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.