The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth is so incredibly fortunate to have Dr. Mel B. Yoken in its midst. There is no stronger advocate of or promoter for teaching French language, culture, and literature than this charismatic, accomplished, erudite, and indefatigable Francophile.
Dr. Yoken’s love of all things French coalesced in the City of Fall River, where he was born, lived and attended his first French class at B.M.C. Durfee High School. Over the next 16 years, Dr. Yoken perfected his teaching and literary prowess by attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst (BBA), Middlebury College (École Française), University of Cincinnati, (NDEA French Language Institute), Brown University (MAT French), and Five-College Cooperative Program consisting of University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith College, Mt. Holyoke College, Amherst College, and Hampshire College (Ph.D. French Language & Literature).
When it was time to put all his knowledge to good use, Dr. Yoken started teaching French at the prestigious Newton High School (1961-64), and then at UMass Amherst (1964-66) while he was pursuing his Ph.D.
When Dr. Yoken perfected his craft, he chose UMass Dartmouth to devote the next 45 years teaching students French grammar, culture and literature, along with the following specialties: French Canadian Studies (Québec Literature), Contemporary French and Québec Poetry, Twentieth-Century French and Québec Novel, Translation (English-French, French-English), Québec Theater of the Twentieth Century, Nineteenth-Century French Poetry, French-Language Manuscripts and Documents.
Dr. Yoken’s dedication to teaching and his students propelled him from the rank of Instructor (1966), to Assistant Professor (1972), Associate Professor (1976), Professor (1981), Chancellor Professor (2000), and finally to the preeminent position of Chancellor Professor Emeritus of French Language & Literature (2008).
Not satisfied with sitting back on his laurels, Dr. Yoken offered his academic services by becoming the Faculty Advisor for The French Club and Table Française; Foreign Language Academic Alliance Member; French & Canadian Studies Program Representative; President, Vice President, and current Director of UMD’s Library and Claire T. Carney Library Associates (since 1992); Archives Advisory Board Member of UMD’s Library (since 1982); and Board Member for The Center for Jewish Culture (since 1980).
Dr. Yoken computed that he has taught approximately 16,000 students in classes during the day, the night, and the summer throughout his long and successful career. He has taught French courses at Wheaton College (Norton, Massachusetts), summers from 1980-1989 at The University of Montreal, and even gave French lessons to vacationers on a holiday cruise! “I truly loved every moment of teaching, and every time I entered a classroom was a happy moment for me,” said the grateful educator, who prided himself on the fact that, “I was always on time to ALL my classes.”
Many of Dr. Yoken’s students have become teachers, ambassadors, French professors and even college presidents. For example, Dr. Richard Gouse, who was one of Dr. Yoken’s students at Newton High School in the early 1960s, has been President of New England Institute of Technology in Warwick, Rhode Island, since 1971, which is one of the longest tenures of any university president in the United States.
Dr. Yoken formally retired in 2006 to spend more time writing, traveling, and pursuing his many other hobbies, such as baseball, collecting postcards and stamps, and meteorology. However, Dr. Yoken is still very much in demand by students and faculty who regularly seek him out for his astute counsel, for written recommendations, and for answers to questions about French grammar and literature. He retained a university office until late in 2016.
“This delights me, and shows, if I must say so, that I must be doing something right,” blushed the humble professeur. “I might add that I have been called upon to teach French classes, or give lessons on how to teach French, for the past 10 years. To wit: I’ve even been asked to teach French at my alma mater, Durfee High School, which I have gladly done on a volunteer basis.”
So much for acting “retired” which is not in Dr. Yoken’s nature or vocabulary. As proof of his stamina, Dr. Yoken continues to direct assiduously the Boivin Center for French Language & Culture at UMD which he has done since 1999. The Center celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015 with three outstanding events in April that drew rave reviews from the community.
The Boivin Center was created in 1985, with a $100,000 grant from Fall River urologist Dr. Omer E. Boivin, who wanted to create an institution that would promote the teaching of and the appreciation for French language and culture as well as act as a catalyst for French studies at the university and regional levels. Dr. Boivin believed that UMass Dartmouth represented the best opportunity to keep the language alive, and to educate area residents about the culture and history of France and Québéc.
