Dr. Peter

Agnes He
August 2023, Long Island

Melanie Fries gave me an 'assignment' as she was preparing Peter's Celebration of Life. She needed a 'paragraph' to be inserted on the ''funeral card". And she asked if I could find a meaningful passage representing Peter.

Peter loved sailing and loved conducting textual analyses of poems. So I suggested a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Crossing the Bar" (1889). The poem is a metaphorical reflection on life (and the end of life).

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

June 10, 2023, I was in Hong Kong, serving as an international panel member for Hong Kong's RGC (Research Grants Council). I checked emails and saw a new message from Chris Fries, who had kindly included me in the Fries family long email strand that started on August 26, 2022 with the subject "Update on Uncle Peter's health". The message was brief, but dealt a final blow to any hopes of Peter's recovery. Peter had sailed to meet his Pilot.

Some losses are so profound that they can only be harbored in the deepest depth of our heart. We prefer not to speak or write about them, for fear that words might distort or trivialize our feelings and that words will make the unthinkable and the unwanted become real and true. The loss of Peter feels just like that.

I promised Melanie and myself that I will write, for writing is the only way I know to properly say goodbye to Peter and to keep him alive, in my world, in my words, as a professor, as a 'parent', as a person.

Peter the Professor

I first met Peter in August 1986 in Tucson, Arizona, at the very beginning of the very first semester of my American education, after having just completed my undergraduate studies in Beijing and a post-graduate diploma-in-education program in Singapore. I was a 21-year-old first year MA student in the English as a Second Language program (a program that trains ESL teachers) in the English Department at the University of Arizona, where Peter happened to be a visiting professor from Central Michigan University during that academic year (1986-87). I enrolled in the class he taught - ENG 612 English Grammar. I was the only non-native-English- speaking, international student in that class of about 20 graduate students.

In that class, Peter presented an overview of the structure of the English language, from its phonemes, morphemes to phonological rules, syntactic patterns and discourse norms. As a linguist and a professor, he was deliberate and always data-driven, which I later realized was a distinctive trait from early American structural linguistics (a la Leonard Bloomfield and Charles Fries). Peter focused on paradigmatic and syntagmatic choices and the rationales behind the choices, which could clearly be attributed to his training in Tagmemics during his own graduate studies with Kenneth Pike at UPenn, his early exposure to Prague School Functionalism (which directly influenced anthropologically-oriented functional linguistics in the UK, the US, and later Australia, epitomized by the work of MAK Halliday, whose research Peter followed and complemented throughout his career), as well as his unwavering commitment to Hallidayan Systemic Functional Linguistics, within the frame of which most of Peter's linguistic research was done (more on this later). Everything Peter discussed in that class sounded both new and familiar to me. New because of the way he theorized the patterns of language features as rule- governed; familiar because, as a learner of the English language since age 10 and with an undergraduate degree in English from China, I had previously been explicitly taught these structural norms and patterns. Hence, paradoxically, my background as a non-native English language speaker actually gave me considerable advantage over my native-English-speaking classmates in that class as far as metalinguistic knowledge and analytic distance were concerned. That was probably why I appeared to 'stand out' in that class and was honored to receive Peter's attention and appreciation. Sometimes when grammatical analyses by native English speakers seemed to turn circular, Peter would say, Well, let's see what Agnes thinks...

That course I took from Peter was critical to me. For Peter was the first professor who made me feel that I could achieve anything in linguistics/applied linguistics. He gave me much-needed confidence for graduate studies and subsequently research/teaching in the field of applied linguistics in U.S. academia. The term paper that I wrote for that class became my very first single-authored academic publication (Yang [He], A. W. (1989). Cohesive chains and writing quality. Word, 40(1/2), 235-254). But I also had a problem. It so happened that graduate students in the US customarily address their professors by their first names. So everyone called Peter 'Peter', and not 'Dr. Fries'. But for me, that was not possible. In Chinese/Asian culture(s), professors are to be revered. So, as a compromise, I called him "Dr. Peter"! I no longer recall at exactly what point I finally dropped "Dr." - most likely when I myself became a "Dr." in 1993, when Peter and Nan went to UCLA to attend my PhD hooding ceremony.

As I matured over the years as a student and a scholar, I have come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Peter.

