David Farr in room surrounded by others in the backgroundDavid Morice Leigh Farr, 1922-2016

Our language has a tendency to take insightful observations of human nature and, through too frequent use, turn them into clichés. Their intrinsic relevance is thus undermined and their impact rendered commonplace and unexamined. Such has been the trajectory of that wonderful appellation “a scholar and a gentleman”, now too often sadly reduced to an ironic salute. The rich life of our now departed colleague David Farr prompts us to restore a genuine appreciation of what it means to be “a scholar and a gentleman” – a man of intellectual courtesy, vigour and breadth.

David Morice Leigh Farr hailed from the West Coast, where he was born in Vancouver in 1922. As a student at the University of British Columbia in the early 1940s, finding himself too young for active service, David took summer employment as a stores clerk in the isolated cannery out port of Bella Coola. These summers remained an adolescent idyll for him, especially the circuitous journey to the town on a coastal steamer. Later in life, David recalled his exploration of the nearby Chinese workers’ camp and his wonder at the fragrance of the seemingly exotic foods they prepared each evening. A lifetime of irrepressible curiosity was already evident in the young man, a hint of academic appetites to come.

After completing a bachelor’s degree at UBC in 1944, David joined the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve – the so-called “wavy navy” – before serving a stint in the merchant navy. Like so many veterans, David returned to academe with the peace. An MA at the University of Toronto followed in 1946. The post-war boom in enrolment sparked a hiring boom on Canadian campuses. Even before his graduate studies were complete, David consequently found himself behind a podium for the first time as a youthful history professor at Dalhousie University. His time in Halifax was eventful. While waiting for a streetcar on Spring Garden Road on VE Day in May 1945, he spied an unruly crowd coming his way. The infamous Halifax riot was breaking out all around him. Drunken sailors flipped his intended streetcar and set it on fire. Professor Farr ducked for cover and then discreetly walked home. The fall of 1946 brought a happier, more domestic event. That September he married Joan Villiers-Fisher of Victoria, launching a marriage that would sail happily through the next seventy years.

Dalhousie whetted David’s academic appetite. At a time when Canadian history was still largely dedicated to unravelling the young nation’s journey from “colony to nation,” David fixed on chronicling Britain’s relations with Canada in the formative years immediately after Confederation. What attitude had the Colonial Office in London taken to the process of loosening the bonds with its former colony? This proposition drew David to study at the centre of what had once been called the Empire – at Oxford’s New College and Nuffield College.

Life as a graduate student in austere post-war Britain was hard but exhilarating for the young couple. Meagre scholarship support forced the Farrs to live above a pub well outside Oxford, from whence David daily cycled to his tutorials in town. His 1952 D.Phil. thesis on the Colonial Office became a book in 1955, giving Farr the beginnings of an academic reputation. Other post-Confederation scholarship followed, particularly his investigation of financier Sir John Rose and constitutional lawyer John S. Ewart. Farr’s work fit neatly into the mould of liberal national historiography – a chronicle of the construction of Canada’s national autonomy.

Oxford was but an interlude in a career that had brought David to Carleton College in 1947, an appointment that would permeate the rest of his life. He arrived at Carleton a full ten years before the fledgling college moved to its present canal-side campus and assumed full university status. Over the years, David would serve Carleton with abiding devotion. In the yeasty 1960s when Ontario universities grew exponentially, David served as Dean of Arts and oversaw the exuberant growth of the humanities at Carleton. He also attached himself to Carleton’s budding commitment to international affairs, associating himself with the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs as it established its métier in the 1970s. David’s willingness to see Canada in an international context also led him to act as director of Carleton International, the university’s clearing house for international academic relations. That inclination led to short-term assignments in Kenya and Sri Lanka as an advisor on university staff training in the 1970s and 1980s. And as if to further spread the news about Canada, David for many years contributed an annual synopsis of Canadian affairs for prestigious publications such as The World Book Year Book and The Britannica Book of the Year. A year of teaching at Duke University and a sponsored tour of Japanese universities rounded out David’s proselytization of Canada to the world.

Until his formal retirement in 1987, David maintained a steady flow of publication: high school textbooks and a history of his beloved Anglican church, St. Matthew’s in the Glebe (a book that was as authoritative about this Ottawa enclave as it was of the church itself). He lent his oversight to the preparation of the official history of the Department of External Affairs and to that department’s ongoing publication of its documents. The Carleton Library Series similarly benefitted from David’s adjudication of its reprinting of worthy volumes of Canadian history. Not surprisingly, the Canadian Historical Association asked him to serve as its president in 1977-78.