Dr. Yoken was a board member from 1985 to 1999 when he was elected Director of the Boivin Center. Thanks to Dr. Yoken’s formidable network of friendship with influential luminaries, he has been able able to reach out and personally invite over 150 outstanding speakers to the SouthCoast communities. When asked who his favorite guest was, Dr. Yoken immediately responds, “One of them was definitely Julia Child, who signed over 1,000 of her books, during 75 minutes, for her adoring fans and she didn’t quit until the last one was completed. She was a trouper par excellence and inimitable on so many levels. We became good friends over the years, and exchanged many letters. She returned to the University on several occasions, and when she received an Honorary Degree, I hosted and accompanied her.”
During Dr. Yoken’s 18 year tenure, the Boivin Center has awarded some 20 scholarships to worthy students, who have used the money to attend schools such as Middleburg’s Ecole Française, University of Montreal, or schools in France. The Center has also given money to professors who have pursued research projects in French literature.
Two students graduated from the Center’s International Marketing/French program that Dr. Yoken created.
Dr. Yoken is quick to give credit to his loyal and talented Advisory Board members, who assist him in planning and organizing events and conducting business for the non-profit Boivin Center. The current team consists of: Suzette Almeida, James Beardsley, Prof. Michelle Cheyne, Norman Desmarais, Albert Dumoulin, Micael Eadie, Raymond Patnaude, Alfred Saulniers, Prof. Bridget Teboh, Norman Valiquette, and Cynthia Yoken.
There is no doubt that Dr. Yoken has not only superlatively upheld the Boivin Center’s mission statement, but he has also successfully surpassed any goals that Dr. Boivin could have possibly envisioned. Further proof was just given during a five-year University-wide required board evaluation that The Boivin Center passed with flying colors. The review summed up with, “We applaud the Boivin Center for its excellent work.”
Dr. Yoken will continue to lead the Boivin Center during its third decade because, “I thrive in this position and love to keep my hand, heart and soul in matters dealing with the French language, literature, and culture.” He considers it “a tremendous honor and privilege to have served for such a long time as Director of such an outstanding university Center.”
Throughout Dr. Yoken’s professional career, during his “free time,” he has published eight books, as well as numerous essays and articles on French and Quebec language and literature for French newspapers and magazines throughout the world, and Quebec newspapers and magazines in the province of Quebec. He even had his own monthly column, for 10 years, in Le Journal de Lowell for 15 years, and for 10 years, in Le Travailleur. For the past 50 years, he has been interviewed by journalists in the US and Canada and has given lectures/speeches to innumerable groups, organizations and conferences locally, and in as far reaching locations as Japan, France, and Israel.
Dr. Yoken has also derived great satisfaction from being a radio co-host/commentator with the late, great Jean Caya Bancroft on WALE, in Fall River, and WBSM, in New Bedford. Dr. Yoken co-hosted and hosted approximately 450 radio programs, from 1971 to 2005. Dr. Yoken’s passion for radio first began when he started and hosted a highly acclaimed radio show entitled “Teen Party” during three years at B.M.C. Durfee High School on WALE in Fall River, from 1953-1956.
Dr. Yoken’s professional memberships include: Northeast Modern Language Association (NEMLA),
Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA), American Council Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), Middle Atlantic and New England Council for Canadian Studies (MANECCS), International Council for Canadian Studies (ICCS), The French Library in Boston, Iris Murdoch International Society, Richelieu International, Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, Conseil International d'Etudes Francophones (CIEF), La Société Historique Franco-Américaine, Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones en Amérique, Association Internationale des Critiques Littéraires, Ligue des Presidents, and Club Richelieu de Fall River.
Dr. Yoken is a Life Member in the following professional organizations: American Association Teachers of French (AATF), Modern Language Association (MLA), Middlebury College Amicale, Association for Canadian Studies in the United States (ACSUS), New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers (NYSAFLT), and Amis de Paul-Louis Courier. He is an Honorary Life Member of the Academy of American Poets and a Life & Legion Member of UMass Amherst Alumni Association.
