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Remembering Floyd St. Clair

February 6th, 2009 · 8 Comments

I found out just this week that one of my favourite university professors, Floyd St. Clair, died unexpectedly last month. I didn’t find out in time to go to his memorial and my memories of him do not, I am sure, do justice to all the different aspects of his life, but I couldn’t let him go without a farewell.

I remember his classes so vividly. He was one of the four professors in my far-too-many years of university life who turned class into an emotional and intellectual event. He’s also one of the reasons I ended up getting a degree in French literature at UBC, instead of something decorative and useless like international relations or political science.

I had him for just one class, the 19th-century French novel, but he turned that literature course into an exploration of social unrest (Zola), the role of class and money (Balzac), and the re-working of old myths into new stories. He, along with my other favourite French prof, Alistair MacKay, got us thoughtless 20-somethings to think about ethics and the struggles of individuals to maintain their identities in the face of social convention and what we would be willing to die for and, really, all the big questions.

I can see him in front of me, still, in his blue jeans and usually some checkered shirt, with his halo of graying hair and perpetually young round face, a child of the ’60s academic revolution, talking to us in that voice of his — light and animated, a bubbling, lively stream of words — about the underlying religious themes in Pere Goriot or the deeper meaning of Catherine’s death in the mine in Germinal. (I always got the sense he thought his revolutionary students of the previous decade were somewhat more interesting than those of us who came along in the 70s, placidly plodding through our degrees.)

When I started teaching myself, I hoped that I could have the same effect on my students that he did on me and, every term that I finish even now, I wonder if I came even close to inspiring even a fraction of the kind of discovery and reflection that he did in me.

Long after we finished with his class, he kept in touch with many of us. He’d host dinners with collections of students at the little house he shared with his long-time partner, David Watmough, in Kits. He’d act utterly fascinated by our tentative efforts to be adults with careers in banking or (in my case, at that point) non-careers in the fishing industry.

Then I drifted along to a busier life, as a newspaper reporter and mother, and lost touch. I was pleased when I was able to get him and David included in a Valentine’s Day feature many years ago about couples who’d managed to stay together for decades.

And then, this week, I heard from a friend that he had died. And then, strangely, coincidentally, when I went to the opera last night, there was a small notice in the program as a tribute to him. It noted that he had reviewed Vancouver Opera productions for years on the CBC and elsewhere and that he participated in salons and forums on the same.

“Floyd will be dearly missed by all who knew him,” they said.

Yes. I wished he could have been there to explain Carmen to me, which I was seeing for the first time. I know he would have been able to tell me what it all really meant, down to the last line. I can just hear him.

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  • Wagamuffin

    Great testament to an obviously special man, Frances.

    I think many of have stories of a favorite teacher, someone who coached, encouraged or unlocked something vital in us—yes, there are Mr .(or Ms.) Chips types who help carry us beyond ourselves.

    Cheers to them all.

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    What a sad, but expected, event…Floyd was suffering, on and off, for some time.

    ‘Tristan and Isolde’ will never be taught the same way again at UBC. MANY people thought Floyd was just an eccentric gay man with bizarre and perplexing thoughts.

    I thought he was my teacher, my dear friend and an, occasionally, mad genius. I had not kept in touch with Floyd for some years, and now I deeply regret it. He read one of my columns years ago and wrote me a very nice note–claiming, of course, that his “friend” had written it because he was so disgusted at my “false humanity” even though I had gone on to pillory the provincial govt for some policy or other… He was a tremendous jokester and a blissful jabmeister.

    Unless you had learned from him, you would never know the deeply rich process that brought you, delivered you, to the ultimate understanding of literature or the moving experience of being Floyd’s student.

    He had this fantastically eccentric way, but a loving way for all his students. You respected him because his respect for you was the benchmark, the standard.

    I learned so much from him and times spent with a few other students at his home on 1st Avenue in this lovely bungalow were times spent listening to a master wax on about his craft, about great writers, about great poets. Notwithstanding his love for French Literature in translation he was the one who introduced me to Auden and, really, to the brilliance of Lawrence and Frost.

    Happy trails my friend Floyd. God rest your celebrated soul. Wind at your back.

    And many. many, many thanks, from a grateful student…

  • A. G. Tsakumis


    Here is a wonderful quote by Floyd himself, that, I believe, entirely captures the essence of the man…he speaks of his, then, pending retirement…

    “I teach a book – Candide by Voltaire – where at the end the only lesson in life Voltaire gives is to cultivate your garden. And I think, well maybe if I just eventually had a year off to really cultivate my garden it would look a little more presentable and my soul would profit from it too”

    Magic…we should all be so lucky.

  • A Dave

    Lovely tribute, Francis. I came to know Floyd and David in 2003 after publishing some of David’s writing. An eccentric pair, to be sure, yet two of the kindest, most gracious, intelligent and witty people I’ve ever met. Lunch at their home (always cooked by Floyd) was usually a fine French meal with plenty of wine and laughter. Devout epicureans who never rushed a meal! They met in Paris in 1951 and were together the rest of their lives — amazing. I remember having a conversation about gay marriage with them a few years ago and asking them, now that it was legal for them to wed, whether they would? The answer? “Not on your life! Marriage would be the end of our relationship!”

    Floyd enriched the lives of all who knew him and he will be dearly missed.

  • Blaffergassted

    Touching tribute, Fran and Alex.

    I never met the guy, but he sounds like a marvelous teacher.

    So – Did your study of Balzac offer any guidance when dealing with the shenanigans at Vancouver city hall in the 21st Century??

  • Gilles Aerts

    was lucky to have Floyd for my M.A. thesis director twenty-two years ago. I was so stressed out trying to complete this blasted thesis before the end of summer and back to teaching high school that if I would have snapped if I had not had such a gentle, pleasant & funny man to encourage me along.
    Bless his memory !

  • Gilles Aerts

    I was lucky to have Floyd for my M.A. thesis director twenty-two years ago. I was so stressed out trying to complete this blasted thesis before the end of summer and back to teaching high school that if I would have snapped if I had not had such a gentle, pleasant & funny man to encourage me along.
    Bless his memory !

  • Larry Steele

    Î miss Floyd. He was an amazing teacher and I was in the same class as Frances. Leighton (“Larry”) Steele