Aug. 21, 1927 – Aug. 7, 2013
One of the world’s leading scholars of Spanish literature and language, Samuel G. Armistead died peacefully at home on Aug. 7, 2013, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife of 30 years, Annie Laurie, a local yogo teacher of Davis; brother Harry Armistead and his wife Liz; nieces Anne and Mary; nephew George; and sister-in-law Sarah Meltzoff.
Sam grew up in Philadelphia and attended the William Penn Charter School, guided by his mother who was an avid reader, historian and fluent speaker of several world languages, a talent that Sam inherited and would cultivate as an adult. As a young man, Sam expressed a desire to learn Spanish and went to Cuba to stay with family friends. This trip sparked a lifelong curiosity about Hispanic culture, languages and literature, which later became the subject of some of Sam’s most productive scholarly work.
Sam Armistead attended Princeton University as an undergraduate (Phi Beta Kappa) and graduate student (M.A. and Ph.D.). While at Princeton, he met Américo Castro, the renowned Spanish historian, who would become his mentor and leave an indelible mark on Sam’s academic formation. Sam went on to specialize in Spanish medieval literature and folklore, publishing widely on these topics and more. His scholarly studies ranged from the ballads of Spain and North Africa, to the Faroe Islands; from improvised poetry of the Canary Islands, to the dying language of the Isleños of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. He authored some 30 books and more than 500 articles — an astounding achievement for his field. His work on the Spanish Romancero (oral tradition and ballads), especially Sephardic folklore, is considered by his colleagues a crowning achievement.
He was a distinguished professor of Spanish at UC Davis from 1982 until his retirement as emeritus in 2010, serving as co-chair of Spanish and Classics from 2000 to 2002. Sam taught at Princeton, UCLA, Purdue and the University of Pennsylvania before coming to Davis. He was in demand as a visiting professor and served at many other institutions. Among his numerous academic awards, Professor Armistead received an honorary doctorate in 2010 from the Universidad de Alcalá (Madrid), he was named a corresponding member of the Real Academia Española in 2009 and in 1999 he received the highly prestigious Antonio Nebrija award from the University of Salamanca.
A loving husband and a kind friend to animals (especially his beloved cats), he believed all forms of life were to be treasured (even once rescuing a garden snail to care for it inside during the cold winter months). The epitome of a generous and supportive colleague, Sam Armistead will be sorely missed by all who knew him.
Friends and colleagues universally remember and appreciate his great sense of humor, prodigious memory and warm interest in their work. Sam was often known to burst into song, regaling friernds with a traditional ballad or a recitation of some long and delightful passage of poetry in one of the many languages he loved. He set an example for his colleagues and is remembered as an excellent mentor of students. His influence as a teacher will continue to affect future generations of students.
In more than 50 years of university teaching, he shared his vast knowledge and enthusiasm with thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom became renowned scholars in their own right. They will remember him spontaneously singing medieval ballads in class, bringing to life for them the language of medieval Spain.
A celebration of Sam Armistead’s life will be from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Buehler Alumni & Visitors Center on the UC Davis campus.