I’ve been wanting to post this article from the Occidental Magazine since I got the physical copy a year and a half ago (I’m an alumnus), but it takes the good people at Oxy a long, long time to put issues online. At any rate, here it is; it starts with Dostert’s creation of the simultaneous translation system that made the Nuremberg trial possible, then goes back to his scrappy beginnings:
Dostert was born on May 14, 1904, in Longwy, France, a fortress town near the borders of Belgium and Luxembourg. His father disappeared early on, and his mother died when he was very young, leaving his aunt and grandmother responsible for his upbringing. He later cited his humble beginnings as the driving force behind his ambition.
In late August 1914, during the opening battles of World War I, the Germans marched into Longwy after a devastating bombardment that left the fortress and parts of the town in ruins. Ten-year-old Dostert was forced to attend German schools for the next four years, effectively beginning his education in foreign languages. He proved so adept at German that when he was put to work after finishing elementary school, he was relieved of his duties loading cargo and given a cushier job as secretary to a German officer and translator between the Germans and the French. He remembered translating the Germans’ request for a light bulb and feeling such a thrill when the lights came on that he decided then and there to study languages.
When American soldiers arrived in 1918, Dostert quickly picked up English and became a “mascot” for an Army regiment stationed in Longwy. Among the soldiers was Henri St. Pierre ’21, who was so impressed with the French teenager that he arranged for him to emigrate to California in the spring of 1921. […]
In fall 1963, he joined the Occidental faculty as professor of French and chairman of the foreign languages department:
As he did wherever he went, Dostert changed the status quo during his six years at Oxy. At his suggestion, the department was renamed the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics. He initiated a master’s program in 1964, established a special program for teaching English to Spanish-speaking students, and pushed his younger colleagues to launch Oxy’s modern-day study-abroad program—which today is a vital component of the undergraduate experience. […]
In November 1967, Dostert was the subject of a collection of essays and articles titled Papers in Linguistics in Honor of Léon Dostert, prepared by fellow linguists as a tribute to his many achievements in the field. In his dedication, Professor William M. Austin of the Illinois Institute of Technology wrote of his longtime Georgetown colleague: “There is hardly a major linguist today in this country or Europe who does not know him personally, hardly a segment of linguistic endeavor that has not been touched by his thought, guidance, or initiated programs.”
Unfortunately, he retired in ’69, while I was there but still a math major; the next year I transferred to the department he essentially created, but (being distracted by life and the Vietnam War) I never learned anything about him at the time. Now, all these years later, I’m very glad to learn his story, and I encourage you to read the linked piece and do the same.