Portuguese wasn’t Russell Hamilton’s first language, but it defined the course of his life.
He grew up in New Haven, Conn., a community rich with people from the island nation of Cape Verde, and was drawn to the Portuguese tongue at an early age.
In his later years, Hamilton could trick native speakers into thinking that he, too, knew the language from infancy.
“He was a language buff,” said his wife, Cherie, listing a half-dozen other languages he studied. “But I guess it wasn’t until his uncle gave him his first Portuguese dictionary and it just took off from there.”
The love of language was lifelong for Hamilton, a lauded professor and associate dean at the University of Minnesota. He died Feb. 27 at Walker Methodist in Minneapolis after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia. He was 81.
In 1964, Hamilton was among the first people to receive a doctoral degree in Portuguese from Yale University, and he eventually became the first black dean at Vanderbilt University.
“The fact that he had gone to Yale in the ’60s, and all the places that maybe he was the first or only black person in the field, speaks volumes,” said his son David. “He was able to bridge gaps, bring people together and walk into any situation and succeed.”
Language wasn’t his only love.
On their first date, Hamilton took Cherie to see a foreign film at the University of Connecticut, where they were both undergrads. He studied English and Spanish. She majored in math and minored in Spanish.
Maybe he wanted to impress her with the movie choice, but it didn’t matter — she was already smitten. Before he went to Madison, Wis., for his master’s degree in English and Spanish, they eloped in New York. She stayed in Connecticut to finish her studies, and he came back to enroll at Yale. She also joined her husband in Brazil, where he worked on his doctoral thesis as a Fulbright scholar.
After graduating from Yale, Hamilton was whisked away to the University of Minnesota, where he introduced Portuguese studies to the school’s romance language department. The young couple lived in Prospect Park — close enough for him to walk to work every day. There, they raised their four children: two boys and two girls.
After 20 years as a professor and associate dean at the U, Hamilton moved to Nashville, Tenn., where he was the dean of the graduate school at Vanderbilt. He retired from Vanderbilt in 2005 and returned to the U as a visiting professor.
A teacher and adviser beyond the classroom, Hamilton often invited graduate students to his home, where Cherie would prepare dinners from Portugal and Brazil, and other international cuisine.
The family traveled the world, living in Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique during sabbaticals where they forged many lasting friendships.
“He exposed us to a lot of different things and we were able to learn cultural differences — that was the norm,” David said.
In the obituary published by Vanderbilt, Hamilton was quoted as telling a reporter in 1985 that “there was never any doubt in my mind [about going to college]. I wanted to be a professor.”
His study was lined wall-to-wall with scholarly books — 90 percent written in Portuguese.
“He always had a book open or was writing something,” Cherie said.
She recently donated 200 books to the U, 150 to a school in Michigan, and another 150 to a university in Brazil. There’s a crate bound for another university.
“And there’s still about 1,000 left here,” she added.
David said he’ll miss their talks. “He was the smartest person I’ve ever met,” David said. “When I was in grad school we talked about world politics. His perspective was so insightful. He was so worldly on many things.”
In addition to his wife and son David, Hamilton is survived by daughters Cherie Andrea and Melissa Elena, son Russell Malcolm, a sister, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. There will be a symposium in his honor at the University of Minnesota in October.