Linguistics Department

In Memoriam Robert T. Harms

The Department of Linguistics mourns the death of Professor Emeritus Robert T. Harms. Born in 1932, he died on October 5, 2016. He received his doctorate in 1960 from the University of Chicago. During his long tenure at UT that began in 1958 and that continued until his retirement in 2006, Bob made enormous contributions to linguistics—especially in phonology—and to our doctoral program. He was department chair from 1972 to 1977. In his years as graduate advisor, Bob showed unflagging concern for the welfare and intellectual progress of our graduate students. After retiring from the faculty, Bob’s scholarly contributions continued but in a new direction, specifically the scientific study of the flora of Texas. Our hearts go out to Bob's family.Waller Creek Palm

Much of Bob’s botanical work and photography is available through the website of UT's Plant Resources Center.  He put together an extensive and intricate series of data-rich webpages, most of which can be found by going to the Flora of Texas webpage. Then click on either of the two “Field Studies” links or on the “Crystallofolia” link.  For example, under “Field Studies: Specific Taxa," there is a web page discussing the palms of Waller Creek, which runs immediately to the east of our building.


Remembrances from Bob King, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair Emeritus of Jewish Studies and Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus:

 I met Bob Harms the first day I came to work at Texas in 1965. I had had the extraordinarily good luck to be assigned to an office with Emmon Bach. Emmon and Bob were great friends as it turned out, went out for coffee every morning, and they invited me along.

Having been introduced to Bob I was manfully trying to hold up my side of the pleasantries: Yes, it is a damn sight hotter than Wisconsin (it was an August day in Austin); Oh, you know so-and-so at Wisconsin?

Bob Harms was never much one for chit-chat, and he cut immediately to the chase (a phrase I don’t recall being around in 1965). Harms: What’s your dissertation about? RDK: Well, I used a computer program to test André Martinet’s hypotheses about the role of functional load in sound change (Martinet was enjoying a great vogue in historical linguistics at the time). Harms: And?

RDK: Well, I proved that functional load does not play any role in sound change. Harms: You can’t prove that.

RDK: Well, uh, I felt like I did (stutter, stutter).  Emmon was no help at all, having found interesting new cloud formations above Guadalupe Street to lose himself in. Over coffee we stuck to the Texas heat and what courses everybody was teaching.

That was textbook early Bob Harms: Hit first, be nice later. After he got a copy of my dissertation, he told Emmon he thought it was “not bad,” which I took for high praise. From him subsequently I learned generative phonology, a bit about birdwatching, a bit about photography, and finally how to E-mail. We never discussed things where we both knew that we would disagree, both of us having come from a generation that values friendship more highly than politics or policy.

We became friends. He was kind enough to serve as a groomsman when Karen and I got married. We enjoyed a picnic with Bob and Sirpa at their beautiful piece of Hill Country out past Dripping Springs, watching with fascinated horror as regiments of ticks marched across the sheet that we had brought for our baby son Kevin to lie on. But nobody got bitten; even ticks it seems wilted under the Harms spell.

My period as dean of Liberal Arts was tumultuous and frequently controversial, but never a word of criticism did I hear from him. I even got a couple of welcome compliments out of him.

He was in other words the best kind of friend, and I will miss him far more than he could have imagined. I like to think of him up there in that heaven he never believed in, challenging linguistic newcomers (if any other linguists are admitted through the pearly gates) with “What was your dissertation about?”, listening for new birdcalls from among the angels, and observing bemusedly the shenanigans of us left here below.    


Bob Harms and I go way, way back.  In fact, I suspect I was the first of the living UT community to have been his friend and student.  I began UT in the fall of 1959 as a pre-law major.  I chose Russian for my foreign language requirement and Bob Harms was my first instructor of Russian (spring semester 1960).  I later changed my major from pre-law to Russian and went on to get M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from UT Austin in linguistics.  

I don't know if Bob was initially hired as a professor of Russian, or as a professor of linguistics who filled out his teaching load with an occasional class in Russian.  However, along with many other great UT professors, he instilled in me a love of learning and this undoubtedly made me choose teaching instead of law as a career.  I later took a course from him during my M.A. year, although I didn't have him as a prof during my Ph.D. years.
Let me share an amusing story.  Although I never got around to taking him up on his kind offer to visit, he once extended an invitation to come out to his weekend place in the country outside Dripping Springs.  However, he attached one condition to a visit.  He said "there's one rule:  no business (departmental politics, etc.).  If you're into bird-watching, you're welcome."  I now wish I had taken him up on his offer and had enjoyed his hospitality.  
Charles Wukasch, Ph.D. (UT Dept. of Linguistics 1974)
Prairie View A&M University, retired 2005

Bob helped me with Texas birds when I got here.  For a number of years, we did a breeding bird survey together somewhere way beyond Llano.  I recall his red Dodge hurtling past the glowing eyes of roadside deer in order to get into position for the pre-dawn fifty mile stop and go, mostly on dirt.  I assumed the deer were all well trained.  He was good with Bells Vireos (that had been misidentified in the survey), but he nicked my copies of Bent’s Life Histories, which was all we had back then. From Bob, I learned a lot about the back of beyond Texas, which he was obviously sizing up for his big purchase. He made a great swimming hole. 

