Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Friendship with Gerry Dirks

I first met Gerry Dirks at the Wellington Court Restaurant in St. Catharines when I came for my job interview to become assistant professor of Politics at Brock University in the spring of 1989. It took me a while to realize that I was being interviewed by a blind professor. I had previously assumed that not being able to see and thus not being able to read would disqualify one for that line of work. Turns out that I was quite wrong about that. He died last week in Victoria. So I have lost another dear friend and mentor.

Gerry was the first colleague hired by our founding Chair, Bill Hull. It must have been something of an edgy move for Bill to hire a blind person in face of the prevailing values in 1966. Ed Andrew once told me that he had also applied for that job but Gerry had beat him out for it. Gerry received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, having attained earlier degrees from the University of British Columbia and Queen's University (John Meisel frequently asked me about Gerry and spoke of him and his wife Pat with some considerable affection). Throughout his career Gerry published widely on Canadian immigration and refugee policy, a very important subject.

Turns out being blind was not such a barrier to his job performance. I co-taught a graduate course with him in the early-90s. He was an excellent teacher as well as a distinguished scholar. At that time he hired students as readers who would record the seminar readings and student papers and exams onto cassette tapes which Gerry listened to speeded up. He wrote his lecture notes in braille. Later with the advances in technology he got computers that could convert e-mail and digital sources to voice and scanners that would read the books and newspapers in various voices to vary the monotony of having just one machine reader (these voice variations dubbed in the software manual as "bouncing Betty," "frail Frank", etc.). I remember feeling quite moved after I hooked up his first scanner to voice device in his office, a couple of doors down from mine.

Gerry seemed to revel in giving the impression that he could "see." Driving with him he would direct me to the destination ("OK, now turn left at that gas station" --- even if the gas station had in fact been pulled down a couple of years before). He walked with his stick to all his classes and seminars unaided and went home by himself on the bus after class. He took care to switch on the light when he entered his office, although sometimes he forgot to. Our only precaution was not to leave boxes and such like in the hallway for him to trip over unseen. He sometimes had visible bruises cuts in his face from bumps and falls. I found that heart rending, but Gerry was used to this. Of course his functioning in a sighted peoples world was a carefully calculated effortlessness. I felt quite honoured when he asked me to walk him through the Taro Building when our Department was moved there in '91. He counted all his steps and memorized the layout of every seminar room in the place. It was a formidable task. This way he could walk into a room and head straight to the lectern without hesitation or stumbling.

But that is not to say that Gerry was not frank about his blindness. He would joke about students who failed to get his attention in seminar by raising their hands. He did service in advocacy and at senior administrative levels for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. He was assertively insistent that when he was due a gold watch after 25 years of service to Brock that the University take the trouble and expense to get him a braille watch made with the Brock seal on its face like all the others for the sighted.

And he had a beautifully tender side too. Gerry and Pat never had any children of their own, but I once arranged for the 6 year-old daughter of one of our students who was curious to see how people read with braille to meet Gerry in his office. He took a lot of care and kindness with little Chelsea Hughes to answer all her questions and let her touch his braille texts. She came away filled with a child's happiness and wonder. It is a special memory of Gerry that I will carry with me for the rest of my days.

In about 1990, it was the 25th anniversary of our Department and therefore the 25th anniversary of Bill Hull's association with Brock. We arranged for a Departmental dinner to be held at the Queenston Heights Restaurant and for the presentation a gift to Bill. Gerry and I were the Hull 25th Celebration Committee. Turns out that Bill wanted a silver champagne cooler to mark the occasion. So Gerry and I went on a tour of Niagara region china shops in search of this article. I did almost knock over a glass cabinet of expensive china in one of them, Gerry on the other hand did not knock into anything. Eventually we found a silver champagne cooler that Gerry liked the feel of and I liked the look of. So we had Ken Kernaghan draft up a suitable inscription to be engraved on the front on it. Gerry and I took the champagne cooler to Birks for the engraving of Ken's tribute to Bill. Turns out the the Kernaghan text was rather wordy and Birks charges for engraving by the letter. In fact when we came back for it and I was handed the bill, it turned out that the engraving cost about the same as the cooler itself and far exceeded the amount of money Gerry and I had collected from colleagues to cover the cost. But fortunately at the cash desk the sales clerk asked "Will that be on the Brock account, sir?" Quick thinking Gerry responded without missing a beat, "Of course." I signed the chit as illegibly as I could manage. Gerry and I exited Birks with due haste, in good humour, engraved champagne cooler in hand.

I received this comment from John Meisel, Gerry's teacher at Queen's on March 28: What a shock ! I always loved Gerry, as an effervescent, bright man with a huge funny bone. He was, as you can imagine a sparkling student totally resilient and in a perpetual state of triumph over his affliction.

Obituary about Gerry published in the Victoria Times Colonist on March 28 can be found here.


Anonymous said...

I DO appreciate this VERY MOVING blog,a story of Professor Gerry Dirks. I think the writing itself is also "savoury". I wonder why Gerry didn't have got a Labrador with him as his "companion".

Charles Burton said...

For some reason he never wanrted to have a guide dog. I am unclear of the reason.