In Memory of Tucker Childs

We are sad to report that our colleague and friend Tucker (officially, George Tucker Childs) died on January 26, 2021 in Portland, Oregon due to complications related to legionella. Tucker was born in Wayne, Illinois in 1948.

Tucker was a well-known scholar in African linguistics, having published four books and numerous chapters and articles. His main areas of scholarship were language documentation of the Mel family of languages (Kisi, Mani, Bom-Kim) and ideophones. He was described by colleague Mark Dingemanse as a “towering figure” in ideophone studies. In 2018, he received the Kenneth L. Hale Award from the Linguistics Society of American, which recognizes scholars for outstanding work on the documentation of a particular language or family of languages that is endangered or no longer spoken.

A artistic rendition of the Kisi ideophone bíààà, meaning "the sound of rain, softly falling" by artist Joanna Taylor. The picture has an abstract pattern of blues, greens, and a little brown. This  Kisi ideophone appears in Tucker Childs's PhD thesis.

An artistic rendition of the Kisi ideophone bíààà, meaning "the sound of rain, softly falling"
by artist Joanna Taylor, from Mark Dingemanse owner of the artwork.
 This ideophone appears in Tucker’s dissertation.

Before he began his career in linguistics, Tucker studied English literature at Stanford University and Trinity College, Dublin. From 1970-72, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English at Tamba Taylor Public School in Shelloe, Liberia, a town near the borders of Guinea and Sierra Leone. It was there he developed his interests in, and love for, the people and languages of the region. He earned an M.S. in Sociolinguistics at Georgetown University in 1982 and a PhD in Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley in 1988. His doctoral dissertation, directed by John Ohala, was A Kisi Grammar.

Mani speaker Ma Hawa Camara and Tucker Childs sitting together in Benty, Guinea

Mani speaker Ma Hawa Camara with Tucker Childs in Benty, Guinea

Tucker was planning to retire at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, after 25 years of teaching and conducting research at Portland State University. In his recently completed application for Emeritus Professor he wrote of his international collaborations, his work in Africa but also his teaching, the excitement for doing linguistics with students, and the energy he got from teaching. That excitement is tangible in the vast number of courses (19) Tucker taught for the department over the years. (The scheduling committee would also like to add that his willingness to teach on any day at almost any time was greatly appreciated). He was our faculty union steward several times, worked on a number of university committees, and was our department chair from 2015-2018.

But those who worked with him will remember him for his presence in the department, when he was around other people. Many of us remember how welcoming he was when we first arrived on campus for a job visit -- making copies for their job talk, taking them up to his house before dropping them off at the airport. Tucker was a fixture in the department and was in the office nearly every day, including weekends. He would arrive with a newspaper under his arm, a cheerful greeting for his colleagues, and often, flowers for his office. In evenings and on weekends during baseball season, we could hear the sounds of the Giants play-by-play coming from his office while he worked. His elaborately constructed lunches of excellent bread, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits were eyed jealously by many of us. On the rare occasions he left the office before you, his tongue in cheek farewell showed he considered himself part of the team:  “You’re in charge now.” 

Tucker was always willing to talk linguistics, baseball, poetry, beer, or almost anything else with anyone. He shared news articles, books, and samples from his selection of fine wine and beer. He was a stalwart supporter and attendee at the department’s First Friday events, where students and faculty gathered for casual conversation, drinks, and pizza at Hot Lips pizza on campus.

Kathy Harris, John Hellermann, and Tucker Childs sitting at a table with beers in front of them at a First Friday event at Hot Lips pizza.

Colleagues Kathy Harris, John Hellermann, and Tucker Childs at a First Friday

Tucker’s attempts to project a curmudgeonly exterior were belied by the kindness and graciousness he demonstrated to colleagues, students, and friends. Although he detested meetings and dealing with bureaucracy, he agreed to be department chair (a job which entails a lot of meetings and bureaucracy) at a time when no one else was able to do the job. Comments from students invariably mention kindness, support, humor, and the stories and quips told in class.

Tucker Childs, wearing a name tag reading "Ask me" talking to someone at a department function.

Tucker at a department function

Colleagues at other institutions around the world also noted his graciousness, humility, and love of the people he worked with in West Africa. In their memories of him, Tucker’s colleagues in African linguistics note his immense contributions on ideophones, documentation of endangered Mel languages, and his holistic approach to language documentation. They inevitably then discuss his humility about his achievements, his graciousness in mentoring junior colleagues, and his deep concern for the people and communities in West Africa.

Rest in Peace Tucker, you will be sorely missed.

An overview of his fieldwork was documented in 2012 in video blogs (“vlogs”) by Senior Producer Bart Childs (Tucker’s brother) of Voice of America:

For more details on his career and publications, please see his memorial profile on the Linguistics Society of America website.

In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the James R. Nattinger Fund which supports graduate students in Applied Linguistics - Tucker’s dream was to see this fund grow large enough to provide a full tuition remission - or to the Sherbro Foundation, a non-profit founded by a former Peace Corps Volunteer, which follows the Peace Corps model of empowering grassroots organizations on community-led developments, focusing on girls' education and economic development. Please include "Tucker Childs" in the comments or special instructions. He would be truly honored.