Recollections of John Hammer, Associate Secretary of the LSA, 1969-1983

From 1924 through 1968, the LSA’s operations were managed by dedicated volunteers, including the linguists who served as Secretary-Treasurer during that time. As the field of linguistics grew, it became increasingly clear that the LSA would need professional staff operating out of a central office in order to serve the discipline more fully. This is the story of how that transition came to pass.

The Key Role of the Ford Foundation

Melvin Fox, a senior staff member of the Ford Foundation, traveled to the summer Linguistic Institute at Ann Arbor in the summer of 1957 to gather information on linguistics and applications thereof.  Fox held extensive conversations with Charles Ferguson, then a young Harvard faculty member teaching at the Institute.  They discussed a range of ways that linguistics could be employed, from language teaching (especially regarding English as a foreign or second language) to government policies affecting language.

From the discussions with Ferguson and others, the idea of a new applied linguistics center evolved.  Like many foundations, Ford was a bit leery of making a direct grant to establish a new entity.  The Linguistic Society was approached about overseeing the new center.  After all, the LSA sponsored the summer institute at which the concept was developed.  But the LSA declined, which was not too surprising, as the administrative structure of LSA consisted mainly of Archibald Hill (and his wife Muriel) in donated office space at the University of Texas at Austin, where Hill was a professor.

The Ford Foundation then approached the Modern Language Association, which agreed to accept such a grant and oversee the new Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), which opened its doors in Washington in 1959.  After five years, the MLA and Ford Foundation helped CAL become a free-standing charitable, tax-exempt [501(c)3] organization.

By the mid-1960s, Ford was interested in helping learned societies, such as the LSA, to professionalize, especially in terms of making scholarly research more widely known.  Thomas Sebeok (Indiana University), a Hungarian-born scholar with broad interests in linguistics, anthropology, folklore, semiotics and more, was a consultant and relatively frequent visitor at the Ford Foundation.  Sebeok, Mel Fox, and Frank Sutton (a Ford VP) considered whether a professionalization grant to LSA would be successful.  In the mid-1960s, the LSA was more than 30 years old, had been located at the University of Texas, Austin, since the early 1950s, and Arch Hill had been the elected secretary-treasurer throughout that time.  The LSA produced the journal Language (but it was edited from UCLA, under the editorship of Bill Bright, not UT-Austin), sponsored summer Linguistic Institutes at various campuses (but especially the University of Michigan), and held an Annual Meeting each December that was beginning to shift from all plenary sessions to multiple sessions, reflecting its growth.  The LSA’s income was nearly entirely from membership dues and the Annual Meeting.  Importantly, the LSA was a long-time constituent society of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS).

The Ford Foundation’s broad interest (I believe) was to bring more academic research into policy-making, education-oriented decisions, and so forth.  Learned societies in key areas were seen as candidates for professionalization grants.  The Foundation wanted such entities to be freestanding in terms of financing core activities and open to policy interests in areas of their expertise.  The Foundation was particularly interested in these being one-time grants and not a key to on-going support.  This would not preclude Foundation grants for other purposes.

The LSA Seeks Change

In light of the possible Ford Foundation grant to professionalize the society, the LSA leadership, including Hill and Sebeok, agreed that Hill would step down after 19 years as secretary-treasurer, Sebeok would stand for election as Secretary-Treasurer, and an LSA Secretariat would be established.   I do not have knowledge of what was involved in the leadership discussions resulting in the agreement on the Ford grant.

John Lotz, Director of CAL (1968-1972), recommended me to the LSA as the potential author of a proposal for Ford.  In the meantime, as the above changes were being made, CAL agreed to provide space, financial and other services, and make available one third of my  time for the LSA on a continuing basis.  Moving to CAL was a major shift from the position of the LSA just a decade earlier when it rejected the overture from Ford.  Ford also provided limited funds to cover composition costs for Language.

Lotz and Sebeok, both from Hungary by birth, were long-time colleagues and, sometimes, competitors.  Bringing the LSA to Washington and CAL represented a major collaboration on their part.

In January 1969, Sebeok and I met with Hill in Austin to complete arrangements for the move to Washington.  One could see that running the LSA was a central activity for Arch and his wife, for which Arch had been compensated $500 per year and Muriel nothing.  I flew back to Washington with the LSA’s portfolio of securities, valued (I think) at about $90,000.

Diana Riehl, who was recruited from the National Academy of Sciences, was the first full-time employee of the Secretariat.  Most of the LSA’s office procedures, including membership management, were developed by Diana Riehl.

The Ford grant was successful in the development of the Secretariat.  After a few years, the LSA began paying UCLA for the support costs of Language, and fully supporting its other activities.  Partially in response to a DC law that requires an entity paying a salary to have direct oversight of such an employee, the LSA leadership began a movement whereby the Society established a separate office and assumed control over all its financial and other affairs.

Editor's Note: As the LSA begins planning for the celebration of its Centennial in 2024, we are pleased to publish this brief essay about the early days of the Society's professional staff. This is the fifth such feature in our new series, “This (time) in Linguistics History,” to be published on a periodic basis via the LSA website. We invite LSA members to submit their ideas and contributions for future history features. The new feature will be coordinated by LSA Archivist Brian Joseph, in consultation with the LSA Secretariat. The trigger event for this periodic feature could be an important day, week, month or year in the history of the LSA and/or the field of Linguistics. We are happy to publish as many features as often as LSA members are willing to contribute. Please submit your ideas via e-mail to Brian Joseph or Alyson Reed.