Robert was born March 6, 1923 in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Since his father was a doctor in the army and frequently re-stationed, he had a childhood of frequent moves. When less than 3 months old, he traveled by ship with his parents and 5 year old brother John to reside for one year on the island fortress of Corregidor, at the mouth of Manila Bay in the Philippines. A year later they moved to Zamboanga in the far south of the Islands.
Then came two years at Fort Lewis in Washington State. At age four he was old enough to remember the next move, in which a special dedicated train carried a detachment of soldiers, with families, horses and supplies, to North Dakota, to re-open the “moth-balled “ Fort Lincoln. Entertainment around Bismark included seeing the Civilian Military Training Corps, and an annual sort of jamboree. At one of these in 1930 he was lifted onto a horse to sit with Red Tomahawk, who in 1890 had killed Sitting Bull. Sitting on the horse with the strong 80 year old Sioux Chief left a lasting impression.
In 1933 he moved to Takoma Park in Washington DC for six months, and then in 1934 back to the Philippines, this time to Ft McKinley near Manila. On this second stay in the Philippines he collected lists of words in the native language of the lavandera, the washer-woman. Her language was not the dominant language, Tagalog. Her family was from the central islands and spoke Bessian. Robert said he used to go back when she was doing ironing with a sheet of lined paper on which he wrote the words in English and Bessian. In his final months he was pleased to recall some words to use with his Philippine nurses.
In 1937 for 2 weeks he was deathly ill with dysentery, and spent his time watching and listening to geckos, and counting the boards on the ceiling. This was his second close call in the Philippines, having barely been missed by a falling coconut as a baby.
On the way from the Philippines to the United States in 1937, his family visited Japan, China and Hong Kong . The family was in Peking when the Japanese started military action, and they rode special train from Peking to coast to be evacuated, and then on the USAT Grant to the United States.
They moved to back to Ft Lewis, Washington, then on to Ft Douglas, Utah and Pacific Grove, California. Robert spent quiet time alone, keeping a record of books read, such as "The Book of Knowledge" and Darwin's "Descent of Man." This studious time was partly a defense against the frustrations of temporary friendships. "In the army life", Robert wrote, "one must become accustomed to the frequent permanent parting from friends.” Sometimes in this period and later he wrote entries in a journal in some peculiar way, such as using the International Phonetic Alphabet.
After a semester at USC and several at UC Berkeley, he had his bachelors in Chemistry, but an interest in language. So in 1944 instead of joining the Army, he entered the Navy with the hope and expectation of being in their language program. Despite doing extraordinarily well on the language aptitude test, he was trained in electronics and spent 2 years on a small APC-25 transport ship in the Pacific.
After the war, he returned to Berkeley, lived at International House (I House) and earned an MS in Chemistry. He worked in the Analytical Chemistry group at the Radiation Lab in Berkeley and continued to participate in activities at I House -- language tables, bridge, go, chess, and folk dancing, and met Esther Smith. When he worked at the lab in Livermore, he did not have a car and Esther let him borrow hers. When he came to get it early in the morning, he'd walk quietly up the stairs for the keys, then stomp down, teasing her that he was trying to get people to think he'd spent the night there.
Robert and Esther were married in 1952. In 1954 they found a lot on the edge of Tilden Park in Kensington owned by famed architect Bernard Maybeck. He wanted a particular kind of people to live on "Maybeck Hill", and interviewed and approved the Oswalts as owners. The house was the first designed by Berkeley professor-to-be Howie Friedman, and Robert and Esther did much of the finishing of the house themselves. Soon sons John and Edward were born.
Robert's lifelong interest was in languages and in 1956, he enrolled in the new Linguistics Department at the University of California at Berkeley. His pioneering work with Pomo Indians of northern California led to his PhD from U.C. Berkeley and publication of the book, "Kashaya Texts" in 1964. He worked with the Kashaya Indian Tribe whose rancheria is a few miles inland from Stewart’s Point - between Gualala and Pt Arena, not far from Fort Ross. He also worked With Central Pomo, Northeast Pomo, Yuki and the African language Kru. His belief in the importance of language preservation and desire to help new researchers continued throughout his life. He published in a wide variety of linguistic subjects including English orthography, comparative linguistics, imitative words, and people and place names. He assisted Kashaya tribal members in preserving their language and their songs. His main informant was Essie Parrish, a respected shah-man. He also worked extensively with Herman James and many others. He continued his relationship with many of the tribal members and continued to work on the grammar of the Kashaya and other Pomo languages throughout his life.
