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Alan Roy King, Ph.D.

by Celia King

My elder son, Alan, has always "marched to his own drummer" from the moment he entered this world, arriving a month later than expected and the wrong way round (a breach baby). Things have not changed all that much since that cloudy October morning in 1954. He still finds it difficult to be on time and is still inclined to be out of step with the rest of the world. He knows he is in the right, and if the rest of the world doesn’t see things his way it is their loss.

He was born in St. Annes-on-Sea, a small, elegant seaside resort on the northwest coast of England. His dad and I were Londoners who had evacuated as teenagers with our parents when they had lost their homes in the bombing of London during World War II. Neither of our families had returned to the ruins of our East-End area of London. So it was in Lancashire Alan’s father and I met, married, and settled down to have our family. We resolved to give Alan and his younger brother, Selwyn , who arrived 2 years later, every advantage we’d never had. newborn.jpg (9411 bytes)

We somehow knew from the outset that Alan was an unusual and gifted child and within a few days of his birth enrolled him on the waiting list of a prestigious boys’ prep school next to where we had made our home.

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Alan was very young when we started to call him "the absent-minded professor." It may have been wrong to label him, but he looked and acted the part, even at his tender age, and we meant it as a compliment. Because of his nearsightedness he wore little horn-rimmed glasses on his serious, pale, handsome face. He was slightly built, badly coordinated, and disinterested in all sports. He’d much rather be reading.

He always disliked authority and was no more than five years old when he stood up for his rights at the small private school we’d started him at before he was old enough to attend the prep school. The teacher had a Lancashire accent and was telling Alan to say "coop" instead of "cup" as Alan had learned from his London parents. Alan would not have it; he pulled himself up to his full height and said in his haughty tone, "I speak the King’s English." Of course this did not make the teacher happy, and she did not know how to handle this child who did not intend to do something just because a teacher said so. He had a mind of his own, and his schooling more or less went along those lines most of the time. His teachers either couldn’t stand him or were devoted.

Although Alan was difficult for us to handle, we were always extremely proud of him. We soon transferred him to Lawrence House Prep School, which was more suitable for his needs, with the small number of pupils in each class and the individual attention. Here he excelled in his studies from the start. The headmaster took a personal interest in Alan. Like us, he saw great things in Alan’s future and knew he was exceptional. Alan, from a very early age, taught himself from books he was collecting and studying. He hankered after foreign languages, and in this way studied Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, Esperanto, German, Welsh, and several others. He seemed to have an understanding far beyond his years. His other love was classical music, and he asked for piano lessons and became an accomplished pianist at an early age. Every year at prize day at his prep school it was a given that Alan would win the silver trophy for music, among other subjects. At school he studied Greek, Latin, and French too. His doting music teacher once said to me, "I don’t know how anyone who is too young to have ever been in love can play the piano with such feeling."

When we broke the news to the boys that we were emigrating to a new and hopefully better life in America, Alan refused to go. He demanded to be left behind to attend a well-known senior prep school in a town close to ours, and where he’d expected to gain entrance at 13 years and become a boarder. Of course, we had no intention of leaving a 13 year old thousands of miles away. I remember pleading with Alan to imagine the challenges and excitement of such an adventure as traveling to a whole new and advanced world such as America. I promised him if he was not satisfied, he could return to England when he was old enough to fend for himself. So he reluctantly agreed to give it a try.

The prep school headmaster sent a glowing report of Alan’s many outstanding accomplishments to the large school in La Jolla, California, where Alan became a student. Of course he was very different to the Californian 13 year olds and did not quite fit in. This change from a small private boys’ prep school in England must have been quite bewildering. His brother Selwyn, then 11 years old, soon became one of the crowd and seemed to have no problem enjoying the adventure and change. Alan was still a loner by choice, not finding much in common with other youngsters of his own age and certainly not with his brother.

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One bright spark at this time was the fact that we joined a synagogue as soon as we settled so that we could continue our son’s Jewish and Hebrew education as well as our social activities. Here we were all accepted and welcomed with open arms. Alan joined the youth group and the girls sought out this serious, bespectacled, studious newcomer. They flipped over his English clothes, manners, and speech, which he had no intention of changing to fit in. I believe Beatlemania, which was at its height then, had something to do with the warmth shown to us and everything English at the time.

When I interviewed Alan recently during a telephone call from Hawaii, where I now reside, to his home in the Basque Country of Spain, I questioned him on many subjects. In spite of being an honor student at Berkeley he’d dropped out, deciding he was returning to England. Once there he found the English universities did not accept his American credits, and he certainly had no intention of returning to high school there. From then on he was fully self-taught. He gained a couple of diplomas in teaching, but did not pursue degrees. In spite of this he had articles published on linguistics and many on the Basque language. Meanwhile he took any job he could find to earn a meager living.