Following the shining example of Charles Fries, who, in addition to making pioneering contributions to descriptive structural linguistics, founded the English Language Institute (ELI) at U of Michigan, and created the ALM (audio-lingual method) for language teaching, Peter, too, was an applied linguist at heart. Peter wanted grammatical descriptions to matter, matter to language teachers and language learners, so that linguistics not merely satisfies intellectual curiosities but also contributes to language pedagogy. That was probably why he seized the opportunity to teach as a visiting professor in the MA-ESL program at U of Arizona in the first place (at that time, Central Michigan University, Peter's home institution, did not have such programs). That was why Peter (and Nan) regularly attended TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) conferences, AAAL (American Association for Applied Linguistics) conferences, and NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English - of which Charles Fries served as President in the late 1920s) conferences, in addition to the annual Systemic Functional Linguistics conferences. That was also why Peter collaborated for many years with Ken and Yetta Goodman on reading research (particularly miscue analysis), trying to figure out the linguistic-cognitive process of reading and with Jane Goodall and her team on the language capacity/potential of chimpanzees.

Peter's own research focused on meaning-making in written texts. He is probably best known in the area of Systemic Functional Linguistics for his work on Theme-Rheme analysis. While Michael Halliday introduced the notion of Theme metaphorically as “the peg on which the message is hung, the Rheme being the body of the message”, it was Peter Fries who substantiated and operationalized this abstract notion and developed a systematic approach to fine grained textual analysis, examining the morpho-syntax of various elements in different grammatical positions of sentences and clauses. A much-cited recent piece is Fries (2002) (Fries, P. H. (2002). On theme, rheme and discourse goals. In Advances in written text analysis (pp. 243-263). Routledge), but by then he had been working on the notion of Theme for well over 30 years (most notably Hasan, R., & Fries, P. H. (Eds.). (1995). On subject and theme: a discourse functional perspective. John Benjamins) and had long been an internationally renowned authority on Theme. Even though Systemic Functional Linguistics itself did not take hold in mainstream linguistics in the US (for complicated historical reasons), Peter's work was amply acknowledged by prominent US functional linguists such as Sandra Thompson and by influential US applied linguists such as Heidi Byrnes, Marianne Celce-Murcia and Diane Larsen-Freeman (who served as Director of ELI at U Michigan about 20 years ago), as well as systemic functional linguists worldwide. Peter was always passionate about exploring how meaning (salience, significance, cohesion, continuity, contradictions) is constructed with grammatical resources -- specifically, what we put at the beginning of sentences and clauses, what we put at the end of sentences and clauses, what are the relations between the beginnings and the endings across sentences and clauses, and how everything is both motivated by and contributes to the speech setting, the communicative purposes, the audience, the genre, etc.

Throughout the years, Peter was always encouraging and (gently) pushing me to greater heights. AAAL being my primary intellectual home base, it was usually at AAAL annual conferences that Peter and Nan and I would regularly meet. In March 1996, Peter and I co- organized a colloquium at the 18th AAAL Conference held in Chicago titled "Systemic functional approaches to discourse". I was a junior researcher then (and pregnant with my first child). Peter was of course much more established. Yet he gave me the honor of presenting introductory overview remarks for the colloquium. That was my first time organizing a colloquium at a major conference. With Peter by my side, I felt anchored and assured.

Given his own focus on written texts, I was first surprised, then very grateful that Peter encouraged me to study with Manny Schegloff (one of the founders of Conversation Analysis) during my doctoral program at UCLA. Peter and Manny were personal friends (through the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the late 1970s, I think), even though they work with very different kinds of language data and come from very different epistemological traditions (Manny is primarily a sociologist with an intense interest in human interaction), somewhat the same way Peter and Noam Chomsky were friends (they both attended UPenn), but their versions/visions of linguistics were almost orthogonal (if not oppositional). Years later, when I felt confident enough to think of myself as a conversation/discourse analyst, I asked Peter why he refrained from working with spontaneous, conversational language data. He told me honestly that he felt conversational data was a bit too messy and therefore harder to grasp. But you encouraged ME to do CA (conversation analysis), I retorted. Ah yes, I did. Because I knew you could do it! As a professor, Peter not only inspired and encouraged his students but also had big and bold plans for them.

