Professor Emeritus of Slavic Linguistics Alexander Marian Schenker GRD ’53 was the only tenured professor at Yale without a bachelor’s degree or a high school diploma during his time on the Yale faculty.

But during his 94 years, Schenker, known to his family and friends as Olek, managed to experience and accomplish more than many of the professors in his field who held multiple degrees.

Schenker — who founded Yale’s Slavic Studies Department in the 1950s — passed away on Aug. 21 in Branford, CT. He was 94.

Schenker was born in Krakow, Poland in 1924 to a Jewish family. In 1940, his family left, but he and his mother were later arrested and forced to work in a Soviet labor camp. After they were freed in 1941, Schenker and his mother moved to Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He studied there until the end of World War II, when his family moved to the United States. At Yale, Schenker received his doctorate in Linguistics. From there he began his decades-long career as a celebrated professor, first as a Russian teacher and later the founder of the Slavic Studies Department. He retired in 1996.

“Most important to me, [Schenker] was my spiritual mentor, devoted colleague, and dear friend for almost half a century, said professor Harvey Goldblatt, current head of the Slavic Languages and Literatures department in a message to members of the Slavic academic community at Yale. “To say I shall miss him is a grievous understatement.”

Schenker’s works have left a great impact on Slavic Studies not just within Yale, but throughout the English-speaking world. He wrote “The Dawn of Slavic: An Introduction to Slavic Philology” in 1995, which won the Modern Language Associations’ Scaglione Prize for Studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures. As one of the key founders of Yale’s Slavic Languages and Literatures department, he wrote “Beginning Polish” (1966), a classic textbook for teaching Polish to English-speakers. For his service to the Polish language and Polish culture, Poland awarded him the Cross of Valor of the Highest Degree in 2013.

Schenker was known for his generosity, wit and understanding of the human spirit. He worked closely with Polish poets and writers such as Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert, two close friends. He is credited for bringing the Czesław Miłosz Papers to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

“I also wish to point out that Alex’s generosity to Yale students was the stuff of legends,” Goldblatt said. “Today, when we all proudly speak about the many achievements of our Slavic Department, we must always remember Alex’s hard work and selfless devotion with particular gratitude. Much the same can be said regarding his many and important contributions to the welfare of American Slavic Studies generally.”

On the Slavic Language and Literatures department website, William Hamilton Bachelor of the Arts ’63 GRD ’71 and Susanne Fusso GRD ’84 both credit Schenker as an outstanding mentor, with “infinite patience.”

According to Goldblatt, there will be a memorial service for Schenker in October.

Claire Ning Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu