Ron Chastain lived with joy and delight. Just last year, in his late 70s, he dressed as the Penguin character from the Batman stories, accompanying his grandson to a Comic-Con convention.
As a teenager, Chastain performed magic and ventriloquism in nursing homes as well as appearing on live television in the early 1950s. Later, academics became central to his professional life, but it also opened up a new understanding of family.
“He grew up in poverty and he had a troubled home life, which I learned about as I grew older,” said his son Ken Chastain. “He created a very loving, warm environment for both my brother and myself that was unlike anything that he had.”
Chastain died on July 4 at age 79.
Early in his life, Chastain’s talent for performance drew the notice of one of his teachers, Georgee Hash, in St. Joseph, Mo. She helped him secure a four-year college scholarship, and he took her suggestion to attend Oberlin College in Ohio. In an essay written for a 50th school reunion, Chastain called her his “spiritual mother.”
“She was right, of course,” Chastain wrote. “For me, being at Oberlin was like being reborn. I soaked everything up like a sponge.”
In college, Chastain discovered his passion for foreign languages. He started with French and would eventually learn five languages. At Oberlin he also met his future wife, Lyle Toms. They remained together until her death in 2013.
They had a close partnership. The couple moved to Paris after he was named a Fulbright scholar. They would return there many times, often with close friends.
The pair also became educators for the Peace Corps. In Morocco, he taught French to the American volunteers, and she taught them about local culture. Later they lived in Rwanda as part of a project for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“They talked frequently about Africa,” said a close family friend, Sandy Benitez. “Ron had a deep, deep understanding of the culture.”
Later the Chastains would host many guests from Rwanda at their home near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
After the couple settled permanently in Minnesota in the 1970s, Chastain taught French at the University of Minnesota until the late 1990s. He started a translation and language-services company and worked with many arts and humanities organizations, including Theatre de la Jeune Lune, the American-French theater company in Minneapolis.
In addition to his extensive work with foreign languages, Chastain was a musician who played the guitar and the classical recorder.
“Ron was an encyclopedia of classical music,” said his son, Ken, himself a musician and producer. “I would often call him and hum a melody I needed the name for.”
Along with his wife, who played autoharp and the banjo, the family created their own entertainment.
“My family didn’t have a stereo in our house, but we made a lot of music together,” Ken said.
It was also a place where friends gathered, visitors were welcomed and celebrations were hosted for Thanksgiving meals and a New Year’s Eve party with platters of shrimp.
“They were always either French meals or Moroccan meals or Thai meals,” said Benitez. “There were spirited and really fun lunches and get-togethers on the porch.”
In addition to his son Ken, Chastain is survived by another son, Greg, and four grandchildren.
Services will be held in September.