10 years, and their daughter Margaret Ann (Peggy)
and son Robert (Bob) were born in Mexico during that time.
The Pittmans in Tetelcingo
Dick and Kay loved Tetelcingo and its people, and their
Mösiehuali language. A number of important linguistic publications grew out of that love,
(Dick's Ph.D. dissertation, published by the prestigious journal Language) on the grammar of the language, and Pittman 1961
on its phonemic system.
Dick Pittman studying Mösiehuali
(with Tomás Rodríguez, Bob Pittman looking on,
a bescomatl granary in the background)
But the Pittmans were not destined to remain in peace in Tetelcingo. In 1943
Dick was elected Director of the Mexico Branch of the Summer Institute
of Linguistics (SIL). This required frequent trips between Tetelcingo
and Mexico City. In the
summer of 1945 he studied linguistics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and in 1947-48 he earned an MA in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania.
During the summers
of 1947-1950, the Pittmans
participated in SIL sessions in Saskatchewan, Canada, with Dick directing in
The years from 1951-1953 witnessed a mind-boggling succession of
activities and accomplishments. During most if not all of this time Dick
functioned as a member of the Board of the Summer Institute of
Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible Translators. In January 1951 he headed up the
second session of the Australian SIL, and that spring he went to survey
languages in the Philippines. There he met with the Minister of Foreign
Affairs, Carlos Rómulo, who eventually became a close friend. In the
summer the Pittmans were at the SIL school in the University of Oklahoma,
and Dick returned briefly to Mexico to allocate Forrest and Jean Brewer to take his and
Kay's place in Tetelcingo. That fall he entered the graduate program
in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed the
program in less than two years, receiving his Ph.D.in 1953.
In the spring of 1952 Pittman received a telephone call from Ramón
Magsaysay, Minister of Defense of the Philippines, thanking him for
sending a copy of Cameron Townsend's biography of General Lázaro
Cárdenas. This contact would later develop into the beginning of SIL
work in the Philippines.
In the summer of 1952 Dick Pittman founded the
SIL course at the University of North Dakota,
which is now the longest-running SIL-University partnership in the
world. From then until 1972,
with the exception of two years (1955 and 1956),
the Pittmans were at North Dakota every summer,
with Dick directing the course through 1971.
Dick also began and for many years edited the
published annually from 1957 till the present.
In the fall of 1952 the Pittmans, with Howard and Bobi McKaughan, went to the Philippines to
begin SIL work there. And in 1953 the first edition of the
name coined by Dick) appeared, edited by Dick and Wilf Douglas, at the
5th session of the Australian SIL, where Dick was director. Dick
continued as editor of the Ethnologue for two decades.
The Ethnologue is recognized worldwide as an authoritative and
indispensable tool for those who wish to know what languages are spoken
in the world.
In 1955 Dick was appointed SIL's Asia & Pacific Area Director. He
travelled constantly over the next twenty years, and negotiated
contracts with governments or their agencies for the beginning of SIL
work in Papua New Guinea (1956), Viet Nam (1957), India (1960), Nepal
(1966), and Indonesia (1974). He also made numerous trips to countries
where official contracts did not result, including Laos, Pakistan, and
Afghanistan. During a number of these years Dick held the post of
Deputy General Director of SIL (the General Director being
In the late 1970's the Pittmans moved to the United States. Dick researched, designed, and supervised the
construction of the
Museum of the Alphabet
and the Mexico-Cárdenas Museum
in Waxhaw, North Carolina. These museums provide thousands
of visitors yearly with the opportunity to learn a little about the great
work of providing writing systems for the world's languages, and the part
that Mexico and Cárdenas had in furthering that endeavor.
Dick Pittman was a prolific writer, though with typical humility he
published a number of books with no author's name on them. They
include, besides his linguistic work, a series of books on international
relations and other foundational issues for SIL, and biographical works.
He was a memorable teacher and mentor, with a constantly inquiring mind
and an unforgettable penchant for apt analogies from biology and horticulture.
Dr. Richard S. Pittman
Dick Pittman remained active throughout his life, still going to his
office up until a month before his death. He died in Waxhaw, North
Carolina, on the 21st of August, 1998.
The photographs used in this article are from
the Historical Archive of the Mexico Branch of SIL
or from the personal collections of members of the Pittman family.
They are used by permission.