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He met and at 24 years married a Spanish young lady in London, and they moved to the Basque Country, both teaching languages. After several years a beautiful daughter was born. Sadly the marriage did not work out as they grew apart. Their talented daughter is now 12 years old and I’ve never seen as strong a bond between a father and a daughter. It may be because Alan was the care-giver to the baby Maier. He was at the time working on research for the Basque government (on language). As he was doing this from his office at home, his wife was able to return to teaching English at school. Unfortunately Maier suffers from Muscular Dystrophy and needs a lot of care and attention, which she receives from both her parents and families. Maier splits her time between both parents. I believe the advent of Maier has had an enormous impact on the whole of Alan’s life. I always knew he was extremely kind hearted, full of compassion, generous, and a fighter for the underprivileged. The way he treats his beloved daughter shows all these good qualities. along with his great understanding and newly acquired patience.

At 35 years, Alan realized he needed a doctorate to help him attain his goals, so he decided to apply at the University of London. During our interview I asked him about his studies at this time. He replied, "Do you remember even when I was very young I was always dissatisfied with my classes? All of my life, teachers and schools have not come up to my expectations. I would complain to you and you always tried to console me, promising the next stage in my education would be more to my liking. Then when I went off to university, I was still disappointed in what was offered. I never did find what I was searching for: a teacher and a system that truly cares about the student and understands. Most of what I know is self-taught."

Alan said all this in a calm, cultured, pleasant English voice, with maybe a trace of a Continental European inflection (which he would probably deny and I don’t think he is aware of).

He rarely uses English these many years. Basque is the language spoken at home, with Basque or Spanish spoken outside.

"Do you ever regret having dropped out of Berkeley?" I asked my son.

"I’ve never come up with the answer to that," he replied. "How does one ever know what might have been different?"

I continued. "Do you find any prejudice? You are a foreigner teaching Basques (a very proud people) their own language. It must seem strange to them."

"In general," he replied, "l have not found much prejudice. However, when you get to the bureaucratic level things are different."

I think I touched a raw nerve as his voice took on a slightly dejected tone which he attempted to hide from me. "Do you have any big disappointments?" I wanted to know.

"Of course," he responded. "But I now realize attitudes to circumstances can make a big difference in surmounting obstacles. You may not be aware of the fact, but you and dad taught me by example to always try and make the best of a difficult situation. That there is usually a reason behind everything even if we don’t see it at the time. We must accept what has happened and look for better in the future."

All this was balm to my heart. We have always been reserved with each other, and found it difficult to express our emotions. This was something Alan would not have said a few years ago. His dad and I did the best we knew how, but with our limited education and knowledge of universities, etc., there was much we could not advise him on, and he’d had to fend for himself. Now it was good to hear that we had not failed him and that he’d picked up and appreciated more than we knew.

For many years now Alan has had a wonderful relationship with his delightful Begotxu. She is a true partner in every sense of the word. She understands Alan and is extremely supportive, even collaborating with him on his latest published large work, a book and tape titled "Colloquial Basque," published in London and New York. Begotxu is a Basque and teaches languages including English, and it was a joy to meet her and her charming family on my visits to them.

Alan’s first large work, published by the University of Nevada Press at Reno, was dedicated to me and my late husband and always brings tears to my eyes when I read it: "To my mother and father, who have always believed in me and taught me to believe in myself, in gratitude." Below are the words: "In memory of my father Mark King (1921—1990)." Only a parent can understand what such a dedication feels like. The book is called "The Basque Language, A Practical Introduction." I asked Alan for a list of all his published work, to which he replied, "Selwyn can find the list on the Internet." Selwyn brought me the long list saying, "When I typed ‘Basque’ on the screen, Alan’s name came up among the very first." Even he was impressed by his elder brother.

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Now that Alan has turned 40, he still looks extremely youthful and handsome in a boyish, slim, serious, romantic way. His horn-rimmed glasses have been replaced by contacts, but his dark eyes still often have that look of a poet and dreamer. His fine straight brown hair is slightly receding, but I went haywire a couple of years ago when I received a photo of him without his beard. His good features had been camouflaged by a straggly beard since he was about nineteen, so this was a real revelation, and I loved this face beneath.

These days Alan teaches part-time at schools and lectures at universities, traveling to larger towns several times a week. He attends conferences on linguistics and is often invited to speak both at home and abroad. He is still constantly doing research on Basque and linguistics, as well as writing papers.

He lives a full and interesting life that he shares with a heaven-sent partner. He takes much pride in his dark-eyed, bright, extremely intelligent daughter, who is very much like her father was at that age. I point this out to Alan when he becomes frustrated with her willfulness and tendency not to cooperate. Like her father, she too is a good classical pianist, playing with feeling and emotion.

I maybe have made Alan sound too serious, so I must add he has a very dry sense of humor and wit. He is not one to laugh easily, but when he does, his whole body joins in and you want to rejoice with him. He has become a connoisseur of good food and wine and a gourmet cook.

Alan is certainly an unusual person, but in spite of past concerns about his refusal to conform and wondering how he would manage in a world he found so much fault with, I would not change a thing about him, even if I could. He would not then be Alan, and the world would have missed something special.

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These last few years, although we still reside thousands of miles apart, we have become closer than we ever were. He keeps in constant touch and allows me into his life now. I am made to feel that he and Begotxu would be delighted to have me stay with them as much as possible. When I do visit, and it’s usually a couple of months at a time, I am treated like royalty, only more lovingly. I am truly welcomed with open, loving arms. The song "I Did It My Way" always reminds me of Alan.family.jpg (40901 bytes)

Celia King, 1998.