In memoriam: Walter R. Fisher, 87

Walter R. Fisher, professor emeritus of communication and former director of the School of Communication, died on July 26 at the age of 87. An esteemed teacher and mentor to generations of USC Annenberg students for more than 40 years, Fisher was a prolific scholar best known for his groundbreaking research on the “Narrative Paradigm.”

Fisher died in Carlsbad, California, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Professor Fisher was a giant in our field and a beloved member of the USC Annenberg community,” said Josh Kun, professor of communication and director of the School of Communication. “His pioneering ideas about the stories we tell to explain the world and the standards of truth we create in the process are as relevant, and as urgent, now as ever before.”

Having dedicated himself to service and scholarship, Fisher led a life full of achievements. Born in 1931 in Honolulu, Hawaii, he moved at age three to San Diego, where he graduated from Point Loma High School. In 1948, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17. He served in the Korean War in the 5th Marine Regiment and was out on patrol north of the Chosin Reservoir the night that China entered the war. Fisher saw action in the battles at Chosin, Inchon and Pusan, and was decorated for his exemplary service. When he returned from Korea, he became a drill instructor for new recruits to apply his extensive battlefield experience to prepare other Marines to return alive from future conflicts. 

Fisher used the G.I. Bill to enroll in San Diego State University (SDSU), where he received his B.A. (1956) and M.A. (1957) degrees in speech. While enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Iowa, Fisher prospered under some of the most prominent rhetorical scholars in the country including A. Craig Baird, Donald Bryant, Douglas Ehninger and Sam Becker. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1960, Fisher was determined to return to California and taught first at California State University, Los Angeles, and joined the faculty of USC in 1965.

Establishing himself as a specialist in the theory and criticism of contemporary communication, Fisher went on to author numerous journal articles and books, including Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value and Action (University of South Carolina Press, 1987) and Rhetoric: A Tradition in Transition (Michigan State University Press, 1974). 

Fisher distinguished himself in the field by developing the first analytical process to articulate the viability of narratives. By conceptualizing the “Narrative Paradigm,” which subsumes formal rational modes of argument and explains how the world was shaped by multiple stories competing for acceptance, Fisher explained how people accepted or rejected the “truthfulness” of competing stories. His innovative work explored how individuals consider whether or not stories cohere and hold together internally according to cultural understanding and whether or not a story seems true given other stories they hear, experience and come to believe. 

While controversial when first introduced in a series of articles and then in his book, Human Communication as Narration, Fisher’s construction of human reasoning as narration is fundamental to research in many disciplines beyond communication including law, political science, diplomacy, business and even security studies. His concepts have become commonplace in the media and organizational worlds as political pundits and speech writers, for example, judge the effectiveness of candidates or CEOs by assessing the persuasiveness and impact of their stories through his methodology. 

In addition to his own research, Fisher directed more than 40 doctoral dissertations at USC Annenberg, four of which were honored with the National Communication Association’s Dissertation of the Year Award. He served on hundreds of other doctoral student committees as well as mentored junior faculty colleagues and enthusiastically celebrated their own career successes. 

Thomas Hollihan, professor of communication and director of doctoral studies, recalled how Fisher expertly balanced his commitment to scholarship with his passion for teaching, allowing generations of USC students to benefit from his wisdom, passion for sharing his knowledge, and his generosity with his time and attention.

“Walt was a born editor and mentor, always willing to give his careful advice and smart line-by-line edits, always produced in pencil,” Hollihan said. “He contributed to reshaping and improving thousands of articles and research papers. Students and peers alike found that sharing one’s work with Walt could be a humbling experience, for he could always find many needed improvements, but it was also a hugely rewarding experience because he cared so deeply about enhancing its impact in the field and the reputation of its author.”

Fisher was editor of the Quarterly Journal of Speech (1984–86) and the Western Journal of Speech Communication (1976–79). He served as president of the Western Speech Communication Association and chaired that organization’s Rhetoric and Public Address Interest Group. He was also a member of the boards of directors of the Rhetoric Society of America and the California State Speech Communication Association.

His article, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm” (Communication Monographs, March 1984), was cited by the Speech Communication Association as the year’s “outstanding article in any of the areas of speech communication arts and sciences.” His 1987 study, “Human Communication as Narration,” won the National Communication Association’s James A. Winans-Hebert A. Wichelns Memorial Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Rhetoric and Public Address. 

In 2002, the Walter R. Fisher Lecture was created at USC Annenberg to honor his legacy by bringing back an alumnus/a to present an annual lecture to newly admitted doctoral students and faculty. In addition, SDSU’s School of Communication honored him in 2016 with its Outstanding Alumni Award. 

Hollihan remembers Fisher as “a man of strong opinions,” who acted on them. He said Fisher was perhaps most proud of creating Chicano and African American Studies programs early in his academic career and supporting the careers of women at a time when there were few in the professoriate. 

“Walt was witty and clever and always interested in learning what others thought and never failed to ask his colleagues how their families were doing. He enthralled generations of the children of faculty colleagues and graduate students with magic tricks and riddles,” Hollihan said. “He will be greatly missed, however, his presence will continue to be felt viscerally in the day-to-day activities of the School of Communication and at USC.”

Fisher was named an emeritus professor in 2005, and he received the USC Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. He was an adoring father, grandfather and great-grandfather who also enjoyed walking along the beach, going out to coffee with his dog, Foxie, and sipping his favorite wines. 

Fisher is survived by his sister, Jo Ann Pearce; his children Beverly Fisher, Roxanne Fisher Richards and her husband Robert Richards, Thomas Purnell-Fisher and his fiancée Lauren Taflinger; his grandchildren Martin Phillips, Challey Wittebort and Adrianna Ortenzio; and his great grandson Scott Wittebort.