Armand E. Singer A.M. '39, Ph.D. '44

Writer: 
October 1, 2005
Armand Singer, in the midst of a skydive

By his own reckoning, Armand Singer's teaching career began at age six, when he tugged at the sleeves of his parents' dinner guests to explain why the sun rose in the east and set in the west.

Eighty-four years later, he's still teaching. "I simply can't help it," he says, predicting that he will be "giving out information about my current status" from his deathbed.

For his professional teaching career, he settled on Romance languages, but only after abandoning undergraduate flirtations at Amherst College with chemistry (doomed when he blew up the lab) and paleontology (too few jobs, he was told). He arrived at Duke in the fall of 1936 to begin his graduate studies and quickly struck up a relationship with a fellow graduate student, Mary Rebecca White, who received a doctorate in classics in 1945.

Armand E. Singer A.M. '39, Ph.D. '44

They were married in 1940, after she was offered a teaching job at nearby Greensboro College. Within weeks, he accepted what was supposed to be a one-semester job at West Virginia University. He never left.

Mary Singer gave up her career to join him in Morganton the next year, teaching part time while he climbed the academic ranks. "At that time, no two people in a family could draw state paychecks," he says.

Armand Singer stepped down from full-time duties in 1980, after forty years on the faculty. But it's a stretch to call his past quarter-century "retirement." Until 1995, he taught a graduate course in research methods, and, for the past decade, he has taught courses for the university's Appalachian Lifelong Learners program on subjects ranging from the great American novel to the art of travel.

He has also continued his own research, keeping track of modern versions of the classic saga of Don Juan, "a man who is amorously inclined but not able to find permanent love." His first volume on the subject, A Bibliography of the Don Juan Theme: Versions and Criticism, was published by West Virginia University in 1954. Two further volumes and numerous supplements have appeared since then, but Singer says a 2003 update was his last on the subject.

Having long nurtured an enthusiasm for philately--"that's stamps, but when you call it philately, it's serious"--he has also published and lectured extensively on stamps from Tibet and Nepal.

He also harbors a fondness for "sillier things," like "roller coasters that spin you around" and even skydiving. In 2002, he jumped from an airplane at 10,000 feet and, in 2004, dived from a 4,000-foot mountaintop in Switzerland.

Traveling has remained a lifelong passion. Trips with his daughter, Ann Singer Hill, a travel planner, have brought particular pleasure since his wife's death last year. This past spring, soon after returning from Tanzania, he tripped over a chair and broke a hip. But after a few weeks of recovery, he embarked on his summer itinerary, a trip to show a friend some of his favorite hikes in the country's national parks.

Slowing down is not in his nature, Singer says, confessing that a couple of years ago, he floored the accelerator on his Mercury Cougar on a deserted Western Interstate. "It was supposed to go to 150, but the engine turned off at 115."