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In Memoriam: Linda Dégh, 1920 - 2014

Distinguished Professor Emerita Linda DéghLinda Dégh-Vázsonyi, of Bloomington, died August 19, 2014. Professor Dégh was born March 18, 1920, to Karoly and Jolan Engel Doktor in Budapest, Hungary. She was raised and educated in Hungary where she graduated from Péter Pázmány University.  She began her teaching career at the Eötvös Loránd University's Folklore Department in Budapest, before accepting an appointment at the Folklore Institute of Indiana University, Bloomington in 1965. At that time, a new graduate curriculum in the Folklore Institute needed an Europeanist to enhance its already distinguished reputation as "the diamond in the crown of Indiana University" initiated by Herman B Wells. She became an Indiana University Distinguished Professor of Folklore and Ethnomusicology in 1982.

Linda Dégh was a folklorist/ethnologist, specializing in personal and communal identity projections of traditional rural and modern urban communities in Europe and North America. Through personal observation of creative processes in communicating folklore, traditional prose narratives in particular, taking into account historical and situational contexts of performance, she focused not on the text prototype, but on the unique, personal formulations of individuals generated by unpredictable given conditions.

Dégh's 18 books and over to 200 essays have been internationally recognized as initiators of a new approach to folklore study. Her last monographic survey “Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre” in 2001, exhibited emergence of stories form novel technological conditions in the U.S. spreading speedy to other industrially advanced nations, expressing fears and concerns of survival in a new world of alienation, globalization, and violence through the defense mechanism rationalizing the irrational.

As a scholar and a teacher, Linda Dégh worked best as a team player, in seminars and workshops. Her exploration of the American folk legend began in an introductory folklore class and resulted in the international study of a new genre, emerging from the advancement of modern technology. As young students disclosed an unknown treasury of legends, she founded the journal Indiana Folklore in 1968 to publish their stories, and with the collaboration of graduate assistants, develop a new method to collect, and analyze and interpret what is now known internationally as urban or contemporary legend. During the summer of 2001, she initiated a pilot study of Hungarian-Americans in the Calumet Region with students to begin exploration of ethnic cultural identity consciousness as a key to the uniqueness of American democracy maintained by an ideal of unity by diversity.

Other awards and honors include an American Philosophy Fellowship (1968), Guggenheim Fellowship (1970), Subcommittee on Anthropology/Folklore, ACLS and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Joint Committee, Fulbright Research Fellowship in Germany (1984-85), American Folklore Society: Centennial Recognition Award (1989), National Humanities Center Fellowship ( 1990-91), Hoosier Folklore Society Achievement Award (1991), International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legend Outstanding Contribution Award (1993), Sigillo D'Oro, Pitré-Salomone Marino Prize, Palermo, Italy (1995), Ortutay Medal - The Hungarian Ethnographic Society Budapest (1995). In 2004, she received the Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Award from the American Folklore Society.

She was an honorary member of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research and the International Society of European Ethnology and Folklore. In 1993, she was elected as a member of the Folklore Fellows of the Finnish Academy of Sciences, Helsinki, Finland, and in 1971 elected as Fellow of the American Folklore Society where she was a Past-president in 1981-83.
Linda loved and was devoted to her church, former students, colleagues, special friends, and her pet family – Duffy, Midnight, and Olivia. A special note of heartfelt gratitude is extended to her team of caregivers, Southern Care Hospice of South Central Indiana, and the staff of Visiting Angels for their love and compassionate care.

She is survived by a great niece and a great nephew who reside in Budapest, Hungary. She was preceded in death by her husband of 28 years, Andrew Vázsonyi and her parents.

Cremation was through Day & Deremiah-Frye Funeral Home. A memorial service will be conducted by Pastor Andrew Kort at the First Presbyterian Church (221 East Sixth Street) at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, September 12, 2014.


Chicago Folklore Prize (2002)

Distinguished Professor (1990)
            Distinguished Professor Emerita of Folklore & Ethnomusicology
            Indiana University Bloomington
            College of Arts and Sciences
            Department of Folklore & Ethnomusicology

Fulbright Award (1984)

Guggenheim Fellow (1970), Indiana University Bloomington


Memorial contributions may be made to the Indiana University Foundation to be added to the endowed fund established by Professor Dégh for the benefit of the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology.  Please mail contributions to the IU Foundation, Post Office Box 500, Bloomington, IN  47402 or you may give online at  Memorial gifts may also be given to the Monroe County Humane Association, P.O. Box 1334, Bloomington, IN 47402.

Online condolences may be given at Day & Deremigh-Frye Funeral Home.


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"RIP Linda Dégh (1918-2014). Noted Hungarian ethnologist and folklorist, she emigrated to the US in 1964 and taught at Indiana University, where she became Distinguished Professor in 1982. The author of 18 books and over 200 journal articles, she held many prestigious fellowships; she was a Fellow of the American Folklore Society and an honorary member of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research and the International Society for European Folklore and Ethnology. She was also my teacher and dissertation advisor. A fierce intellect and a forceful, larger-than-life personality, she will be remembered for her important contributions to folktale and legend scholarship. She goes forth shining; what is remembered, lives."
~ Sabina Magliocco


"A forceful personality who made the case, through her work and through her students, for seeing legendry as a central force in everyone's life, not just the lives of the marginalized and (supposedly) credulous."
~ Bill Ellis -- blog post by Ian Brodie


"Saddened by the passing of Linda Degh. The degree to which she is responsible for the shape of contemporary folklore cannot be overstated. I only got to know her a little, but she had a huge impact on my time in Indiana."
~ Adam Zolkover


"We are sharing the news of the death of Linda Dégh (1918-2014), an influential folklorist. Although she has few collections in our archive, she was personally important to many of us on the American Folklife Center staff. We would like to remember her with a song in her native language, which was Hungarian. Here is "Kicsi fulemule dalol," or "The Nightingale sings:"


"Linda Dégh was one of the professors who most strongly influenced my development as a folklorist when I studied at IU in the early 1970s.  Her book Folktales and Society was one of the two works that attracted me to the Folklore Institute and, indeed, the discipline of folklore.  Her seminars on folktale and legend were essential in grounding me in the scholarship I needed to even think about the topic of my dissertation.  I treasure her intellect and her passion for the stories and storytellers she studied.  She was a unique and forceful personality, and yet I will always remember the softer side of her character that emerged whenever she spoke of her family, of her delight in playing the cello as a young person, her great respect for her mentor Gyula Ortutay, her affection for her canine friends, her love of music.  I am glad I knew her.  We have all benefited greatly from her fieldwork, research, and devotion to the field of Folklore.  Namaste, Linda."
~ Sandy Dolby


I have two.  The first is how she explained it that her older sister had died so young.  This sister was a highly gifted violinist, but their father did not permit her to think of a professional career, because such things were not done by proper ladies.  Then her talented older sister acquired a boyfriend, when she was about 20 years old.  She had kept up her music in the interim as best she could. Their father found out about the boyfriend, and their plans to marry, and forbade the sister to have any contact with the boy ever again. Two months later Linda, about age 16, woke up to a terrible sound of howling in the house.  It was very early in the morning.  It was her father who was howling.  The older sister had committed suicide by putting her head into the oven and turning on the gas.  Linda had never heard her father express much emotion before.   

Professor Degh  looked to her mentor at the university, who was also the Minister of Culture for Hungary after the war, as a father.  She looked to Richard Dorson, who was the head of IU's Folklore Institute in those years, as a mentor and protector.  She was well aware that her work depended on the cooperation of many people, including informants and colleagues.  Including her husband Andrew.  and Including the lady who kept house for her and introduced her to the folk culture of the Bloomiington Pentecostals.  

Professor Degh was always ready to talk about folklore to anyone, but she especially loved her students.  she was always ready for another trip to Stepp Cemetery.  She was fascinated with Indiana's legends.  

I was never a student  in a class she  taught, but I was her student from the moment we met in 1982.  She knew all the folklorists I idolized, Max Luethi, Stith Thompson, and many more.  I was at that time scheduling guest speakers for a speakers forum at the University of Southern Indiana, where I taught German.  Students in the German Club had become interested in folktales, and had asked me to find a speaker who could talk about them.  I phoned IU, knowing from undergraduate days that there was a folklore department here, and that department, without ever having had any contact with me before, sent me Linda Degh.  She wowed the students and the university faculty.  I believe after the talk she and I might have continued talking about folktales until dawn's early light, but I had to pick up my four-year-old son from the babysitter's, and so we parted. That son is now 37 years old, a computer professional, and a legend freak.  

Those are my two memories of Linda Degh.  There are of course many more.
~Fredericka Schmadel  


Linda Dégh was an early member of AHEA, who was a co-organizer of the Bloomington conferences. We remember her fondly.
~Enikő M. Basa, AHEA Executive Director


Many years ago Linda and her husband Andrew invited members of the Folklore Institute faculty over to their house for breakfast on a particular weekend morning.  When I showed up at their door, I was surprised and a little worried not to see any other guests arriving, and I had the thought that perhaps many of us have in such situations, that we have come at the wrong time or even the wrong day.  As it turned out, I had come on Saturday when I should have come on Sunday.  Linda graciously invited me in anyway and served me coffee, while Andrew, who was a wonderful storyteller, entertained us with anecdote after anecdote on the topic of persons who arrived at the wrong time.
~ William Hansen, Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies & Folklore, Indiana University, Bloomington


Photo provided by John McDowell. John, Linda, and Ruth Aten. Others unidentified.
Photo provided by John McDowell.
Photo provided by John McDowell.
Photo by Simon Bronner, provided by Libby Tucker. AFS 2009 in Boise, Idaho.