From the Fields of Idaho to the Halls of Yale
By Becky St. Clair
When self-proclaimed “Okie Farm Boy” Richard Litke moved to Idaho with his family in 1924, he had no idea that his path would lead him toward Walla Walla University.
In 2008, Richard Litke completed 60 distinguished years of service to WWU. Enrolling at WWU as a post-war freshman in 1946, he graduated two years later, and was hired by the university to teach Greek and Hebrew.
“Dr. Richard Litke is one of the most brilliant faculty ever to teach on our campus,” says Alden Thompson, professor of biblical studies. “In spite of his own vast and brilliant scholarship, Dr. Litke teaches ordinary people with passion, compassion, and good humor. In virtually every sense of the word, Dr. Litke was, and still is, an inspired and inspiring teacher.”
Where did this gifted scholar begin his inspiring life? He started as a simple farm boy.
Born to German immigrants in Bessie, Okla., Litke spent his first years in a virtually German community. The immigrants had their own schools, churches, and grocery stores.
By the time Litke was 3-years-old, the family had moved to the woods of northern Idaho, then three years later to a farm in the Spokane valley. In 1934, the family again moved—this time to Bellingham. “There I was pleasure mad at age 14,” remembers Litke. “I was determined to find and drink all the alcohol I could get a hold of, and to chase all the girls I saw. I loved going to movies, too.”
Also, as a result of Litke’s mother’s communist and antireligious attitudes, Litke had an anti-capitalistic outlook on life. He saw businessmen as people who should have their wealth taken away from them. How could a youngster do that? He began to shoplift.
“I spent a lot of time figuring out the best ways to do it,” says Litke. “I came home with bulging pockets.”
Despite these distractions, Litke had a serious side, and as he prepared to finish the eighth grade, he began contemplating what to do with his life. He settled on becoming a biologist, as insects, sea life, plant life, and anything related fascinated him.
A New Life
One day, an advertisement came to the Litke home. A visitor to the area would be presenting an astronomy lecture. Appealing to Litke’s scientific interests, he went to the first meeting and was delighted. Night after night, well into the summer, Litke attended the meetings.
“The man told us logically that the orderly circuits of the stars proved that there was Intelligence behind them,” remembers Litke. “He said it couldn’t have just happened. Someone made them and controlled their movements.”
Litke came to believe everything he heard in those meetings. Up until this point, Litke had no idea what the Bible was, nor what people meant by “God” and Jesus.” But what this man presented made perfect sense to him, and Litke accepted it all.
Before the summer was over, Litke decided he was going to work for the people sponsoring the speaker.
Litke was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church on Aug. 8, 1935. His parents eventually attended the meetings with him to see what was so exciting to their young son. Ultimately, they were baptized as well. He graduated from Auburn Academy in 1939, and was then ready to go to WWU.
There was only one problem with his plan: College required money, money he didn’t have.
Although work was scarce because of the Depression, Litke became a riveter for Boeing in Seattle. When the company began building bomber planes, the pacifist in Litke couldn’t handle it. Litke left Boeing and worked as a salesman, first in books, then in furnaces.
While he worked, saving money to attend WWU, Litke became interested in Norma Larson, a girl he knew from junior academy. In 1942 the couple married and just a few weeks later, Litke was drafted.
Stationed in Kansas, Litke served first as an army medic, then as the chaplain’s clerk, where he managed to convert the civilian secretary to Adventism, much to the chaplain’s distress. Litke was then shipped to Europe.
While he worked as a warehouse clerk in England, Litke did German coursework through Home Study International (HSI). An officer supervised Litke’s final test, and shortly thereafter reported to his superiors that Litke knew German. At the close of World War II, Litke was flown into Germany and appointed as an intelligence clerk.
Shortly thereafter, Litke was promoted to sergeant. Though he was eligible for discharge, he was offered a stripe for every month he stayed. Litke declined. He was eager to get back to his young wife and on to WWU.
During his army years, Litke had given Bible studies in every spare minute he had. This experience convinced him he needed to study not biology, but theology.
By 1946, Litke was back home with his wife. Almost immediately, the young couple put all their belongings in an old pickup and headed for College Place.
That summer, Litke enrolled at WWU. By winter quarter, he had enough credits to be considered a junior.