Robin Doughty, Ph.D. 
Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography & the Environment

Bob Harms wandered into the herbarium (the U. T. Plant Resources Center, in the Tower) one day in the mid 1990s with a bedraggled plant fragment in hand, wondering why the botanical literature he had consulted didn’t fit what he saw.  The plant (a mimosa) was from his beloved Purola, a beautiful and rugged Hill Country tract in northern Hays Co., where he was collecting and cataloging the flora.  As curator of the herbarium, it fell to me to help him.   Unlike many who come in with public information requests or identification needs, he quickly showed himself to be careful as an observer and tenacious in his pursuit of understanding, and he taught me a lot about both over the next twenty or so years.

Bob continued to come in with plants and questions and slowly became a part of the herbarium coterie.  Bob was still a professor in the Linguistics Department when he first came in, but when he retired in 2006, he asked if he could have a place to do botanical research in the herbarium.  Knowing his love of and competence in web design and digital imaging, I said sure, but would he at the same time become our volunteer webmaster and help with some of our imaging set-ups?  He seemed more than amenable and quickly became an absolutely indispensable member of the herbarium staff, albeit unpaid.  For the next ten years he was in four days every week (and at Purola two more).

Besides handling all of our web needs and endlessly helping a certain retired professor with all problems computer, Bob was able to more seriously pursue research on taxonomic problems in various genera of plants, all of them arising from problems in identifying or understanding Purola plants.  He ended up publishing two extensive articles in our in-house journal Lundellia, and several more articles or notes in other botanical journals.  From the beginning, he was blunt in his assessment that professional botanists had done a damn poor job of carefully describing the morphology and variation of Texas plants.  I could not disagree in many cases and could only provide pathetic excuses, and his response was to do the needed work himself.   He often developed his own seat-of-the-pants methodologies as needed when our more standard herbarium methodologies and resources were not sufficient to answer his questions.  He liked to work on his own, although he was always interested in discussing his and others’ projects to gain botanical insight.  There were many days that I would not see him at all, or only for one of our frequent early morning talks, before he disappeared into the bowels of the herbarium to painstakingly and tenaciously collect his data (often by making scans or microphotographs and then using the images for study—in some ways I think he preferred digital reality to reality itself).  He found useful characters that others had missed, and he clarified problems that others had not known existed.  His first published article, on the agarita (Berberis), well exemplifies both; characteristically, it was accompanied by copious images.

He definitely had his own way of doing things.  He designed our web pages by writing all the code himself because it enabled him to produce exactly what he wanted, which tended to be very organized and logical; aesthetics were OK only as long as they did not interfere with the logic of the site.  Actually, for him, I think that logic was the aesthetics of a web site, or of anything.  And he repeatedly said that he was not going to allow Bill Gates to dictate to him how the web site should be put together.  This all led to an idiosyncratic web site, but one that suited its prime users extremely well.   It drove him crazy when murmurings from on high started to nudge the herbarium web site toward conforming with other sites in the College.

Everybody liked Bob.  He was not particularly shy but he generally liked to keep to himself when working, yet he never seemed perturbed to be interrupted and he would talk at length about problems that interested him.  He was endlessly and happily helpful to anybody who needed help, even if later he might occasionally shake his head a little.  Most people in the herbarium didn’t know that he was a retired professor or a noted linguist—he was just Bob.

Bob’s death came as a shock to everyone in the herbarium, and most of all, I think, to me.  He was so alive and fit and healthy (he ran every morning for much of the time that I knew him and ate Spartan lunches), with such a twinkle in his eye.  I knew his age, but most in the herbarium did not and were shocked to know that he was 84 when he died—they took him for at least 10 years younger.  His idiosyncratic outlook, his bluntness, his enthusiasm, his helpfulness, his love of opera, his love of the natural world, his laugh, and especially his friendship: he is profoundly missed. 

Dr. Tom Wendt, Curator Emeritus
Plant Resources Center
The University of Texas at Austin

Bob and I were boyhood pals in grade school and high school in Peoria, Illinois from about 1944 to 1949. At that time Bob was interested in science, particularly chemistry, as well as mathematics. Some of our science experiments, such as making laughing gas (nitrous oxide) in my mother’s kitchen one evening were interesting. Yes, laughing gas is well named and Bob and I were laughing hysterically when my mother came in to find out what was going on. Bob Harms was an outstanding student in all of his studies. In the fall of 1949 I started engineering school and Bob went to the University of Chicago. After graduation in 1953 I went to work in the Aerospace Industry in California. I lost touch with Bob until last year when I put his name in Google and came up with your remarkable website which gave me Bob’s e-mail, as well as an up to date resume. We exchanged some photos on e-mail and then again I lost touch.

Just a bit more on Bob’s early life:

His mother, Mildred, was very lovely, petite woman with a warm, welcoming smile. His father, Wilbur was either the manager or owner of the Peoria Office Supply Company.  Bob had his Dad got me a K & E Log Log decitrig slide rule that I then used in high school, college and in my engineering career until calculators came in. I still have that slide rule.  Bob’s house was my second home and he felt the same with my house. Bob lived a block away from a golf course and we would sometimes play that course. Bob was on the cross-country team in high school. He may have studied French and/or German, but I did not share any language classes with him.

Truly, Bob fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith - 2 Tim 4 - 7,8. May he rest in peace.

Richard C Hill, BSME UIUC 1953, MS UCLA 1961, retired 1999. Torrance, CA

Contributions to this page are very welcome – please send to Gabrielle Deville.

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