Condor Publishing, Inc. was honored to publish Dr. Yates children's book, Carlota's Jungle Friends. This greatly esteemed professor and author is greatly missed.
Donald A. Yates, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Spanish American Literature, Michigan State University
1930 - 2017
Donald A. Yate, Ph.D. (1930 - 2017)
Growing up as a teenager in Ann Arbor, I developed an insatiable taste for detective fiction. Since most of the books I came across were written for adults, I skipped juvenile-type mysteries entirely and began reading the genre's mainline authors. By the time I had passed from Slauson Junior High on to Ann Arbor High, I was giving some thought to what I wanted to do with my life. When I was given the choice to decide what kind of curriculum I wanted to pursue after high school, I unhesitatingly elected Pre-Law. I had consumed dozens of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels and was entranced by the prospect of becoming myself a crackerjack courtroom lawyer.
So it was that I entered the University of Michigan in the fall of 1947 on the Pre-Law track. I had enjoyed and done well in my high school classes in English and Spanish, but now I was getting down to serious preparation for my career in law. There were, of course, some basic class requirements to satisfy, but I was willing to be patient.
In my sophomore year I ran into a history course that slowed me down quite a bit. I forget what it was called--it might have been English Constitutional History--but I discovered that I just couldn't hack it. It all seemed so cut and dried, dusty and lacking in drama and emotion. My exam results were genuinely alarming. The professor who taught the course--by the name of Leslie--took note of this and asked to see me for a moment one day after class. I frankly and perhaps over-dramatically explained to him that I was not finding much sense of fulfillment in the course material. He listened attentively and then asked me a single question: "What is your academic program?" I said it was Pre-Law. (I remember this moment very clearly.) He thought a bit and then said: "Mr. Yates, I need to tell you that you are going to have to take a goodly number of other courses—much like this one—in order to complete the Pre-Law curriculum." He paused to let that sink in. Then he said, "Let me offer you a bit of advice. In your circumstances, I would give serious thought to changing your major to something else." That was, I believe, a critical turning point in my life.
The next day I went over to Angell Hall and switched my major to Spanish. I had continued taking Spanish courses in every semester at the university and was receiving high marks. So that seemed to be the thing to do. Thus it was that I completed the A.B. degree, with a major in Spanish, in January of 1951. And then was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army for a two-year stretch.
With my Army service behind me, I was over two years separated from the first phase of my university education. I had given over those two years to military service, but I was compensated by my country with the benefits of the G.I. Bill. So I returned to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1953—as a graduate student in Spanish. In one year I had my Masters degree and then pushed on in pursuit of the Ph. D.
I found these graduate years to be enormously rewarding. It turned out that I did indeed have a real gift for languages. (Before leaving for the Army, I had also learned French) These language courses were particularly compatible with my continuing interest in English language and literature, absorbed as I was in fiction and creative writing. With Professor Leslie's well-timed and well-intended nudge, I had moved onto an academic career that was particularly suited to my talents and interests I was very fortunate to be able to take graduate courses from two distinguished members of the Romance Language Department faculty—Irving A. Leonard and Enrique Anderson Imbert. Leonard was one of the country's highly regarded specialists in Latin American Literature and also in Latin American history. Anderson Imbert, who left Michigan in 1968 for Harvard, was a consumate classroom teacher and had published the first comprehensive history of Spanish American literature. Eventually, I wrote my dissertation with Anderson Imbert on the subject of Argentine detective fiction.
I finished my course work for the Doctorate and passed the oral exams in 1957, and went to Michigan State for what was to be a one-year appointment to replace a faculty member who had to spend a sabbatical year in Europe. I stayed in East Lansing for twenty-six years. It was a wonderful ride that included many trips to Spain and France and especially to Latin American countries, whose literatures became my area of specialization. I published extensively—articles, essays, reviews for the New York Times, a memoir in The New Yorker, many Spanish-language textbooks as well as translations of novels and short stories of Spanish American writers, especially those from Argentina, where I spent nearly five years over the span of almost twenty trips to Buenos Aires. Writing was always a pleasure and a source of deep satisfaction. In 1954 I won a Hopwood Award in drama. More than once I considered that if had become a lawyer what I might well have been limited to composing was courtroom briefs. I was wisely steered away from that destiny.
After spending a total of thirty years teaching, I retired in 1983 to California's Napa Valley, where I carry on my second career as a writer. Thank you, Professor Leslie.
An afterthought. Looking back on it, you realize that you never see Perry Mason playing golf, relaxing at a pool, hitting the casinos at Lake Tahoe, or even sipping a glass of wine. Whew, that was a close one!