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  • In Memoriam, George William Grace, 1921–2015
  • Robert Blust

On January 17, 2015, after a week of refusing food in the Honolulu hospice where he spent the final month of his life, slowly succumbing to a blood condition called “myelodysplastic syndrome” (MDS) that had morphed into leukemia, George Grace drew his last breath. To the very end, he was in control of his mind and emotions, and even of the circumstances of his departure. Just eight days earlier, he wrote the following passage to me on his cell phone in a surprisingly long email for someone who was dancing on the brink of death:

Bob, don’t worry. Everything as they say “is cool.” Or maybe that’s precisely wrong—my email is behaving mysteriously beyond belief. That’s probably ultimately my doing. … Now let me try to explain my medical and then my communicative situations.

Medical: a blood problem. Bone marrow isn’t providing the hemoglobin and platelets needed. Therefore, progressive weakening. I tell my legs to lift me but they show no interest in doing so. Etc. This is most likely to be involved in the ultimate “cause of death.” Second most likely—something to do with stopping bleeding.

This is a notoriously good way to die. No pain at all. Don’t feel sorry for me.

It was clear that he never felt sorry for himself. My own attempts to thank him while I still could for the training he had given me as the basis for my professional career were quickly dismissed as undeserved praise, with the comment that whatever I had achieved had been through my own efforts. There were times when he seemed almost philosophically opposed to the expression of emotion. George was constantly reminding us that we need an antonym for “maudlin.”

George William Grace was born on September 8, 1921, in Corinth, Mississippi, near the border with Tennessee, the eldest of three sons.1 Before he started school, the family moved to Orange Grove, a satellite community of Gulfport, where his father was postmaster. They lived on a farm, and George grew up a farm boy, graduating from Orange Grove High School in 1939. For anyone seriously interested in the relationship between heredity and environment, George’s story is classic. Growing up in an environment where no one expected him to have academic interests, and where he was even considered odd if he did, at the age of 18 he had no idea that he had any academic talent. As a result, he attended Perkinston Junior College (now Mississippi Gulf Coast Community [End Page 589] College) in Perkinston, Mississippi, north of Gulfport, and majored in music (presumably as a default)—hardly what one would have expected from a future scholar of his stature.

Then, just three months past his twentieth birthday, he was abruptly yanked from the complacent, confining rural southern world he had always known, when Pearl Harbor came under surprise attack. Like many of his generation, he joined the war effort, serving as a flight navigator in the Army Air Corps over North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. At the conclusion of the war, he remained in Europe for several years, where he studied at the University of Geneva, receiving his Licence en sciences politiques in 1949 at the age of 27. One can only assume that the War years and his subsequent time in postwar Europe were a transformative experience, driving home the point made poignantly by another Southerner that, no matter how much you might desire it, “you can’t go home again.” George clearly had been internationalized, but so far as the record shows, there was as yet no visible indication of his future work in linguistics, or of his commitment to research on the peoples of the Pacific.

On his return to the United States, George accepted a position as Junior Research Anthropologist at the University of California at Berkeley, a transition that appears distinctly puzzling in view of the absence of any previous training in this area that can be found in his educational record. He must have been reading voraciously in anthropology to have qualified for this position. In any event, during the summer of...


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