Elaine Mielke Townsend, Widow of SIL International Founder, Dies at Age 91

Elaine Mielke Townsend, 1915-2007

(July 2007) SIL International staff and friends mourn the death of Elaine Mielke Townsend, 91, who died 14 July in South Carolina after a brief illness. Mrs. Townsend was the widow of W. Cameron Townsend, who in 1934 founded SIL International (the Summer Institute of Linguistics). Even after his death in 1982, she continued to be an untiring advocate for ethnic minority language groups. For her local and global community service, the state of North Carolina awarded her the prestigious "Order of the Long Leaf Pine" in August 2000.

"We in SIL mourn with the Townsend family in the death of Elaine Townsend,” says SIL Executive Director John Watters. “She shared in significant ways in the leadership that Cameron Townsend provided during the first forty-seven years of the life of SIL. And although she outlived Cameron Townsend by twenty-five years, she remained interested and concerned for the minority language communities around the world. As a professional educator herself, she recognized and always remained alert to the educational needs of these communities."

Despite her successful career as a teacher in Chicago, she felt drawn to the needs of ethnolinguistic minority groups around the world whose languages were unwritten. After a summer of linguistic training at the University of Oklahoma, Mrs. Townsend began her overseas work by teaching the children of a linguistic team for a year in Mexico. Later she conducted literacy programs and prepared instructional materials for seventeen of the minority languages in Mexico.

Townsends in Peru, 1946Mrs. Townsend met Cameron Townsend in 1944, their friendship developed into a courtship, and two years later they were married. The couple befriended and hosted many heads of state in their home. General Lázaro Cárdenas, former President of Mexico, and his wife Amalia served as best man and matron of honor at the Townsend wedding in 1946.

During the years the Townsends lived in Peru, from 1946 to 1968, Mrs. Townsend worked with government educators to train literacy workers for a nation-wide literacy program. For this, she and her husband would share the Palmas Magisteriales (Teacher's Laurels), a prestigious educational award given by the Peruvian government.

E. Townsend receives award for distinguished serviceIn 1968 the Townsends made the first of eleven trips to the Soviet Union. Their interest focused on the Caucasus region, located between the Black and Caspian Seas and home to over one hundred languages. In 1975, after seven years studying the languages, cultures and educational system of what was then the USSR, they shared their findings in a published photographic essay and also in a scholarly report on bilingual education in the USSR. At a time when much of the world isolated the Soviet Union, the Townsends extended an open hand of friendship.

Mrs Townsend is remembered by colleagues as always full of energy, and her husband as a visionary—both displaying a genuine faith in God and a heart for minority people. Through the Townsends' combined strengths and tireless advocacy, they positively impacted the lives of countless ethnic minority peoples around the world.

Mrs. Townsend is survived by daughters Grace Goreth, Joy Tuggy, Elainadel Garippa, son Bill Townsend, twenty-one grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Above left: Elaine and Cameron seated in the middle of SIL staff in Peru in 1946.

Above right: Mrs. Townsend was decorated by Peru's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vice-Admiral Llosa, for Distinguished Service, grade of Comendador, in Lima, Peru, 25 July 1963.

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