Professor Emeritus Walter Littlefield, a founder of the Political Communication program at Emerson, died Tuesday, September 13.
Communication Studies Chair Gregory Payne said Littlefield was “one of the most inspirational people I ever met,” whose legacy includes Emerson’s presence in Los Angeles and around the world, as well as in the nation’s capital and the College’s classrooms.
“When I arrived [at Emerson] in 1984, Walt was a mentor from day one,” Payne said. “He loved the College and loved students, and never saw his teaching limited to his classroom.”
While at Emerson, Littlefield taught courses in propaganda and public opinion, debate, advocacy, and political communication. He also co-founded the Communication, Politics, and Law Association (CPLA), the oldest student organization on campus, according to Payne.
Littlefield, who Payne described as a Republican, taught his students to respect all points of view, but to think for themselves and not follow “the whispering of the herd,” said Ted Hollingworth, associate professor of Communication Studies, in a Facebook post.
“I shall never forget being invited to and sitting in on his lecture on propaganda shortly after he arrived at Emerson,” Hollingworth wrote. “In one class, I learned more about that subject than I had learned to that point in time. I still have the notes and have passed that information on to dozens of classes, with a quick story about Walt the intellect[ual] and the person.”
Littlefield joined the Emerson faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor in the Speech Department. He received tenure in 1969, and was promoted to associate professor of Speech and Communication Studies in 1972. During his time at Emerson, he received the Faculty Service Award from the Faculty Assembly.
He retired in 2002, and was awarded Professor Emeritus status at the 2004 Commencement.
His teaching and scholarship at Emerson inspired the College to create the Walter Littlefield Distinguished Speaker in Rhetoric and Communication Award to honor alumni who have made a positive difference in the lives of others.
Back in the 1980s, Michael Brown, now an assistant professor in the Journalism Department, co-taught a class on Communication, Politics, and Law in the fledgling Political Communication major. They were in different departments, and the class was structured so they would teach classes separately.
One day, about a third of the way through the semester, Brown said, he crashed Littlefield’s class, which was crackling with debate. Littlefield asked a question, and when none of the students raised their hands, Brown jumped in.
The two professors launched into a war of wit. It was an immediate hit, and they decided to keep it going throughout the semester.
“He was so funny, and it was in such good humor that both of us absolutely loved it,” Brown said. “And we realized the classes had suddenly gotten longer. Students started coming to the class who weren’t even in the class.
“In 45 years [at Emerson], that was the greatest teaching experience I ever had,” Brown said.
Iris Burnett ’68 MSSp ’70, an affiliated faculty member in the Communication Studies Department, first met Littlefield when she was a first-year student at Emerson. He was her advisor, and she needed direction.
Burnett remembers chasing him around campus, and when she finally found him, she began shouting at him.
“I need a major…you’re my advisor…I think we have to make up some sort of [major] for me, otherwise I’m lost here,” Burnett remembers saying. “He was great. He said, ‘Why don’t you put something together, and I’ll O.K. it.’”
Burnett ended up getting a degree in Speech Arts and Dramatic Literature – a major of her own devising – then stayed on at Emerson to earn a graduate degree in Communication Theory.
Littlefield was one of three Emerson professors who changed her life, Burnett said. (The other two were Les McAllister, who taught dramatic literature, and voice and articulation professor Kenneth Crannell, who died last month.)
“I would never have had the life I have now if Walt hadn’t helped me with the flexibility I needed, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Burnett said. “Emerson in those days was just a hoot. We worked very hard, and I never thought I would finish college…I so loved it, and so loved those people, I never wanted to leave the place.”
Littlefield earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University, and taught at Michigan State and Iowa State universities before coming to Emerson. He also served as a production control specialist in the U.S. Air Force.
He leaves his wife, Marci, with whom he lived in Alexandria, Virginia; and two sons: Sean, an Emerson alumnus, and Scott.