Thursday, November 23

Passionate linguistics professor, marathon runner dies at 75


UCLA linguistics professor Russell Schuh died Nov. 8 at the age of 75 of cancer. He was passionate about Chadic languages in northern Nigeria and was dedicated to teaching students, said Gretchen Kelly, his daughter. (UCLA Linguistics Department)

UCLA linguistics professor Russell Schuh died Nov. 8 at the age of 75 of cancer. He was passionate about Chadic languages in northern Nigeria and was dedicated to teaching students, said Gretchen Kelly, his daughter. (UCLA Linguistics Department)


Every time Russell Schuh ran the Los Angeles marathon, he wore the same shirt from the UCLA linguistics department and red high school shorts.

They were falling apart and full of holes, but he considered them his lucky running clothes, said Gretchen Kelly, his daughter.

Schuh, a professor in the UCLA linguistics department, died Nov. 8 from cancer, at the age of 75. The department of linguistics is planning a commemorative meeting for next quarter.

Schuh, who taught at UCLA for more than 40 years, brought to light several languages that are spoken by small populations.

“He was a top linguistic fieldworker and made many trips to northern Nigeria to study (multiple languages) … about which we would know almost nothing if it were not for Russ,” said Bruce Hayes, the current chair of the linguistics department.

Schuh specialized in the Chadic languages, spoken in northern Nigeria. His two works, A Grammar of Miya and A Dictionary of Ngizim, opened the door for people to learn about Chadic languages, she said. He also changed the way Linguistics 1: “Introduction to Study of Language” was being taught at UCLA.

He received his undergraduate degree in French from the University of Oregon in 1963 and went on to attend graduate school at UC Berkeley. He later joined the Peace Corps, where he worked on literacy in Niger.

“During this time, he developed his love for African languages and learned to speak Hausa,” Kelly said.

When he returned to the U.S., he attended UCLA, where he received his doctorate in linguistics.

In the ’90s, he served as the linguistics department chair for a term and as the chair of the applied linguistics department. Last year, Schuh was recognized as a distinguished professor for his achievements in reinventing the linguistics curriculum.

Schuh was a passionate marathoner, Kelly said. Schuh ran the Los Angeles Marathon every year until he was 74 years old, and achieved his goal of placing in the top five of his age category several times.

“One time he returned from a trip to Nigeria with a case of malaria and he still went running,” Kelly said.

[Related: Linguistics professor uses running as a creative outlet]

Larry Hyman, Schuh’s colleague and a UC Berkeley professor, said Schuh was hard-working, determined and honest in his work.

“I asked him, in 1971, for any data analysis on his class and he immediately typed up a lot of analyses, sending me a dozen even though I only wanted only one or two,” said Hyman.

Hyman added Schuh was very involved in his work and took his teaching very seriously.

“He was happy when he was doing work, and if he couldn’t … it drove him crazy,” Kelly said.

Hyman said Schuh inspired him because he remained strong until the end of his life.

“We finished our paper in Russ’s dining room, two weeks before he died, and I found it comforting to receive this firm evidence that Russ’s mind remained incisive to the very end,” Hayes said.

Kelly said Schuh was eccentric and had an offbeat sense of humor. Schuh would put on traditional Nigerian clothing for any special occasion and even going out to eat, she said.

“He was someone who lived his life to its full potential and made the most of every minute he had,” Kelly said.

Hyman also said Schuh loved his differences and wore distinctive clothing like a suit with a pink shirt and sandals.

“He was an original, in a loving way,” Hyman said.

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