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Robert A. Fernea ’54

For half a century Bob was a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas and the founding director of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, one of the premier Middle Eastern studies centers in the nation.

He was adopted at birth by George and Alta Fernea and graduated from high school in Vancouver, Washington. At Reed, he majored in sociology and was president of his senior class. He wrote his thesis on whether it was possible to distribute an F-scale test to a population and get a reading of their authoritarianism—an idea based on the work of Erich Fromm.

“Reed was an essential part of my intellectual life,” he said. “It was a revelation as well as an education. It was the education at Reed that gripped me.”

Reed afforded him entrance to an intellectual community. “Once you’ve learned a few things, or many more than a few things, you can move around in the intellectual community with a fair degree of confidence, and operate successfully,” he said. “And that’s the academic world, isn’t it? We can move from one university setting to another and to a degree find ourselves at home.”

He earned his master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, followed by a PhD in cultural anthropology, and was awarded fellowships from the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation, and the Danforth Foundation. In Chicago, he became reacquainted with Elizabeth “B.J.” Warnock ’49. B.J. was nearly four years older than Bob and had a job in Reed’s news bureau when Bob was a student working in the alumni office. They met up again in Chicago.

“I was walking down 57th Street one day, and ran into Bob,” she recalled.  “‘Oh, hello, Bob.  How are you?’ ‘I’m fine. I’m having trouble meeting girls.’ I introduced him to my roommate, whom he didn’t like. Then he called me up and said that his mother had sent him $25 for his birthday.  Would I like to go out to dinner with him?  And I said, ‘No. I’m too old for you.’ ‘Oh, come on, you wouldn’t mind having a good dinner.’ I finally went.”

Two years later they were married. “If we hadn’t known each other at Reed, we wouldn’t have developed a friendship in Chicago,” Bob said. “The most important thing was to marry an intelligent person, who you could talk to and who would sustain an interesting conversation in the middle of all of the ups and downs of daily life.”

Following their wedding, the couple moved to Al Nahra, a remote Iraqi village, where he conducted his PhD research for two years.

From 1959 to 1962, Bob taught at the American University in Cairo, where their children were born.  In 1962, he directed the Nubian Ethnological Survey, a project funded by the Ford Foundation to illuminate and study the displacement of the Nubian people from their villages as the Aswan Dam was built, after which he published Nubians in Egypt:  Peaceful People.

In 1965, Bob returned with his family to the U.S. and spent a year as a Harvard University postdoctoral fellow before beginning his teaching career at the University of Texas. In addition to being the founding director of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Bob was also a founding member and past president of the Middle East Studies Association, a nonprofit association fostering the study of the Middle East.

Bob published many books, including the award-winning The Arab World, which he coauthored with B.J. The couple forged a personal and professional relationship that spanned their 52-year marriage. Bob narrated a documentary produced by B.J., The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians. Although they made their home in Austin for more than 40 years, they frequently returned to the Middle East to live and work.

In addition to his wide-ranging career, Bob was a Renaissance man who danced ballet with the Portland Ballet and was a board member of the Austin Civic Ballet. He was an accomplished trombone and piano player and played with a local jazz band. He was athletic, spoke French and Arabic fluently, and had friends all over the world.

Bob is survived by his daughters, Laura Ann Fernea ’83 and Laila Stroben; his son, David Fernea; and his devoted Chihuahua, Harry.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2018

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