This past April I asked him about his first work with the Pomo, and I recorded him giving this description:
When I was first looking for Essie Parrish I drove along to various farmhouses in Dry Creek Valley to ask if they knew Essie Parrish, and they did, and I'd tell the farmers that I wanted to record her language and they said they knew her well, some said, "I didn't know they had a language, I thought they were just grunting to each other."
In those days Dry Creek valley did not have vineyards, they had hops, and the late summer job was picking hops and they had beans and orchards of plums, that's all gone, it's all grapesIn one farmhouse there were some Indians, I'd go there ... see if they knew Essie Parrish ... Everybody who knew anything about the language considered her the best speaker, and it's probably true, she's not only fluent, very fluent, the construction of sentences is a little more elaborate, she can make complex sentence with embedded subordinate clauses ... When I explained to Essie Parrish how I planned to record the language and stories, make a dictionary, write a grammar, she immediately thought that was something she wanted. Not everyone felt that way, some thought preserving the language was holding back from assimilating ... I found her in a cabin, rather isolated, in Alexander Valley, one room cabin amidst the hopfield ...
I was staying up there Stewart's Point to see Essie Parrish daily. On days she wasn't available I'd go northward to Anchor Bay and Pt Arena there was a different Pomo group, Boya, Central Pomo, I recorded some stories spoken by Flora Scarione, mother of Sydney Parrish, she spoke Central Pomo, and very well too ... One day she wouldn't come to the door, she ... had me look at the back steps and there was a stone sitting there ... she caught a glimpse of it and she wouldn't go anywhere because she knew that stone had not been there, there had been a bad medicine man put it there to poison her, so she had me pick up the stone, see if there was a mark on it, there was a scratch .. she had me carry the stone away toa wilderness area.
Robert was particularly impressed with Essie’s, and later her daughter Bernice’s singing. He recorded them both and did a show for KPFA radio about Pomo music.
His work in some cases presented unique problems. One informant's relative, who did not approve of the work, started up a chainsaw outside the window to disrupt Robert and the informant whenever they started to work. In another case, working with an elderly but crucial speaker who was nearly deaf and blind and prone to hallucinations, Robert wrote English words in very large letters on signs he could hold up in various combinations so he could learn both vocabulary and grammar.
He enjoyed the natural surroundings of his house. In his journal he often wrote of encounters with deer, ticks, and packrats; of the howls of foxes or coyotes, or shrieks of birds in the valley. He learned to identify the local birds by sound as well as sight. For a few years he had pet geese and goats.
He filled the 3/4 acre lot at the house with many plants, including at one point perhaps 200 species of cactus and succulent. There are many fruit trees including a prolific and seemingly indestructible Myers Lemon. In recent years he and I walked around the house a few times inventorying the plants as I took notes on how he acquired them and why he planted them. I made a list of about 90 species from these walks -- he supplied me with the common and scientific names and their spelling in most cases. On one of these walks, only a year or two ago, we had made the long walk almost all the way around the house and found a spider web over the path near the front door. Instead of knocking down the web, we turned around and went all the way around the house again. He had no fear of walking through a web -- that happened plenty of times in the basement -- but he didn't want to put the spider through the inconvenience of having to rebuild.
He was a sports fan. He attended most home Cal basketball games for over 40 years and enjoyed track meets -- both at the high school and college level. This past March, as always he closely followed the college basketball tournament, and was pleased that if not Berkeley, at least UCLA did well.
He was rewarded by an enduring faith in the stock market. On the day of the 1987 crash he was in Kenya, and in a postcard to me he wrote "I'm not worried and have faith in recovery." Then in October 1997 his journal entry says "Biggest 1-day drop in DJIA, think buy"
He enjoyed domestic and world travel. There were many family camping trips in National Parks and trips to Canada, Mexico and Europe. In 1965 on a trip connected to his teaching English to foreign students at Cal, he visited Egypt, India, and Hong Kong. With Esther, he visited Mexico several times, Costa Rica, China including Tibet in 1986, Kenya in in 1987, Argentina in 1991, and Turkey in 1998. The two of them also visited the British Isles by car, went to many countries in Western Europe, to Russia including Siberia with an Elderhostel group which had as its focus the status of the indigenous peoples in Alaska compared to Siberia. He loved to visit to the various places he had lived as a child and locate the houses he lived in.
He researched the history of, and visited the southeast United States several times, mostly in conjunction with his interest in his family history. He kept old family letters, researched genealogical records, and used genealogy computer programs. Niece Barbara said this has helped hold the extended family together. He had a warm place in his heart for Tuskegee, Alabama, where his family on both sides has roots, and it was in the cemetery there that he wished to be buried. And indeed, my brother John went to Tuskegee and saw that this wish was fulfilled. His is buried there in the Oswalt family plot next to his father’s parents.
Robert lived a good life. We will remember him with respect and love.