Peter was a scholar par excellence. He did all his work because he loved his work and, I believe, because he was dedicated to continuing the legacy of Charles Fries. Peter never aspired or desired any profit, position or recognition. For this reason, he (and Nan) sometimes “held me back” too. Twice I was invited to consider the position of Editor-in-Chief of a major journal. I was tempted. But Peter said, Are you sure that it is the right thing to do at this stage of your career? Normally people take on that sort of big responsibility when they themselves no longer do original research. A couple of times I was target-recruited for some fairly significant academic administrative positions. I was very tempted. But after conversations with Peter and Nan, it would become even clearer to me that the biggest benefit of those positions was the salary, and not opportunities for continued scholarly growth. I will be forever grateful for their support and wisdom every time I found myself at a career crossroad. More recently, I founded and have been directing an interdisciplinary research center, took on department chairpersonship, and have been heavily involved in the leadership of AAAL. Peter, who had little experience with or interest in anything administrative, listened to me with great attentiveness about how language research these days can be done more meaningfully and impactfully through cross-disciplinary collaboration and about how (applied) linguistics research can not only improve language pedagogy but also directly promote social justice... I would like to think that Peter was appreciative of both the range and the rigor of my current work, the same way he was proud that I moved on to conversation analysis after studying written text analysis with him years ago.

Peter the "Parent"

After our fortuitous encounter in Tucson as professor-student in 1986-87, Peter and Nan followed my life (both professional and personal), for life. They treated me like a 'daughter' and became practically part of our extended family. (For more details, please see a separate piece I wrote in memory of Nan.) They ‘endorsed’ my choice of Jackson as my husband (I met Jackson after I met Peter and Nan) and funded our simple wedding reception (Jackson and I were both doctoral students then with meager resources). Our children Luran and Yiran are fortunate enough to have three sets of grandparents across the globe - yeye nainai (paternal grandparents) in China, waigong waipo (maternal grandparents) in Spain, and Grandpa Peter Grandma Nancy in the U.S. During the kids' early years, we had opportunities to together celebrate Thanksgiving, Chinese New Year, Christmas (when Peter wore a red T-shirt that describes 4 stages of life - 1. you believe in Santa, 2. you don't believe in Santa, 3. you are Santa, 4. you look like Santa), and elementary school graduation. Summer 2004, our whole family visited their Mt Pleasant farm (that was my third visit and the kids' first). The kids had a blast riding with Grandpa Peter in his tractor, getting showered by the lawn sprinklers, flying kites, picking green beans from their vegetable garden, and learning how to bottle-feed calves. We also visited Peter and Nan in Tucson, where they had a second home. The kids enjoyed pushing Grandma's wheelchair and riding with Grandma in her wheelchair. Peter and Nan also met my parents in London during our family travels (in 2005) and met my in-laws on Long Island when they were visiting. Until this day my parents still have vivid memories of Peter wheeling Nan in and out of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (the London restaurant where we met) and still admire him for being such a devoted husband.

As the kids got bigger and busier and as Nan's health seemed to deteriorate, meeting in person became more and more difficult. So we relied on phone calls. It was always Nan who initiated the call, and Peter was always on the phone as well. They followed the kids' lives through high school and continued to college (Harvard for Luran and MIT for Yiran). Every progress the kids made, Grandpa Peter and Grandma Nancy were proud of. Peter was particularly interested in the Psych course Luran took with Steven Pinker (author of The Language Instinct) and curious about what Yiran's career path might be given her dual strength in STEM and writing. Peter was surprised and pleased by the great many extracurricular activities (Boston Soup Kitchens, Glee Club, glass blowing, piano, sailing, etc., etc.) the kids were involved in and often commented on how (elite) colleges and education in general have evolved over the years and across generations. After Nan's passing, we had several family Zoom chats/dinners with Peter, including one on his birthday, and one on Thanksgiving Eve. I am glad we had a chance to introduce to Peter our newest family member, Amy, Luran's girlfriend, who also happens to have majored in linguistics in college.

I was supposed to give an invited guest lecture on multilingualism and migration at the University of Arizona in March 2020. Peter was in Tucson around that time and was already making plans for my visit. We discussed where to take long walks, where to eat, who else to invite. But the global pandemic happened. My trip was cancelled. I delivered the lecture on Zoom instead. Peter wrote, "I'm VERY sorry to miss you this time. I was so looking forward (to use a current collocation) to see you again after so long a time. Much love and good wishes to you both. 'Keep on truckin', as they say. Peter". Peter very rarely used CAPs in his writing. He never used overstatements. I could feel from his orthography that the degree of his disappointment was not any less than mine.

At one point, our son Luran, who loves logic and by extension linguistics, had a question about the grammatical difference between "in love" and "in trouble", as follows:

  1. I'm in love.
  2. I'm in trouble.
  3. I'm so much in love.
  4. *I'm so much in trouble.
  5. *I'm in so much love.
  6. I'm in so much trouble.

