Rarely is someone humble and gracious to the point of being self-effacing larger than life, but Joe Voyles was certainly that. He never boasted of his expertise or talked much about his research, but as our former dean Mike Shapiro told me, “Few of his colleagues realize what a towering figure he is in the field.” Mike went on to say how he always found time for a talk or presentation given by Joe Voyles. None of us were surprised by his brilliance; there was certainly evidence of that in other aspects of his career, but Joe was the rare academic who undersold himself. He was always more curious about your projects and teaching, full of encouragement and, when, necessary help.
A quick overview of just some of his numerous publications seems appropriate here. In 1965 he distinguished himself with “Simplicity, Ordered Rules and the First Sound Shift,” a groundbreaking essay that jump started interest in generative phonetics in German Studies. Early Germanic Grammar: Pre- proto- and post-Germanic grammar (1992) is another highly regarded monograph in a career that was as productive as it is enduring.
No discussion of Joe’s work, of course, is complete without mention of his longtime collaborator and close friend, Charles Barrack. Their shared high regard for each other and exceptional, enduring friendship also produced an impressive and prolific portfolio of publications that continued well into their retirements: An Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Early Indo-European Languages (2009), On Laryngealism. A Coursebook in the History of a Science (2015) and the recent Proto-Indo-European Word Stress: Its Lithuanian Reflex (2020).
While many of us might not appreciate or understand the importance of the research, what all of us recognized and prized was Joe’s presence in the department. Jane Brown, Jeff Hanauer Professor of the Humanities Emerita and former chair, credits Joe for German Studies being a such functional place for the last 30 years of his career. “He set a wonderful example of never arguing, of never expressing impatience.” He also never scoffed at having to change his teaching schedule or pick up an extra course to accommodate the needs of the department. He set a tone of cooperation and mutual respect, always believing that everyone deserved a chance, even convinced that any applicant to the graduate program should be admitted. In his eyes, we were all equal.
But it is perhaps his students—his commitment to them and his easy presence in the classroom—that might be Joe’s most enduring legacy. He probably is one of the only professors who never needed to fear what students would say about him on such sites as the dreaded “Rate my Professor”: “He goes the extra mile when teaching and fully engages students. He went so far as to send me my hand graded final by snail mail at the end of the quarter. UW needs more professors like Joe.” “Joe is an absolutely great person. His class was very enjoyable and he's always there when you need extra help.”
Certainly, the feeling was mutual. At each commencement, Joe would remark once, if not several times, “Aren’t our students great? How lucky we are!” Guest professorships at Princeton and UC Berkeley attest to his standing in the profession, but reputation and prestige were no draw for Joe. His heart was always with the UW, especially with his students, and so he remained here to the great relief and benefit of all…especially for the “malnourished” undergrad with a sense of humor: “He's always got a smile and a joke for you. And sometimes delicious baked goods as well.”
The humor, the sound sometimes fatherly but always sage advice, and his general caring for colleagues and students was always confirmed, it seemed, whenever one visited the Voyles. If the weather was warm enough, neighborhood dogs and cats would make their way into the living room through an open door as though a welcome mat had been spread even for them, and it had been. Big or small, important or average, animal, vegetable or mineral, Joe always had kind word for everyone and, were it not for the wisdom of his wife Rosie, his loving wife and mother of their two children, David and Christina, an open house for all.
One last observation. There are few, if any people about whom one has never heard a mean or unkind word spoken and never expects to. Joe was the exception. And I think it is fair to say that if any of us should wake up in the after- life and run into Joe Voyles, we will know that we lived a good life.