The OI community mourns the loss of our dear friend and colleague Robert K. Ritner (1953–2021), Rowe Professor of Egyptology. We are all saddened and shocked by the passing of Robert K. Ritner on July 25, 2021. Robert was a great Egyptologist who lived for his discipline and inspired generations of students, who was extremely popular with the audiences of his many lectures, with our docents and volunteers, and with the many fellow travelers whom he took to Egypt and who returned as true Egyptophiles. Updates on plans to honor and remember Robert will be forthcoming. For now, our thoughts are with Robert’s family, as we mourn a truly remarkable colleague.
Robert Kriech Ritner Jr.
May 5, 1953–July 25, 2021
Robert Kriech Ritner, Jr., born in Houston on May 5, 1953 to Robert (“Bob”) Kriech Ritner (November 16, 1923–June 5, 2006) and Margaret Ritner (née Shelton) (October 8, 1929–October 31, 2013), died peacefully on July 25, 2021 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago after battling illness. He is survived by his younger brother Rick, his sister-in-law Jody, his nieces Michele, Nicole, and Alyssa, cousins, and beloved dog Sheshonq.
Robert held the Rowe Professorship of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, where he received his PhD in 1987. He lived with a passion for his intellectual pursuits and considered himself an “Egyptophile” by the time he was in the second grade in Houston. He fueled his interests by repeated visits to the Egyptian revival architecture of Houston’s Metropolitan Theater. In high school, he was involved in theater and the debate team, skills which he honed to the benefit of his future career. After using the Houston Public Library to further his knowledge of ancient Egypt, Robert followed in the footsteps of his father by studying at Rice University, where he earned his BA with honors in 1975, majoring in psychology with an “unofficial” minor in Medieval studies. His unofficial minor led to Robert’s first publication in 1976 about the spread of Coptic Egyptian influence to Ireland. Robert remained a fiercely proud Texan and was a member of the Descendants of Austin’s Old 300 dedicated to the first settlers to receive land grants.
From Rice, Robert went on to study at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 1976, where he studied with Klaus Baer, Ed Wente, Janet Johnson, and George Hughes, receiving his PhD with honors in 1987. The revised version of his dissertation, published as The Mechanics of Ancient Egyptian Magical Practice in 1993, is one of the most influential volumes in the study of ancient Egyptian religion, magic, and culture, launching a renaissance in the field and remaining an Oriental Institute “bestseller” to this day. This book appeared while Robert served as the Marilyn M. Simpson Assistant Professor of Egyptology at Yale, from 1991–1996. He returned to the University of Chicago in 1996 and spent the rest of his academic career at the Oriental Institute where he became Associate Professor in 2001, Full Professor in 2004, and Rowe Professor of Egyptology in 2019. Receiving the inaugural Rowe Professorship at the Oriental Institute centennial gala was one of the proudest moments of Robert’s career. His many books, articles, classes, and lectures have left an indelible mark on Egyptology, his colleagues, and his countless students. Many future generations will continue to be influenced by his work.
Everyone who met Robert knew that his love of Egypt infused all areas of his life, from the name of his constant companion Sheshonq to his extensive collection of Egyptomaina objects and kitsch that decorated his home and office. He was a dazzling and entertaining public speaker, lecturer, and teacher. His students remember him as rigorous, but joyous, bringing a sense of fun and excitement to the academic journey. His wonderful sense of humor was on full display each Halloween as Robert and Sheshonq arrived at class dressed as mummies or pharaohs. Robert made many devoted friends in Egypt, Turkey, and wherever his work took him. He was embedded into the very fabric of the Oriental Institute, its Egyptology program, and the greater Chicago community. It is impossible to imagine them without him. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered by all those who knew him.
Much has been written lately about Robert Ritner and his scholarly contributions and excellence. I would like to touch here on the special relationship he had with the OI Volunteers, as he was one of our greatest friends and supporters. Looking through our pictures from the last decade, Robert figures prominently because he did so much with the OI Volunteers.
His office was across from the Education Office, and he was a constant fixture in the Margaret Foorman memorial docent library. He would stop by at least twice a day with his faithful companion dog Sheshonq. His office was a calm sanctuary, with classical music, chilled air conditioning, his dog lounging on the floor, surrounded by packed bookshelves and hundreds of items from his vast collection of Egyptomania kitsch.
One of his superpowers was sharing his knowledge of ancient Egypt with non-academics. He had a way of presenting complex topics in a digestible form, and people were left with a deeper understanding and desire to learn even more. Often it felt like he was sharing inside information leaving us feeling honored to be privy to such interesting aspects of topics we thought we knew all about. Who can forget his 3+ hour discussion of Akhenaton on the ride home from a trip to Michigan?
He once did a presentation during docent training with over 160 slides that he presented in 50 minutes. Always without any notes. He jokingly referred to that lecture as “30 dynasties in 30 minutes” but boy was it great! He loved the potluck luncheons we had and never missed one.
He was up for anything as ways to engage volunteers with ancient Egypt. Over summer breaks from docent training we watched two films from his private collection, The Mummy (1932) and Land of the Pharaohs (1955) followed by him discussing them from an Egyptology perspective. Another time he spent over 6 hours on a bus with about 25 of us when we went to the Grand Rapids Museum to view the reproduction of King Tut’s tomb exhibit. During that visit, he learned a ride on the carousel was included in the admission and he led the charge to ride the merry-go-round! Also, he joined us when Nadine Moeller took our book club to the Regenstein Library to view several volumes of Napoleon’s Description de l’Egypte.
He loved the volunteers and we loved him. Farewell dear friend. We thank you so much for all you did and the time you spent with us.
Sue Geshwender, Volunteer Manager