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In memoriam: Robert ‘Bob’ Dilligan, 75

A gifted teacher of Romantic poetry, he pioneered the use of computer technology to further the study of literature

Robert Dilligan
Robert Dilligan is seen in this 1987 photograph. (Photo/Irene Fertik/USC University Archives)

Robert “Bob” Dilligan, associate emeritus professor of English, has died. He was 75.

Dilligan died at Silverado Memory Care Facility in Encinitas on Jan. 11 from complications from Parkinson’s disease.

A former associate chair of English and an expert on Victorian poetry, Dilligan was also a pioneer in the application of computer technology to literary research. During his 35-year career at USC Dornsife, he not only taught classes in science fiction as well as graduate seminars on Keats and Tennyson, but spearheaded the university’s expansion into digital humanities.

“Our father embraced his life as a professor, husband, father and friend,” wrote Dilligan’s family in a statement. “He was dedicated to helping his students and wanted them to love poetry and literature as much as he did. He thrived on travel with his family and friends — whether to Paris for the museums and cafes or the John Muir trail for trout fishing — and he was always planning the next adventure during the second course of a dinner party. He was a voracious reader of history and politics, possessed a piercing intellect and was a fierce friend. We are blessed to have had him and are grateful he is now at peace.”

New York native

Born in New York City on Oct. 4, 1940, Dilligan was the son of a bank employee and a homemaker. He grew up in Brooklyn and attended Xavier High School in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.

“My father was a New Yorker through and through,” said Dilligan’s daughter, alumna Elizabeth Lubin, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English and American studies at USC Dornsife in 1990. “He had a scientific brain, and in college he was originally a physics major. But then he read the Romantic poets and was enthralled. He changed his major to English and never looked back.”

Dilligan went on to earn his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University in 1962 and his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1964. He earned his doctorate from the University of Wisconsin in 1970. He served as assistant professor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in 1969 before joining USC Dornsife in 1970.

“His love of science manifested itself in the pioneering role he played in connecting the study of literature with computers to analyze writers and texts in what is now called the digital humanities,” said Leo Braudy, University Professor and Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature and professor of English, art history and history.

Bob saw the potential of computers to do things that in the past had been done by hand on index cards.

Leo Braudy

“Bob saw the potential of computers to do things that in the past had been done by hand on index cards, such as researching concordances, word repetition and semantic use,” Braudy said, noting that this type of research has now become an important branch of literary study. “What was remarkable was that he did this at a time when most of us had rudimentary or nonexistent computer skills.”

Lubin recalled her father’s fascination with computers and programming and remembers the “computers the size of suitcases, complete with punch cards” that lived in her father’s study when she was a child.

Open mind

She also recalls the story of her father delivering an impassioned speech to colleagues in the early 1970s on his favorite topic. “He spoke about how computers would change the world and how people needed to have an open mind,” she said. “People were pretty skeptical about technology at that time and his talk was not so well received, but pretty quickly changes started happening and he was at the forefront of bringing computers into the humanities.”

Dilligan served as chair of the University Computer Committee, on the Advanced Technology Advisory Committee and as director of data processing in the university’s Freshman Writing Program from 1979 to 1985. He also served on university committees overseeing undergraduate and graduate studies, tenure and promotion, academic policies and procedures and was a member of the Search and Departmental executive committees.

He was a member of the editorial board for the journal Computers and the Humanities and authored eight books on topics ranging from poetry to computing. His 1998 book Computing in the Web Age: A Web Interactive Introduction reflected 30 years of experience in the applications of computer technology to literary research and instruction and in consulting work in office automation and system integration. He also served as technical editor on 11 volumes of The Sephardic Classical Library, edited by the late Moshe Lazar, professor emeritus of comparative literature at USC Dornsife with whom he shared an interest in Ladino, a Romance language derived from old Spanish.

In 1977, Dilligan spent a year in Italy, where he was a senior Fulbright researcher at the National University Computing Center at the University of Pisa. In 1979, he was a visiting professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Lubin said her father greatly appreciated his students.

“He might start out the semester by being a bit intimidating, but as students got to know him they really warmed to him. He truly wanted to help students who were interested,” she said. “My father also very much loved the fellowship of his colleagues. He felt that USC was a special place and that the people he met there became his dearest friends.”

A loyal Trojan football supporter, Dilligan was also a talented gourmet chef and Julia Child fan who could make puff pastry from scratch and was known for his wonderful dinner parties.

Thomas Gustafson, associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity, remembered Dilligan as a bon vivant who enjoyed the pleasures of food, wine, camaraderie and good conversation.

Bob was someone who would light up in the classroom.

Thomas Gustafson

“Bob was someone who would light up in the classroom,” Gustafson said. “There was a joy, a pleasure, a wit, a sardonic humor that you wouldn’t see necessarily in the hallways or at a departmental meeting.”

Fine food and marathons

When his love of fine food began to get the better of him and he was told in his 40s by a doctor to lose weight, Dilligan became a marathon runner.

“He ran the very first LA Marathon,” Lubin said. “The route went right past USC and students came out to cheer him on.” Dilligan continued to run marathons for the next 15 years.

He also loved nature and hiking and regularly took his family on challenging camping trips in the Eastern Sierras.

“We would take mules and pack six miles in to the mountains and stay for eight days, fishing for golden trout in a pristine lake. Of course, there were no cellphones back then and we had to wait for the mules to come and get us to pack back out,” Lubin recalled as she described her father’s love of adventure.

Dilligan retired from USC Dornsife in 2005.

He is survived by his three children, Elizabeth Lubin, Timothy Dilligan and Kathleen Dilligan; granddaughters Sarah Lubin, Grace Lubin and Ellen “Ellie” Dilligan; and his sister, Barbara Granade.

celebration of life will be held at 4 p.m. Feb. 6 at Town & Gown on the USC University Park Campus.

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