Dr. Yoken continues to give back to the community through his leadership roles in the following organizations: Nobel Prize in Literature, Nominating Committee (1970-2014); Brown University, Alumni Area Representative (1970-2012); Friends of Fall River Public Library, Former President (1972-1980); Friends of New Bedford Public Library, Former President (1980-1985); Massachusetts Foreign Language Association (MaFLA), Former Director (1980-1992); UMass Dartmouth Azorean Restoration Committee (1980-2010); Northeast Modern Language Association, Chair - French Literature (1988-1992); Association Francophone de Fall River, Vice-President (1990-97); American Field Service (AFS), Former President, Organizational Liaison and Vice President (1990-2003); Sister-City Committee of Fairhaven, MA and Japan (l990-l998); The Modern Language Journal, consultant/proofreader (l992 to present); Manuscript Society, Vice-President (1993-97); New Bedford High School, Accreditation Committee Member (1994); AATF, consultant for Québéc -related material (1994 to present); The Mellon Press, consultant/proofreader (l997 to present); The College of New Jersey, Faculty reader/consultant, AP French Exam (l997-2005); New Bedford Whaling Museum, reader for Melville’s “Moby Dick” marathon (1998 to present); The College of New Jersey, directed seminars on the AP exam in French (2000-2010); Tifereth Israel Synagogue, New Bedford, MA, Director - Sunday Morning Seminars (2013); and Tifereth Israel Synagogue, New Bedford, MA, Holocaust Committee.
Dr. Yoken and his very capable and accomplished wife, Cindy, administer the following annual philanthropies: Mel and Cindy Yoken Richelieu Scholarships (2007 to present); Mel and Cindy Yoken Endowments at Ecole Française at Middlebury College (2004 to present); Mel and Cindy Yoken MaFLA (Massachusetts Foreign Language Association) Scholarship (2010 to present). They also supervise the Mel and Cindy Yoken annual lecture series at Brown University (2001 to present).
Throughout the 1980s, Dr. Yoken, with the able assistance of his wife, organized and directed two outstanding and highly successful programs, The French Summer Institute and The Fun With French Program. The former, modeled after Middlebury’s prestigious École Française, had students immersed en française the first three weeks at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and the second three weeks at the University of Montréal. The Fun With French Program, centered in New Bedford, Massachusetts, focused on introducing la belle et douce langue française to youngsters of the region. The students and teachers, under the aegis of The Yokens, were selected from Dr, Yoken’s classes.
Over the decades, Yoken has been friendly with many of the most important French contemporary writers including Pierre de Boisdeffre, Jacques Borel, Alain Bousquet, Daniel Boulanger, Germaine Brée, Pierre Daninos, Florence Delay, Michel Déon, Maurice Druon, Jean Fougère, Maurice Goudeket, Roger Grenier, Frédérique Hébrard, Philippe Jaccottet, André Maman, Albert Memmi, Anka Muhlstein, Claude Ollier, Henri Queffélec, Pierre Salinger, Maurice Toesca, Louis Velle and Margaret Yourcenar. He has also befriended prominent French personalities such as Valéry Freland, Maxime LeForestier, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Pépin, and Annie Royer. Not to be forgotten are such luminaries as Samuel Bak, Pierre Buyoya, Julia Child and Pierre Thiam.
