In Memoriam:  Robert E. Chumbley

Robert E. Chumbly of the Department of French Studies died July 11, 2011

Robert Emmett Chumbley III was born in Covington, Virginia on February 29, 1944. A brilliant student and accomplished musician, Bob graduated cum laude from Davidson College, and was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. His love of French literature and culture were enhanced by spending a Junior Year Aboard in Aix-en-Provence, France, where he received a Diplôme de langue et littérature  françaises from the Université d’Aix-Marseille.  His literary and musical talents led him to pursue a PhD at Yale. Recipient of Woodrow Wilson and Yale Fellowships, Bob specialized in Medieval Literature and worked with Jacques Ehrmann,  distinguished medieval scholar and pioneer in the use of semiotic approaches to literature.  Ehrmann edited the legendary issue of Yale French Studies devoted to “Structuralism.” In 1969, Bob joined the LSU faculty as an instructor of French in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. Unfortunately, his dissertation sponsor died in the semester that he was to defend his dissertation in 1972. Nevertheless, Bob defended his thesis, Game Models for French Fiction: 1100-1300, and LSU immediately promoted him to Assistant Professor.  Welcomed as a young scholar working at the forefront of his field, he received tenure and promotion to Associate Professor five years later. Section head of French from 1978-1980, he contributed immensely to both the graduate and undergraduate programs in French at LSU. Some of his former students such as Fabrice Teulon and Amanda LaFleur have gone on to distinguished academic careers themselves. Amanda LaFleur considered him a mentor whose advice led her to achieving the degree of fluency needed to purse a successful career in her chosen field of French Studies.  Over a period of forty years, students have repeatedly made similar comments about Professor Chumbley. Amanda LaFleur summarizes best their shared appreciation in a letter of support for Bob’s nomination for the BP Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching: “Back in a day when “meeting the needs of students” was not a particularly important priority at LSU, Bob Chumbley already stood out in the eyes of those he taught.” Another former student considered him both an extraordinary teacher and “an inspiring individual,” who not only conveyed his extensive knowledge of the “heady theories and riches” of French literature, but how to “grapple with difficult decisions, to be kind, and to laugh by example.” He was consistently assigned to teach the capstone French 4003 course and prepared French majors to go on to higher degrees in the discipline.

A fervent believer in Study Aboard, Professor Chumbley initiated the LSU in Paris summer program when he was section head. Ironically, he never directed the program for which he had consecrated his time to assure its approval. Bob consistently welcomed and mentored young colleagues, introducing them to others on the LSU campus interested in semiotics and play theory.  He published in such distinguished journals as Sub-Stance and Diacritics. An exemplary colleague, he served diligently within the department on every imaginable committee from the Executive, Senior Seminar, to the onerous Peer Review.  He was also senator and president of the Arts & Sciences Faculty Senate.

Grateful to some of his own mentors, such as Eric Segal who helped him review Latin grammar in graduate school, and Buckminster Fuller whose ability to converse on any subject “on the proper level of generality, Bob strove, in his own words, “to maintain liveliness with humor which not only keeps the students awake, but also reinforces attention and retention.” Devoted to his wife Marsha, and his children Robert and Lauren, Bob cherished his family and a life filled with children’s laughter, literature and music. Students and faculty will sorely miss his humor and his total dedication to LSU.

– Adelaide M. Russo