That was a perfect question for Grandpa Peter! Peter addressed the question (dated September 20, 2019) from an SFL (Systemic Functional Linguistics, of course!) perspective, centering on Carrier +Process: Relational: Attributive: + Attribute. His response to Luran was 3 and a half single-spaced pages long (as an email attachment), drawing on frequency analyses of 10 files from COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), with one chart, several parallel arguments, and one footnote. Thorough and methodic, as he always had been. (Peter's conclusion, to put in simple terms, was that "love" behaves less noun-like than "trouble".)

And just a year ago, summer of 2022, around the time of Peter's stroke, Luran got into actual "trouble". He was fired by his company, for an unspecified reason, which Luran believed to be his public, strong advocacy for the only female co-worker on his AI/Machine Learning team, who was making a much lower salary than everyone else (all male). Within a month, fortunately, Luran received several even better job offers and he continued his social justice efforts by joining a group of young professionals in New York City to advocate for the underprivileged... During that period of time, I was in frequent phone conversations with Peter, to check on him and to share with him my worries (over Luran's job loss) as well as pride (in Luran's sense of justice and his marketability). As always, Peter listened, shared his thoughts, eased my worries and emphatically praised Luran for "making good trouble". With each conversation we had during that time, Peter's speech articulation improved significantly, to a point where he sounded just like before the stroke.

Fearing that Grandpa Peter might be lonely, our daughter Yiran suggested that grandpa get a dog. And I thought that'd be a good idea too. We made the suggestion a couple of times (before his stroke). Peter initially appeared receptive to this suggestion, but later on changed his mind. He said he did not have enough energy to keep up with a dog and also there were some rodent issues in the house that might not work well with a dog. This I often wondered (and worried): after Nan’s passing, was Peter really doing OK as he appeared to? Peter loved birding. I remember the big telescope in their living room. Nan once told us that Peter could identify hundreds of different birds and held expert knowledge on migratory birds. Like migratory birds, Peter continued the long Mt Pleasant-Tucson seasonal journey, alone. After the very last trip from Tucson back to Mt Pleasant in May 2022, he told me that during the entire trip, he only talked with one person, also a elderly gentleman, after they both had used the bathroom, in a restaurant.

I wish that I had paid him a visit, either in Mt Pleasant or in Tucson, when I still could.

Peter the Person

I first learned about Peter's stroke on August 23, 2022, when my Department Chair (who, as my successor, uses the Chair's phone that I used during my two terms as Chair) forwarded to me a phone message from Peter himself. He sounded very soft and a bit slurred. He said, "Hi Agnes I'm calling just to say hi. Nothing important..." I called back immediately. As I suspected, it was something VERY important.

Peter never sought attention for himself. On the contrary, he was always thinking about others' needs and in others' shoes. Whether it was in Isabella County Medical Care Facility or at Crestwood Village, he always said, They [the staff] are doing their best, even though his needs were often not met at the time he needed the most (such as needing help to the bathroom, moving from bed to chair). He didn't even want to bother the staff when his hearing aids ran out of batteries or when he needed some snack after dinner (as dinner, according to him, was often rather light). They are short-staffed and overworked already, Peter said repeatedly.

That Peter did not want to bother others sometimes made me upset. Once he fell (as he was picking up his mails, if I recall correctly). I suggested that he purchase an emergency call button for seniors. He agreed with the idea, but did not take any action. When I asked him again, he said in order to purchase such a device, he needed to provide two local contact phone numbers. He said he felt somewhat comfortable with asking one friend to be his first local contact and was reluctant to approach anyone else to be the second local contact... He said he didn't want to bother/burden anyone.

Peter was always modest, measured, unassuming, a true junzi 君子 (a gentleman exemplifying human excellence and noble spirit). During one of Peter and Nan's visits to our home on Long Island, two of my senior relatives were also visiting. My relatives apologized for not speaking good English. Peter replied, "Oh no, I am sorry. I am sorry that I don't speak Chinese."

Christmas 2022, I received a very special gift from Luran and Amy. They were visiting an old bookstore in New York City and saw a book "American English Grammar: The grammatical structure of present-day American English with especial reference to social differences or class dialects" by Charles Carpenter Fries, published in 1940, as part of the English Monograph Series (Volume No. 10) from the National Council of Teachers of English. They suspected that there was a connection with Grandpa Peter. They searched online, confirmed their hunch, and bought this book, for me.

Life, love and learning has come to a full circle.
Thank you, Peter, for making that circle possible and beautiful.