Thanks to his three volumes of Quebec literature, Yoken has been able to meet, interview and befriend the most important Quebec writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Because Dr. Yoken has been such a tireless pillar of the academic and civic fabric within our local community and an exemplary ambassador for Francophone’s nationwide, he has been the recipient of many prestigious awards and honors, as follows:
- Distinguished Service Award, Fall River, MA, Jaycees, 1976
- Mayoral Citation for outstanding cultural achievements, City of Fall River, MA, 1980
- Research Fellowships in Québéc Studies, Québéc Government, 1980-81
- Bourses (Scholarships) for study and research in Québéc, Québéc Government, 1982, 1983, 1985 and 1988
- Excellence in Teaching French Award, Delegation in Boston, 1984, 1986
- Bourses d'Etudes, University of Montreal, 1985
- Research Grants, SMU, 1985, 1989
- SMU Alumni (Research) Grants, 1984, 1985, and 1990
- Special Citation from Governor Michael Dukakis for “outstanding contribution to the Franco-American Community of Southeastern Massachusetts,” 1985
- Golden Poet Award, 1985
- Faculty Research Grant, 1986 and 1987
- Certificate of Recognition, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1986
- Richelieu Club of Fall River annual student scholarship in honor of Dr. Yoken
- Robert Ludwig National Distinguished Leadership Award in Foreign Languages, NYSAFLT, 1990
- “Mel Yoken Day” in New Bedford, MA, Sept. 14, 1990
- International Canadian Studies Award of Excellence, 1990
- Distinguished Service Award, Massachusetts Foreign Language Association, 1992
- Honored as former President, Friends of the New Bedford Public Library, October 1993
- Médaille de Vermeil du Rayonnement de la Langue Française, Académie Française, Paris, 1993
- Teacher of the Year, UMass Dartmouth, 1995
- Ellis Island Medal of Honor, 1996
- Outstanding Community Service Award, Fall River Chamber of Commerce, 1997
- Distinguished Alumnus Award, B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, MA, 1998
- Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching, Fall River Herald News, l998
- Elected into the Academy of American Poets, 1999, Honorary Life Member 2006
- Officier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, Government of France, 2001
- Honorary Life Member, Fall River Public Library, August 2003
- Distinguished Real Hero Educator Award, American Red Cross, 2004
- Honorary Charter Member, Pi Delta Phi, 2008
- Distinguished Alumnus of Durfee High School, National Honor Society Induction, 2008
- Chancellor Professor Emeritus of French Language and Literature, 2008
- Honorary Life Member, Claire T Carney Library Associates, UMass Dartmouth, 2010
- Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2013
- French Legion of Honor, 2018
- Marquis Who's Who Lifetime Achievement Award, 2018
- Host: Academy of American Poets, 2019
- Member of the Board of Directors, Durfee High School Alumni Association, 2019
Dr. Yoken is listed in approximately 20 Who’s Who volumes as well as other national and international directories, including Receuil Biographique de la Francophonie. Dr. Yoken takes great pride in being cited by author George Seldes in his book The Great Thoughts (published by Ballantine, Inc. 1985. p. 464), “These are thoughts, quotations and idea that have determined the intellectual history of the world.”
Another major -- and unique -- honor is when writers model their novelistic characters after Dr. Yoken. The most recent was the celebrated French writer, Frederique Hebrard, who named one of her primary characters, Mel Yoken. In her award-winning novel, Les Chataigniers du Desert, Hebrard transformed Dr. Yoken into a professor of theology at Harvard University.
Thanks to a decree issued by French President, Emmanuel Macron, Prof. Yoken was profoundly honored in 2018 with the French Legion of Honor, the most important and highest award rendered by France to persons of exceptional merit. Created by Napoleon in 1802, the French Legion of Honor is, by far, the most prestigious award bestowed on any individual.
In addition to his five decades of teaching, being Director of the Boivin Center for 18 years, enjoying membership in prestigious professional organizations, assuming leadership roles in academic and community groups, Dr. Yoken makes time to nurture the Yoken Archives at the John Hay Library of his alma mater, Brown University.
Dr. Yoken’s letter-writing endeavor started in 1961, while he was studying for his Masters degree in French at Brown University. After reading the play Knock, student Yoken decided to send his comments to the play’s French author, Jules Romains. The playwright responded and the two men began a correspondence that blossomed into a friendship. While the general population would be reticent to directly contact dignitaries and luminaries, Dr. Yoken has continued these correspondences over the years and, met many of the great luminaries of the second half of the 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st century.
Dr. Yoken’s unique motivation served him well in his graduate studies. If Dr. Yoken didn’t understand a line in a poem or the meaning in a piece of literature in a novel or play, he would contact the author for further clarification. Dr. Yoken would include the responses in his research projects, which would garner him high grades.
It is truly fortunate for posterity that Dr. Yoken saved all of his correspondences and other invaluable documents for scholars and researchers everywhere to read. In 1999, Dr. Yoken started bringing to Brown University his 40-year collection of 20th century pieces of correspondence and literary works by American, British, French and Québécois authors, artists, famous writers, politicians, scientists, educators, military, religious leaders and public figures. Numerous letters written by significant figures of the 18th and 19th century enhance the historical, literary and political interest of the collection. Notes, typescripts, manuscripts, artifacts, photographs and personal papers complement the archive, as well as the many inscriptions, annotations, autographed posters, and signatures in the book collection at the John Hay.
