Samuel G. Armistead, a distinguished UC Davis professor who was one of the world's leading Spanish scholars, died Wednesday of natural causes, the university said. He was 85.
Dr. Armistead, who retired from UC Davis in 2010, was a towering figure in the field of Spanish language and literature. His scholarship explored and celebrated historic Arabic, Christian and Jewish influences that shaped centuries of Spanish culture.
Specializing in medieval Spanish literature and folklore, he studied subjects ranging from ballads of Spain and North Africa to the dying language of the Isleños in Louisiana. He wrote 30 books and more than 500 articles, including noted collections of Sephardic ballads.
He was a corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy and recipient of the prestigious Antonio de Nebrija Award from the University of Salamanca. He traveled to many countries for research and lectured as a guest at about three dozen American and foreign universities.
"Wherever our faculty traveled in the world, scholars would ask about Sam," said Robert Blake, UC Davis professor of Spanish linguistics. "His stature in the field of Spanish letters is that of a giant, a pioneer in oral tradition studies."
Dr. Armistead, who spent 28 years UC Davis, was a revered teacher and mentor. A warm and colorful man who wore a black eyepatch, he often dressed in character or burst into song while discussing folk ballads. He delighted students and colleagues with anecdotes about renowned Spanish historian Américo Castro and other pre-Franco scholars who were his teachers and peers.
"He had a prodigious knowledge of Spanish proverbs that always cut the tension in staff meetings," Blake said.
Born on Aug. 21, 1927, and raised in Philadelphia, Dr. Armistead lost an eye and some fingers as a teenager in an accident with explosives. He learned Spanish as a young man living with family friends in Cuba.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate, he earned master's and doctorate degrees from Princeton University.
He began teaching at Princeton as a graduate student in 1953 and was a professor at UCLA, Purdue University and University of Pennsylvania before joining UC Davis in 1982. He was co-chairman of Spanish and classics at UC Davis from 2000 to 2002.
A Davis resident, he is survived by his wife of 30 years, Annie Laurie Armistead, and a brother, Harry.
A celebration of Dr. Armistead's life is planned for 4 to 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at the UC Davis Buehler Alumni Center.
Call The Bee's Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @bob_davila.