In retirement, David remained benevolently and productively involved in departmental affairs. He developed a wonderful practice of asking new members of faculty out to lunch, partly to quiz them on their interests and also to connect them with the heritage of the department. He happily examined theses. He was a front-row attendee at departmental lectures and a convivial regular at end-of-term lunches. He imparted graciousness to all these affairs. Such devotion did not go unnoticed: in 2002 Carleton awarded David an honorary Doctor of Laws.

David’s last academic contribution reconnected him with the post-Confederation period that had years before first tweaked his interest in Canadian history. Asked by the Library of Parliament to act as editor of a project to reconstruct the hitherto unrecorded debates of Canada’s 1860s and early 1870s Parliaments, David plunged into the painstaking process of assembling snippets of parliamentary reporting scattered throughout newspapers and archives. When the reconstructed volumes appeared, Canada was finally blessed with a continuous parliamentary record of its unfolding democracy. David was feted on the Hill for his meticulous achievement.

What therefore made David Farr a scholar and a gentleman? It was not just the list of publications set beside his name, not just the administration he patiently brought to Carleton and his profession, nor was it only his avuncular activism within the department. It was instead the admirable personal qualities which he brought to these tasks and which infused his every action.

David was inveterately curious. He read voraciously and could always be relied upon to insert a fact or a viewpoint purloined from some book he recently read into a conversation. When his eyesight began to fail, a loyal group of volunteers read to him. Biographies were a steady favourite. Talking books further fed David’s appetite for knowledge. At art and museum exhibitions, David insisted that Joan read every placard accompanying the canvases or objects on display. To this acquisition of knowledge, he applied his prodigious memory: “didn’t we see this painting once before at the Tate?” he would ask.

David never used his knowledge as a prop for his ego. He lived to share what he knew and acquire new insights from those he encountered. My first encounter with David years ago fit this pattern, much to my future embarrassment. I had arrived at Carleton as a cocky doctoral student in the mid-1970s. Together with my classmates, we were going to change the way Canadians saw their history. Social, intellectual, economic and gender history were going to topple the old political history. And from this perspective, Professor Farr was the “old” and we were the “new.” In his tweed jacket, white shirt and tie, he even looked the part, we smugly observed. The pipe and humidor on his desk confirmed the role. We chuckled whenever he answered his phone with a brisk “Farr here.” He was the past, we were the future.

Early in my first year at Carleton, David introduced himself to me one day in the corridor and inquired about my doctoral topic. The steel industry, I answered, haughtily assuring myself that the Colonial Office paled in comparison. David, it seemed to me, made polite noises. Some days later, I received a tatty, recycled envelope that had once held a phone bill. I opened it to discover a clipping from The Guardian about the woes of the ailing British steel industry with a note from David – “this will interest you.” It was humbling moment for me, but it sowed the kernel of a friendship that would last decades.

I witnessed David’s intellectual courtesy on many other occasions. For many years, we two couples went together to Cooperstown, New York for summer opera, museums, fine dining and a smidgeon of baseball. While walking through a gorgeous exhibit of paintings from the nineteenth century Hudson School of American art in the Fenimore Museum, we stopped in front of a huge canvas by Thomas Cole – a vast untrammelled landscape of Gothic proportion. Down in the corner, Cole had included a clutch of Natives, as if to suggest that man paled in significance to the majesty of nature. Beside us a group of American teenagers gawked at the picture. “Hey, look at the Indians,” one said. Without further prompting, David volunteered that the natives would probably have been Abenaki and that meant “people of the dawn land” in their language. They probably came from the Adirondacks, which David pointed out could be interpreted as hills populated by “bark eaters.” The teenagers were bowled over by this grandfatherly man who knew so much. And when David announced that he was a Canadian, they were astounded.

Thus, David Farr was unfailingly a scholar and a gentleman, whether the listener was a self-possessed doctoral student or an unfocused American high school kid. For over forty years he wore that mantle comfortably amidst his colleagues at Carleton. He never indulged in the abrasion and cynicism that can so often blight academic life. Jealousy was alien to him. Instead, he won the respect of all he met. Let us hope that we will see his ilk again. The world is a better place for people such as David Farr, a conclusion we wish to convey to his wife Joan and his sons, Chris, Tim and Jeremy.

Duncan McDowall
Carleton and Queen’s Universities
October 2016