Chinese language Professor Emeritus William Lyell dead at 75

William Lyell

William Lyell

William A. Lyell, an associate professor emeritus of Chinese who taught at Stanford for three decades, died on Aug. 28 of complications of cancer of the esophagus. He was 75.

Lyell taught classes on Chinese literature and language and East Asian civilization. He wrote or translated six books. His research interests and much of his writing focused on modern Chinese literature, especially the work of the 20th-century writers Lu Hsun and Lao She.

Colleagues remembered Lyell after his death for his facility with language, his dedication to his work and his warmth in and out of the classroom.

"Bill was utterly genuine, completely original [and] deeply interested in his research and his students," said Susan Matisoff, associate professor emerita of Japanese and now a professor of Japanese at the University of California-Berkeley. "Bill was often so immersed in his own thoughts that he would start speaking to me in Chinese if we passed each other in the hall. I first learned to say 'I don't speak Chinese' in Chinese for just such occasions."

During the 1970s, Matisoff co-taught a sequence of classes with Lyell. "As a young assistant professor I learned a lot about the importance of spontaneity and about the possibility of creating an atmosphere of intimacy, even in a large class, from observing Bill's teaching style," she said. During a time when Matisoff and Lyell had adjacent offices, "it was a delight to me to sometimes hear him singing quietly to himself as he worked."

Lyell was born on June 29, 1930, in Rahway, N.J. After graduating from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., during the Korean War, Lyell enlisted in the Air Force, hoping to become a pilot. Instead, he received training in Mandarin Chinese at Yale University and served in Korea as an interpreter and combat soldier.

After his discharge, Lyell went back to school and earned his doctorate in Chinese studies at the University of Chicago, where he met Ruth Granetz, a graduate student. The couple married in 1961.

In 1962, Lyell became an instructor at the Chicago Teachers College, North, and the following year began teaching at Ohio State University, where he received a Distinguished Teaching Award. He joined the Department of Asian Languages at Stanford in 1972. Although he officially retired in 2000, Lyell continued to teach classes in the department.

"As one who highly values the teaching and learning of Chinese, both spoken and written, I shared the widespread admiration for Bill's fluency and wit in so many modes and styles of Chinese," said history Professor Emeritus Lyman Van Slyke, an expert on Chinese history. "Our conversations were usually as much in Chinese as in English, with me often struggling to keep up."

Al Dien, professor emeritus of Chinese, met Lyell in 1956 when both were studying Chinese in Taiwan. Although Lyell's command of the language then approached native fluency, "I remember his working with a tutor to get the right inflection of the syllable 'eh,' going it over and over until the tutor and he were satisfied," Dien said. "That drive for perfection was typical of Bill in all his studies and research."

Over the years, students enrolled in Lyell's Chinese language classes included his daughter Deirdre, now assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Medical Center, and his wife Ruth, who taught psychology and gerontology at San Jose State University for two decades. (Lyell gave his wife a B in the course—a source of much family discussion, Dierdre Lyell recounted in a column published in the Stanford Daily in 1989.)

Lyell brought to the Asian Languages Department an enthusiasm for teaching and a commitment to his students that earned him the love and respect of those who studied with him, Dien said. Lyell's "openness to experience, without an ounce of guile or sense of self-interest, made him a rare individual indeed. We will miss him terribly," Dien said.

Lyell is survived by his wife, Ruth, of Palo Alto; two daughters, Miriam Lyell Boisa of Stockton and Deirdre Lyell of Palo Alto; two sons, Sean Lyell of Lake Oswego, Ore., and David Lyell of Playa del Rey, Calif.; a sister, Mary Anne Elliott, of Toms River, N.J.; and seven grandchildren.

Former colleagues, students and friends are invited to a memorial service for Lyell at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15, at the Faculty Club. Memorial contributions may be made to Pets in Need, 873 Fifth Ave., Redwood City, CA 94063, or to Hillel at Stanford, P.O. Box 20526, Stanford, CA 94309.