In Remembrance: Robbins Burling ’50 Died on January 2 2021

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Robbins Burling, professor emeritus of anthropology and linguistics, passed away peacefully on January 2, 2021, at the age of 94, after a full, rich life. 

Rob was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the oldest of three children born to Dr. F. Temple and Katherine White Burling. He grew up in Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island, but considered himself a Midwesterner at heart. After graduating high school in 1944 he entered the Navy and served two years as a radar technician. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale (1950) on the GI Bill, then spent a year working and traveling around the world, an experience he treasured for the rest of his life.   

After returning to the US in 1951, Rob married his college sweetheart, Sibyl Straub, and began work on his PhD (Harvard 1958). In 1954, he received a Ford Foundation Scholarship that took him and his young family to northeast India for two years to study and work with the Garo of Rengsanggri, leading to many lifelong friendships and the beginning of his prolific writing career. After completing his doctorate, he worked at the University of Pennsylvania as an instructor before receiving a Fulbright Scholarship in 1959, which took the family to Burma for a year at the University of Rangoon and led to the writing of his popular textbook Hill Farms and Padi Fields. He returned to Penn as an assistant professor of anthropology and assistant curator of general ethnology at the University Museum at Penn. 

In 1963, Rob received a one-year fellowship to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. In 1964 he joined the University of Michigan as an associate professor of anthropology. In 1966 he became professor of linguistics and anthropology, and associate of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971, which took the family to Toulouse, France, for a year. In 1979–80 he was a visiting professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He served as interim director of the (then new) Program in Linguistics in 1985–86. Rob specialized in linguistic anthropology, giving most of his attention to Tibeto-Burman languages, the ethnology of Northeast India, the evolution of the human capacity for language, and several aspects of kinship theory. He retired as emeritus in 1995. 

After retirement Rob continued to travel (he made it to all seven continents) and write, publishing the culmination of his professional thoughts, The Talking Ape: How Language Evolved, in 2005. In 2016, Rob was honored with a Festschrift just before his 90th birthday at the 8th international conference of the NE Indian Linguistics Society, in recognition of his pioneering work in Tibeto-Burman languages. That year he also published a treatise on spelling, Spellbound, written from his lifetime perspective of being a terrible speller. Rob was renowned for his concise, unpretentious, and accessible writing, but it wasn’t until his happy discovery in college that a bad speller could still be a good writer that he began to write in earnest. Only a few of his publications are mentioned here. 

Rob loved his work and enjoyed the travel that it entailed, but he also loved working with his hands and was very proud of the fact that he not only designed his own house and two cabins, but that he built them himself, with the help of his son, occasionally roping in other family and unsuspecting friends. The family gatherings and activities every summer at a lake in northern Ontario were also a source of deep pleasure. It was there that Rob grew to love canoeing and he remained an avid canoeist until nearly the end of his life, winning two gold medals at the age of 79 in the Michigan Senior Olympics. He was proud of his family, pleased that he had known seven generations, and that after the birth of his great-granddaughter, he was able to appear in his fourth four-generation photo. 

Rob (he disliked being called “Dr.” or “Professor”) was predeceased by his wife Sibyl, his partner Anne Hvenekilde of Oslo, Norway, his brother James, and his sister Helen. He is survived by his partner Sheila Procter and her family in England; his children Stephen (Deborah), Helen “Nono” (Charles Pitz), and Adele (Fritz Yunck); four grandsons and a great-granddaughter; several beloved nieces and nephews; and daughter-in-spirit Beth Genne (Allan Gibbard) in the US. In Norway he is survived by Anne’s children, Karin and Audun Hvenekilde, and their families. Rob will be deeply missed by his family and friends around the world and across all walks of life, the many students that he mentored, and colleagues with whom he worked.

—Submitted by the family.

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