Emeritus Professor Jerome J. Rinkus, who taught Russian language and literature at Pomona for three decades, died on February 24. He was 84.
Rinkus arrived at Pomona in 1973 and remained at the College until his retirement in 2003, serving for a time as chair of the Department of German and Russian.
A specialist in 19th century Russian literature—the era of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov—Rinkus came of age during the Cold War, studying Russian at a time of critical interest to the U.S. government.
“In a sense, politics has influenced the overall pattern of my life,” he told Pomona College Magazine in 2003. “But it is the love of literature that has kept me going.”
Rinkus was an undergraduate at Middlebury College when the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Earth’s first artificial satellite, igniting the space race between the U.S. and the USSR that led to the first Moon landing in 1969.
After graduating from Middlebury, cum laude, in 1960, Rinkus was awarded a National Defense Education Fellowship to continue his study of Russian from 1960 to 1964, earning a master’s degree in Slavic languages and literatures from Brown University in 1962. His doctoral studies at Brown were interrupted when he was drafted during the Vietnam War, serving from 1966 to 1968, after which he returned to Brown and earned his Ph.D. in 1971. Rinkus completed his doctoral dissertation on the work of Sergey Aksakov after writing his master’s thesis on Maxim Gorky. He taught at Bucknell University from 1968 to 1973 before arriving at Pomona.
“If not for Jerry Rinkus, I would not have embarked on the career I’ve enjoyed for the past three decades,” said former student Thomas P. Hodge ’84, now a professor of Russian at Wellesley College. “He made a huge difference in my intellectual life and in the lives of the many other Russianists who passed through the department he lovingly nurtured at Pomona.”
Hodge also noted that in the early 1980s, before word-processing software, it was also difficult to find Russian typewriters. “I vividly recall the way he painstakingly handwrote and glossed entire stories and long poems, then handed out the photocopies to us. He was indefatigable,” Hodge said.
Rinkus also had a policy for students in his beginning Russian class who struggled to find the words in their limited vocabularies to accurately describe aspects of their personal lives in Russian.
“I don’t care if you tell the truth, as long as it’s grammatically correct,” Rinkus told his students. “Every student in the room broke out laughing,” Hodge recalled. “I announce an identical policy for my own students every time I teach Elementary Russian.”
During the early parts of his career, Rinkus noted when he retired, many of his students learned Russian in preparation for government jobs as translators, diplomats or to work for the CIA.
“If you studied Russian in the old days, you could either work for the government or teach,” he said in 2003. “When the Soviet Union collapsed, interest in Russian dropped 40 to 50 percent. It was almost as if they were studying it to understand our enemy.”
During his long career, Rinkus earned grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation, among other organizations. He traveled to the Soviet Union numerous times during the Cold War when it was uncommon for Americans to do so, participating in teaching exchanges, leading tours and conducting research.
He led a Pomona College alumni tour group to Russia, Siberia and Central Asia in 1978. In 1990, during the era of glasnost under the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Rinkus led a Pomona alumni tour group that visited Tallinn, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Moscow and cruised the Volga River the year before the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Born in Baltimore, Maryland, Rinkus was the grandson of immigrants from Vilnius, Lithuania. In addition to his spouse John Tarin, his partner of more than 40 years and husband since 2015, Rinkus is survived by a niece, nephew and cousin.
Memorial plans have not been announced.