Ralph Hester, a prominent professor of French in the School of Humanities and Sciences, died Nov. 29 at his Stanford home. He was 88.

Ralph Hester, professor emeritus of French and Italian. (Image credit: Courtesy the Hester family)

Hester, professor emeritus in the French and Italian Department of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, spent his entire 37-year career at Stanford. He twice served as chair of the department and as director of Stanford’s French overseas programs in both Tours and Paris.

Hester had a deep interest in how second-languages were taught. In 1974, he co-authored the French-language college textbook Découverte et Création with his longtime friend and colleague Gérard Jian from the University of California, Berkeley. The textbook became one of the most widely used textbooks for teaching French in the United States. Hester also co-authored two intermediate French language textbooks, Trait d’Union and Liaison.

“Above all, Ralph was interested in language pedagogy,” said Jean-Marie Apostolidès, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, Emeritus.

Hester was also a scholar of Renaissance literature, with a particular interest in poetry and in two major French authors, François Rabelais and Michel de Montaigne. The first book he published, in 1970, was about the Protestant Baroque poet Pierre Poupo.

“He was a real leader, first as head of the French and Italian Department and later as the founder of the Interdisciplinary Institute of French Studies,” said Jean-Pierre Dupuy, professor of French and Italian. “This institute was his greatest achievement.” The institute is now known as the France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies.

“Hester believed that French studies at Stanford, in the heart of Silicon Valley, should include teaching and research about the way the French treated a number of contemporary problems linked to the development of science and technology,” said Dupuy. “He reached out to the professional schools at Stanford – medicine, law, engineering, business – and invited them to cooperate with the French Institute.”

In 1981, Hester was recognized by the French Government and received the title of Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques for his contributions to French culture.

“He will be remembered at Stanford for being an excellent colleague, a wise administrator and a professor devoted to students,” said Apostolidès.

Impact on students

Hester’s impact on his hundreds of students is a major part of his legacy. “Professor Hester had a unique ability to engage with us all in a way that resonated at a foundational level,” said Mohammed Badi, BA, BS ’97, PhD Electrical Engineering ’04, a former French major who is now the chief strategy officer at American Express. “He did this through wit, through teaching innovation and through a profoundly warm and caring style. We are grateful for all the gifts he gave us – of language, of passion for learning and of the best example of how to lead with warmth and humility.”

In 2000, Laurence C. Franklin, wanting to honor his former professor, established the Ralph M. Hester Endowment Fund for French Studies, which supports undergraduate and graduate work in French at Stanford. Franklin, BA ’70, JD/MBA ’76, studied in Tours during the 1969-70 academic year when Hester was the director of the program there. Due to an overwhelming response from former students and colleagues, the Hester Endowment exceeded its fundraising goal.

“Ralph Hester brought to Stanford’s Department of French and Italian a new vision of what an undergraduate degree in French studies could look like,” said Robert Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor in French and Italian Literature. “He worked to make our department a vibrant network of connections – to the Graduate School of Business, international relations, computer science, political science and to various academic and state institutions in France – rather than merely a specialized field of study.”

A life-changing trip to France

Born in 1931 in Fort Worth, Texas, Hester grew up in Southern California and was fascinated by movie culture. According to his family, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1951, Hester traveled to France on the Queen Mary ocean liner for the first time. The trip proved to be a turning point in his life, as his love of France, including its language, culture and literature, launched his academic career. Hester received his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also obtained a doctorate in Romance languages and cultures in 1963. He was hired by Stanford the same year.

In 1964, Hester met French and classics professor Claudie Chelet. They married in Paris in 1966, and raised two daughters at Stanford, spending most of their summers in France.

After retiring from Stanford in 2000, the couple spent many years traveling. In 2016, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with family in Normandy. Hester is survived by Claudie, his wife of 54 years; two daughters, Annabelle Hester (Kenneth Crawford) and Nathalie Hester (Craig Weicker); and four bilingual grandchildren, William, Corinne, Sabine and Sidonie.

Media Contacts

Joy Leighton, Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences: joy.leighton@stanford.edu