Professor James R. Nattinger
James R. Nattinger was a highly respected PSU linguistics professor whose work was renowned worldwide. He was also very active in taking on leadership roles in the university, earning him wide respect and admiration among his colleagues.
When he died in 1995, he had taught at PSU for 24 years. In 1988 he was largely responsible for establishing the Department of Applied Linguistics. Indeed, if there had been no Jim Nattinger, very likely there would have been no linguistics department.
As the driving force behind establishing the linguistics department, he was uniquely qualified to be the first chair, a position he held until illness forced him to retire in 1995. Establishing the department was seen as a natural progression for the original linguistics program. Although this program had begun nearly two decades earlier as a small program within the English Department, it had continued to grow and prosper over the years as an area of study in its own right. Thanks to Professor Nattinger’s insightful leadership, the Linguistic Department’s strong ties to the English Department continue to this day.
As an educator, he was highly respected and admired. Though his classes were well known for being especially challenging, they were yet among the most popular in the university. His many students appreciated his unique style of blending clarity with wit, serving to underscore the more important points in the lecture. Even though strict in maintaining academic standards, he was sure to make time available outside of class for advising, mentoring, and encouraging his students. Numerous students through the years have credited his support, both academic and moral support, in helping them achieve success in the university. His encouragement was also critical to students hoping to continue their studies in graduate school, at either MA or PhD levels. For his excellence in teaching, he was awarded both the Hoffman Award for excellence (late 1970’s), and the Burlington Northern Award as PSU Teacher of the Year (1986).
He was also well known for his excellence in scholarship. His publications ranged from conference proceedings and articles published in national and international professional journals, to a very successful book he co-authored with colleague Jeanette DeCarrico, Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. The book, published by Oxford University Press, won the Duke of Edinburgh Award for “the most outstanding book in its field” for 1992.
Concerning life outside the classroom, Professor Nattinger was a person of great integrity and generous spirit, beloved by students and colleagues alike. His infectious personality is well illustrated by an account written by Gene Trabich, an ESL teacher, telling of a single, chance meeting at a TESOL Convention in Baltimore, in spring of 1994. Mr, Trabich admits to being somewhat in awe of him as a well known linguist, and “a storied professor [and]...bona fide academic who taught syntax, phonology and structure of English.” He recalled that, after attending a presentation given by Jim, he was reminded of Professor Higgins, the “real linguist. in My Fair Lady.” He then tells of their chance encounter. A brief excerpt follows:
I met Professor Nattinger only once…[Upon being introduced], I said, ‘I'm Zoltan Kaparthy’, taking a chance that he would catch the reference [to the rogue linguist in the play]. Nattinger cut me off sharply: ‘Kaparthy? That dreadful Hungarian? That blackguard who uses the science of speech more to blackmail and swindle than teach’? He motioned me to sit down. I had heard this number ‘talked’ by Rex Harrison, but Nattinger could really sing. He leaned across the table and continued softly, as if he were confiding a story in me…Nattinger sang on, flawlessly, to the end of the song. ..Just then it was time for the plenary… We were separated on the way to the lecture hall. I never saw him again.
Years later, at an invitational coffee, the department announced plans for a James R. Nattinger Scholarship. Mr. Trabich related that, based on the five minutes he had spent with him, he thought that it would be perfect to used his name on a scholarship for English teachers. He concluded by saying, “I’m proud to say I was the first one to pledge a donation. I have supported this scholarship every year since and plan to keep contributing every year…”
A final example of Jim’s wit is in an incident related to the Duke of Edinburgh Award, which was presented to Jim and co-author Jan DeCarrico by Prince Phillip, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. The example noted was a special postcard written from London to the office secretaries in the PSU department. It is reprinted below.