Leaders aren’t born! They are made by hard effort which is the price
all of us must pay to achieve any worthwhile goal. (Vince Lombardi: 1913-1970)
Who would believe that a young boy growing up as a child
of white privilege in apartheid-dominated South Africa
would become the President of of our prestigious McMaster University?
March 1st edition of the Hamilton Spectator featured an article about him by journalist, Jon Wells, who wrote about the experience that shaped how he became ~ a true believer in the university as a place for teaching 'humane wisdom'...where ideas are challenged...difficult questions asked...and where students graduate with something deeper than job qualification. I take the privilege of excerpting information from this article which significantly led to his position today.
It was warm outside and perfectly cool in the auditorium. Fresh-faced McMaster students in their graduation robes gathered on the cusp of summer ~ the future at their feet. On stage in this symbolic 'dawn of the possible' stood an erudite man with a greying beard, speaking of the limitations of optimism. “Optimism is a partial truth,” he said from the podium, “and a sentimental one at that. As you celebrate what you know, and what you can do, it is important to have the discipline of acknowledging...what you don't know and what you may not be able to do.”
Patrick Deane, the president of McMaster University, administers a business that has 6,400 staff, an $878-million budget and educates 30,000 students. He does not speak like an administrator whose sole mission is to turn out students with practical job-ready skills; Deane is cut from a different cloth.
“BEWARE FALSE CERTAINTIES,” he told the graduates. “Carry with you skepticism and doubt.” Invisible to the students, he did not talk about his birthplace nor the story of how, as a young man, he had what he later thought of as a 'Matrix moment'...that revealed to him his powerlessness and even his complicity in the system. “The essence of all human activity, is that it stands on the edge of error. To progress in any way, we must acknowledge that we, too, stand always in an intimate relation to self-delusion and ignorance.”
A boyhood friend in Johannesburg, Robin Carr stated that even as a young boy, Patrick had the quality of being interested in other people. Brian, another friend stated that they lived in a sheltered environment, tending to take the Mandela fiasco for granted. Teachers kept quiet and parents didn't broach it much, if at all during that stage of their lives. Further, South Africans were not permitted to know about Nelson Mandela.
Patrick's older brother died of testicular cancer at the end of fulfilling his compulsory military service across the border in Namibia. Patrick, who was 15, determined to avoid military service, decided that a career in law was his calling, the better to seek justice for his brother and others like him. He attended Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg which had a reputation for campus anti-apartheid activism. It was a curious thing, he came to realize, that the apartheid-government, as oppressive as it was, permitted elements of free expression on campuses and in the press and judicial systems. Apartheid, and the broader white society's acceptance of it, was strengthened through insidious laws that controlled where blacks could live, separating them physically and socially.
But, as a young man, the system did not truly hit home with him until one day, when he was working a summer job after his first year of university. His manager asked him to accompany a store employee, who was black, to a governmental office to have his passbook stamped. This was a document all blacks had to carry, indicating where they were entitled to live and work. Patrick, at first resisted ~ it struck him as absurd, a student shepherding a middle-aged man. At the chaotic government's office, they were directed to a room where a bureaucrat reflexively stamped the passbook. Examining the book outside, Patrick noticed that...rather than renew the man's passbook to continue living and working in Johannesburg (as he had for many years), the stamp expelled him from his city forever. Returning to the office, he was told the stamp was...irreversible! The guy's life had been ruined...just like that and no one cared! That was Patrick's Matrix moment...the code revealing... cold injustice!
Nearly 40 years later, Patrick Deane asks the question, “So is that the big narrative denouement, where the scales fall from your eyes?” sitting in the president's office at McMaster University as he reflects on that day. “Not really...the guy who suffered, whose life was changed by that mistake, disappears from that narrative entirely. That story has always haunted me, my own culpability in it.”
Deane did not mount barricades and demand revolution. But he yearned to leave the country. If he didn't get out then, he would, like many of his friends, be forced to do his military service for a regime none of them could stomach. Unlike his closest friends, he had a way out...his bloodline! His mother, Elvira, was Canadian...whom his father had met while on a trip for his steel company to Welland, Ontario. Holding his newly acquired Canadian passport, Patrick Deane, at 22, boarded a plane out of Johannesburg and across the Atlantic.
He attended Western University in London, Ontario, earning his Master's and PhD in English. That's where he met Sheila, also an English major, a Virginia Woolf scholar who would go on to earn her PhD and be an educator in women's studies. They married and had a daughter, Petra, and son, Colin. Sheila lobbied that their family should live on a farm...raise animals...go organic..and live feeling the rhythms of the earth.
Deane reflected that it had been tough on his parents to lose their remaining son when he left ~ but he had not recognized that back then. “You think back about how you treated your parents and think, 'you insensitive boor' ! Now as a father, I understand better.”
Patrick and Sheila bought a farm, first during their time in Winnipeg and then in Kingston and now near Sheffield (a 35 minute drive to McMaster). They have several horses they have moved from place to place, plus chickens and sheep. She does most of the work on their nine-hectare hobby farm. He does his part primarily on weekends.
He turned 57 last December and has been living in Canada 34 years. It has taken nearly that long for him to come to terms with his roots. Patrick relates,“I did not speak of myself as a South African for a long time. I did not associate with South Africans on the faculty at Queen's and I refused to attend Witwatersrand University reunions held in Toronto. I did not want to be among those who pined for the old country or styled themselves as having taken a heroic stand against apartheid.”
Deane further said that he was a kid born of privilege who derived benefits from a country's racist system. And then, like others his age who shared his background, he woke up to what it was all about. “There was nothing heroic abut it.”
When Deane had his fresh start at McMaster, he finally began to speak of the road travelled. At the formal ceremony installing him as president, he spoke of his university days, of protest and the courage of his teachers. “The role of the university,” he told the audience, “is not to serve the law, but to serve society.” As president, Deane must handle..budgets, employee unions, student controversies and lobbying politicians for research funding. (McMaster is one of Canada's top three research intensive universities.) But Deane can only see his job and the role of the university through his distinct intellectual prism. He believes the university's mission is to cultivate in all students, regardless of study area, a 'humane wisdom' toward making their community and world...a better place!
Each fall, Patrick Deane greets first-year students, as they pass through a symbolic stone arch, with a handshake. To teenagers, just out of high school, this rite might seem old-fashioned. Perhaps, over time it will have more meaning ~ the bearded wise man with the accent welcoming them into something profound...even earth-changing...if they are able to see it.
Words of Wisdom
“Every moment, your life should be measured
by just how far it takes you from the ordinary.”
Everyone who is successful, must have dreamed up something.
(Maricopa ~ Native American Indian)
The journey to go further...never ends!
Merle Baird-Kerr...March 2, 2014
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