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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 remarkable results.

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
ca. 1940

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 work 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, including  Pittman 1948 on the Mösiehuali honorifics, Pittman 1954 (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 1948.

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 SIL-UND Workpapers, 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 Ethnologue (a 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.

The Pittmans
ca. 1955

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 Cameron Townsend.)

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.

—David Tuggy

Related pages:

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.

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