Litke spent many hours poring over his books and assignments, determined to get through what he considered to be the hardest part of getting his degree: Greek.
When the year was over, Litke knew that he had made quite an impression on his professors.
“I don’t think they realized it was because I’d studied backward and forward until I understood it,” says Litke. “I was simply racing against ignorance. I was afraid everyone else was way ahead of me, and that made me study even harder.”
The following summer, WWU came to Litke with a proposal: They could not accommodate all the veterans in the theology program. Litke had studied all the Greek WWU offered. Would he work as a contract teacher for the second-year Greek classes?
Litke accepted the position, and his second year at WWU—his senior year—he not only took classes, but taught Greek classes practically full-time.
In 1948, Litke graduated cum laude and then taught at WWU three years before taking a leave to earn a higher degree.
A Famous Tablet
Litke enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. After obtaining a masters degree in cuneiform languages, his professors suggested he apply to Yale University. Receiving a full fellowship, he took classes in Sumerian, Acadian, and Hittite.
Studying these languages at the University of Chicago one summer, Litke became acquainted with Benno Landsberger, then the world’s leading scholar in these languages. Litke asked Landsberger for counsel on what he should do for his doctoral dissertation.
Landsberger knew of a famous large religious text Yale possessed. He told Litke that if he could prepare that text for publication, it would be the most fortunate experience that could come to him as a young scholar. Landsberger would even contact Litke’s professors and recommend him. Litke was quite excited by the prospect.
Upon his return to Yale, Litke’s major professor told him they had been discussing Litke’s dissertation. He said Yale had a famous tablet in pieces that needed to be restored and prepared for publication with a running translation. Would Litke be interested in a project like that?
“I had to be silent for an appropriate and diplomatic few moments,” says Litke. “So I scratched my face, cleared my throat, and said that maybe that would be a good project for me to work on.”
Following his coursework at Yale, the university paid Litke another year’s fellowship to work on his dissertation.
The text Litke was translating was about two feet high and a foot and a half wide, with writing on both sides. The print was in cuneiform, and had approximately 12 lines to an inch. He couldn’t read it without a microscope. He spent two years on his dissertation, translating and drawing replicas of the text for final publication.
When his dissertation was finished, Litke submitted it to Yale. He was soon contacted and told that he did not need to defend his thesis; it was accepted as it stood. Yale eventually published Litke’s dissertation in one of their prestigious scholarly series and it is now a special resource publication used by scholars world-wide.
Returning to WWU, Litke continued teaching until 1968, when for health reasons he went to part-time teaching. Within two years, his wife’s health also deteriorated with an inherited liver disease, preventing her from being very active. As a result, she read many books Litke had acquired.
As Norma examined the strange signs and symbols Litke had done so much with over the last few years, she commented that they looked like Chinese. Litke disagreed, but Norma insisted. Litke refused to be taken in.
“I was taught in graduate school that there was absolutely no relationship between the ancient languages I had studied and the Chinese language,” says Litke. “I didn’t want to get bogged down in ‘childlike’ research like that.”
Norma’s questions alarmed Litke; he couldn’t answer them to his own satisfaction. Finally, he decided to look more closely at what she was finding. He soon realized that he could not do any research unless he knew more about the Chinese language.
So Litke taught himself Chinese.
The more Litke looked into it, the more he realized that he could not overlook Norma’s findings. Though every book he found insisted there was no connection between Chinese and Sumerian, Litke decided this was because those who wrote the books didn’t know anything about Sumerian.
With his extensive knowledge of both languages, Litke began putting the two together. Finally, in 2003, Litke concluded that his findings and writings had come to maturity. He began preparing two volumes to be published. The first dealt with the grammar principles of both Sumerian and Chinese. The second dealt with phonetics and pronunciation.
Litke plans to have the final manuscript of the first volume completed by the end of 2008.
Currently, Litke is a contract teacher and teaches WWU classes in Advanced Classical Greek, Sumerian, Acadian, and Arabic.
Though Norma’s health forces her to remain in a care facility, the constant stream of students in Litke’s life helps to alleviate the loneliness caused by his wife’s absence.
“My present goal is to live for at least 13 more years,” states Litke with a smile. “I’ve got a lot of books yet to write and publish, and a lot of brilliant students to teach Arabic to.”
Last update on September 23, 2008