Allan Metcalf ’61 — linguist, dialectologist and professor of English and Journalism — passed away earlier this year on Feb. 24. Friends and family remembered Metcalf as kind, open-minded, passionate and accomplished, with a life-long love of words.
Growing up in Chicago, Illinois, where his father was a professor at the University of Chicago, Metcalf developed a love for baseball, music and books, immersing himself in the libraries of the university and the museums of the city. He moved to Ithaca for his undergraduate studies at Cornell University.
At Cornell, Metcalf was editor in chief of The Sun, most notably covering Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1960 visit to the University. He recounted the experience in one of his last entries for his Chronicle of Higher Education blog.
“The article I wrote as a reporter quite properly doesn’t say what I felt,” Metcalf wrote in a 2018 blog post. “But, without saying it, I think I managed to present Dr. King’s orderly, intensely factual and passionate concerns for the civil rights movement he was leading and the country he loved.”
Sara Metcalf, Associate Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo and Metcalf’s daughter said her father considered his tenure as The Sun’s Editor-in-Chief as a high point in his storied career.
Miriam Freedman ’61, Metcalf’s peer and former Sun editor, valued Metcalf as a link to her times at Cornell and The Sun.
“One of the reasons Allan and I remained attached was that we saw each other as memory repositories,” Freedman said, “And now that last link is gone. I feel bereft on several levels.”
After graduating from Cornell, Allan Metcalf pursued his Ph.D and began his faculty career at the University of California. However, upon being invited to chair the English department at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Metcalf chose his home state and served as a tenured professor of English and Journalism. He pioneered MacMurray’s student newspaper, the Daily Other, becoming its faculty advisor.
“A favorite memory was taking a creative writing class with my dad at MacMurray College while I was in high school,” Sara Metcalf said. “It was fun to interact with older college students and fascinating for me to witness his teaching style directly.”
American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year vote is none other than Allan Metcalf’s invention. Allan Metcalf’s passion for words, their origin and their contemporary uses led him to also serve as the society’s Executive Secretary for forty one years.
Sara Metcalf admired the autonomy of Allan Metcalf’s academic life. She fondly remembered observing her father working from home: Typing letters, grading papers and preparing Newsletters of the American Dialect Society.
“Since I have also become a professor, the impact of my father’s life on my own career is clear. Some of my earliest memories involved helping to fold Newsletter of the American Dialect Society to prepare them for distribution,” Sara Metcalf said. “As the youngest recruit, I didn’t even need a monetary incentive because I enjoyed just being part of the process.”
Allan Metcalf was also the author of eight books — with many other book ideas in mind towards the end of his time, Sara Metcalf said. His dedication to word origins led him to publish books on words like “OK” and the history of Guy Fawkes, the reason for the phrase ‘guys.’
Allan Metcalf wrote weekly letters to family members, and in excerpts from letters shared with the Sun, he penned candid advice and everyday happenings of life to Sarah Metcalf while she was at college.
“Once when he wrote me about principles of his own upbringing, he expressed it as: ‘Scholarship is fun and important,’” Sara Metcalf said. “This he learned from his own father and shared with his academic communities.”
When he wrote fun, fictional stories outside of his formal work, Metcalf’s nom de plume was “Nathan Valley.”
While struggling with Parkison’s, Allan Metcalf was still remembered as smiling, singing and enlivening conversations with puns and word plays.
He composed his last poem, “This is it. Leaves fall, one by one.”
Sara Metcalf looked up to her father’s character of kindness and resilience.
“Through his example, Dad taught me the value of being more loving, patient, kind, and open minded. He had an enviable ability to stay buoyant and undiminished despite setbacks,” Sara Metcalf said. “I miss our conversations but am glad to have so many of his words with me.”
In his obituary, the family requested donations in the memory of Allan to be sent to American Parkinson’s Disease Association.