In 2004, the Mel B. Yoken Collection officially opened on the third floor, in the John Hay Library at Brown University. The room had three high walls of shelves overflowing with signed books and 1500 labeled blue binders containing over 300,000 letters from Dr. Yoken’s personal correspondences, along with invaluable letters from Zola, Monet, Matisse, Hugo and so many others he had bought at auction.
When the room reached its capacity, all invaluable letters and documents were moved to the stacks, where they are safely housed. Over the past 13 years, Dr. Yoken has continued to furnish his Collection with more of his precious papers. (The Yoken Collection has grown to 400,000 letters, with no limit in sight.)
It is no surprise that Dr. Yoken has a deep respect, appreciation of and love for books. In addition to his own 15,000 volume French library, Dr. Yoken has been most fortunate to inherit and be the beneficiary of the French libraries of such luminaries as: Professors Herman Green, Joseph Vinci, Nelson Brooks, James Powers and Franco-American poet Dr. Adelard Demers, who have all been his good friends. In literary circles, Dr. Yoken is considered a legend, and remains a friend and confident to some of the most important writers, professors and scholars of his lifetime.
Many of Dr. Yoken’s former students keep in touch with him. “This is one of the many great rewards of teaching,” exclaimed the grateful professeur. As a matter fact, Dr. Yoken shared a poignant story of how, at a recent Book Fair, someone was telling his wife Cindy that a certain Dr. Yoken was “a wonderful educator who changed his life and inspired him to go into teaching.” Cindy told the man to turn around and much to his surprise he came face-to-face with his former teacher. The protégé was filled with such emotion that he practically levitated Dr. Yoken off the ground as he hugged him. He retains correspondences with innumerable former students.
Dr. Yoken also makes an effort to keep in touch with many of his classmates from Durfee High School in Fall River. After 60 years, he treasures their friendship.
Dr. Yoken has kept a journal every day for the past 55 years. Some of you reading this bio may even be immortalized in his extensive log. Dr. Yoken is currently penning his memoirs, and a book which consists of quotes taken directly from the letters he has received.
Be forewarned … after spending even a few minutes speaking with Dr. Yoken, you will come away having learned something new; be it the exact dictionary word for which you’ve been searching, or the proper pronunciation of whatever you just said in French, or a piece of history you never knew existed … this man of many talents, this walking encyclopedia, this l’ambassadeur francophone extraordinaire will impress and charm you and you will walk away feeling so incredibly fortunate for having just been in the presence of greatness.
When he isn’t reading his enormous amount of e-mails and letters, answering important documents, tending to French students everywhere, planning and hosting numerous programs and activities, or administering to one of his many membership organizations, Dr. Yoken enjoys listening to music by Joe Dassin, David D’Or, beloved Sarah Brightman and Barbara Streisand, watching “Jeopardy,” and spending time with his beloved family.
Dr. Yoken, a consummate traveler, has been to many countries all over the world. During the summer of 2016, Dr. and Mrs. Yoken “returned from an unforgettable peregrination which took us through four countries: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria.” He has also visited Martinique and Cuba and has recently visited India.
Admittedly, Dr. Yoken feels most at home in France, his second country which he affectionately calls chez moi because he has visited la belle et douce France over 150 times including his most recent visit in 2018.
Dr. Yoken’s other favorite cities are Montreal, Toronto, and NYC. Locations still on his travelling “bucket list” are: Iceland, Guadalope, the Pacific (Tahiti), and the Francophone African countries such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Togo, and Dahomey.
Above all else, Dr. Yoken treasures his wife, Cindy, his three sons, Andrew, David, and Jonathan, his daughters-in-law Dara and Jody, and his six grandsons, Ryder, Jonah, Tommy, Mason, Eli and Weston.
Dr. Yoken truly lives every day according to the Latin words CARPE DIEM, which resumes his philosophy and daily life and living.
Written by Rona Trachtenberg November 2018