Samuel G. Armistead, Spanish scholar

Samuel G. Armistead
Samuel G. Armistead
Posted: August 19, 2013

Samuel G. Armistead, 85, a leading scholar of Spanish literature and language whose research unearthed a treasure trove of medieval writings and folklore, died Wednesday, Aug. 7, at his home in Davis, Calif., of complications from surgery.

A Chestnut Hill native, Dr. Armistead lived in Fort Washington for 28 years before relocating in 1982 to join the department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Davis.

He retired in 2011 as professor emeritus.

Dr. Armistead, a graduate of William Penn Charter School, earned his undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees in Spanish literature from Princeton University between 1946 and 1955.

While there, he met Américo Castro, a Spanish historian who became his mentor and pointed him toward Spanish medieval literature and folklore.

Dr. Armistead's scholarly interests included the ballads of Spain and North Africa, the poetry of the Canary Islands, and the dying language of the Isleños of St. Bernard Parish, La., according to his biography on the University of California website.

His crowning achievement, though, was his scholarly work on the Spanish Romancero, the tradition of stories and ballads handed down in Sephardic folklore, the biography said.

To collect them, he traveled through North Africa, the Middle East, the United States, and Europe with recording equipment, interviewing old women who recalled the stories and songs passed down by their mothers and grandmothers.

"It was sort of like a biologist learning about an endangered species before it goes extinct," said Dr. Armistead's brother, Henry T.

Dr. Armistead wrote or contributed to more than 30 books and 500 articles, which the university called "an astounding achievement for his field."

While a professor at UC Davis, he was cochair of the departments of Spanish and classics from 2000 to 2002. Before his time at UC Davis, he taught at Princeton, the University of California at Los Angeles, Purdue University, and the University of Pennsylvania, the latter from 1968 to 1982.

He presented many papers at conferences, was a popular guest lecturer and visiting professor, and mentored numerous doctoral candidates.

Among his accolades were being granted an honorary doctorate from the Universidad de Alcalá in Madrid in 2010; being named a corresponding member of the Real Academia Española in 2009; and receiving the prestigious Antonio Nebrija Award from the University of Salamanca in 1999.

Dr. Armistead had professional dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu's father, an authority on the Spanish Inquisition. He recorded Sephardic stories from singer Eydie Gorme's mother. As a student, he tutored Philadelphia City Councilman John B. Kelly Jr.

In person, he was full of fun, brimming with stories, songs, aphorisms, humor, and lore.

"Sam was often known to burst into song, regaling friends with a traditional ballad or a recitation of some long, delightful passage of poetry in one of the many languages he loved," the biography said.

He had a soft spot for animals, especially cats, and believed all forms of life were to be protected. Once, during a cold winter, he cared for a garden snail indoors, his bio said.

He married and divorced Maria del Pilar Valcarcel-Calderon.

Surviving, besides his brother, are his wife of 30 years, the former Annie Laurie Meltzoff; two nieces; and a nephew.

A memorial service will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, at Buehler Alumni Center, AGR Hall, University of California, Davis. Interment is private.

Donations may go to the Humane Society of the United States, 2100 L St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037.

Condolences may be offered to the family via

Contact Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8102 or

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