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Leslie Harris passes away

Memorial’s fifth president was first grad to lead



By David Sorensen

Dr. Leslie Harris, Memorial’s fifth president, passed away Tuesday, Aug. 26.
“Dr. Harris’ legacy of service to this university and to this province is enormous,” said Dr. Eddy Campbell, acting president of Memorial University. “On behalf of our university community I send his family our deepest condolences.

“Dr. Harris believed in the value and importance of this institution, and in its potential to make Newfoundland and Labrador a better place. As head of the Review Panel on the Northern Cod Stocks he demonstrated his excellent scholarly work, and also his heartfelt love and concern for the future of his province.”

Memorial’s policy centre is named after the former president. The Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development co-ordinates and facilitates the university’s educational, research and outreach activities in the areas of regional policy and development.

Dr. Robert Greenwood is the centre’s director. He said they were very grateful that Dr. Harris agreed to have the Harris Centre named in his honour when it was established in 2004.

“In Newfoundland and Labrador, the name Leslie Harris immediately confers an appreciation of the commitment of Memorial University to contributing to the social and economic development of the province,” said Dr. Greenwood. “More than that, Dr. Harris personified the integrity and independence of the university, while making a practical contribution. These are the core values of the Harris Centre, as we advance our mandate of facilitating and coordinating the university's activities in regional policy and development.”

Dr. Harris was a spellbinding orator, added Dr. Greenwood, who somehow retained humility while inspiring all those around him.

“I feel privileged to have gotten to know him through the Harris Centre and we are committed to living up to his values and reputation every day in our work in connecting the university to the needs of the province.”

Dr. Campbell reiterated Dr. Greenwood's view. “It is fitting that we have the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Policy Development to remind us his immense contribution to Newfoundland and Labrador,” said the acting president.
Dr. Harris was born in St. Joseph's, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, and was the first graduate of Memorial named president and vice-chancellor.

The presidential search committee, chaired by Dr. F. W. Russell, referred to Dr. Harris's “scholarly background, involvement with numerous national and local organizations, extensive administrative experience, in-depth understanding of the problems facing the university and the province and the overwhelming indication of support for him from within and external to the university” when recommending him for presidency.

The confirmation of this new assignment took effect on Sept. 1, 1981, after the search committee's unanimous decision to accept Dr. Harris.

Between 1945-58, Dr. Harris was a schoolteacher in Harbour Buffett, Port Hope Simpson, Bell Island, Badger's Quay, and St. John's. He graduated from Memorial in 1956 with a BA (Ed.), received his MA in 1959 in Newfoundland history, and secured a PhD concentrating in South Asian History, from the University of London in 1960.

From 1960-62 he was a director of a Tri-College Asian Studies program in Virginia, U.S., after which he returned to Newfoundland in 1963 to join Memorial's History department, of which was named head in 1964.

He was selected acting dean of Arts and Science in 1966, became dean in 1967, and vice-president (academic) and pro vice-chancellor in 1973.

Memorial celebrated the installation of Dr. Harris at a special convocation ceremony on Saturday, Feb. 20, 1982. Representatives of many Canadian universities honoured and extended greetings to the new president.

Premier A. Brian Peckford spoke at the installation, which he claimed was a “very momentous occasion in the life of any university.” Of Dr. Harris, Peckford said: “he brings to this new position a deep understanding of his native province, an enviable record of scholarship and proven leadership qualities in the academic community.”

During his inauguration speech, President Harris spoke of the future of the institution. “I take this stand simply because no modern society can survive in a vital form without access to that capital stock of knowledge and skills which it is the university's prerogative to preserve and disseminate, its mission to expand.”

After 30 years affiliation with Memorial University, 10 of which were spent as president, his successful and inspirational career as an educator, which started at the young age of 15, came to an end. President Harris retired Aug. 31, 1990.

In addition to his responsibilities at Memorial University, Dr. Harris was a member of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council; a member of the Academic Advisory Panel of the Canada Council; director of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada; a member of the executive council of the Association of Atlantic Universities, and a member of the Corporate Higher Education Form.

After leaving the university, Dr. Harris served as member and chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, head of the Review Panel on the Northern Cod Stocks, chairman of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Complaints Commission, chairman of the Environmental Review for the Terra Nova (Offshore Oil) Project, and chairman of the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Fair.

An Officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of numerous awards, Dr. Harris was living in retirement in St. John's with his wife of more than 50 years, the former Mary Hewitt.

With files prepared by Brian Hammond

Eulogy for Dr. Leslie Harris


We all know the attributes of God: that she is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing but, as Samuel Butler once observed, “God cannot alter the past.” Butler’s observation does not stop with that negativity. He goes on to make the distinction that if God’s power is limited in this way, the power of historians is not because “historians can be useful to [God]... [so] He tolerates their existence.” This is a salutary warning to all who would judge the judges of time and in Leslie Harris you shall see its significance, and you shall see a man who altered the course of the waters.

Appropriately then, Les Harris was born on the waters of Placentia Bay in a place that is now little more than a mark on a map: St. Joseph’s, a community washed away in the great wave of resettlement. Starting out as a teacher in 1945, he served from Harbour Buffett to Port Hope Simpson and then as principal of Brinton School (now itself resettled). Following a Memorial MA, and a London PhD, he directed the Asian studies program at a number of Virginia colleges.

In 1963 he returned to Memorial and began what can only be seen as a meteoric rise through administrative ranks – confirmation upon confirmation of his abilities. Head of History in 1965, he became Dean of Arts and Science in 1967, Vice-President in 1971 and President in 1981. In the period of his time as President, a time which followed the great boom in university development, he ensured that what had been sown was brought to fruition and, in particular, that the research side of the university was greatly strengthened. Rightly proud of his role in the development of the Music School, his cultivated mind is also apparent in the quality of Memorial’s landscape in which trees and gardens now characterize a place that was for so long a brick desert. If the 1960s and 1970s at the university could be said to be a time of “bricks and mortar,” his time could be characterized as that of “wine and roses.” Taking over the university at a time when its institutional and physical attributes had been established, Leslie Harris saw that it matured in an intellectual and aesthetic manner. Many here will happily recall that among these aesthetic transformations was an improvement in the quality of wine served at university dinners, from Donini into something from le Domaine de la Romanée Conti.

A profound commitment to Newfoundland ran through all his work but is best summarized in an article he wrote eight years ago in which, speaking of the new prosperity, he counselled caution and gave advice.

“Our history,” he said, “shows us that we are survivors. But as we think of creating the New Jerusalem for our children’s children, we must be clear that mere physical survival is not enough. … [W]e must also ensure the survival of civility and of strong cultural traditions that inform a distinct identity; the survival of neighbourliness …; … of honesty, independence and hard work; and the survival of … the ability, even in the hardest of times, to see the funny side of life.” This became more apparent to me over the last couple of days while I spent a pleasant time with Les in his childhood home, in the St Joseph’s he recreated in his book, Growing Up with Verse. That book also displays his prodigious capacity to gather and retain information – a capacity most marvellously demonstrated when, much later, he was on a committee reviewing thesis proposals. One of those proposals, in geology, had an impossibly long title in Latin. Even the geologist on the committee could not effect a translation but Les could. And why? Because one summer he and his brother had studied the geology of Labrador and Les remembered it on this occasion. Now committees are a standard feature of university life but can, sometimes, interfere with more important things – the playoffs, for example. Les was, as many of you know, a bit of an armchair sports fanatic and had little tolerance for committees that dragged their business into the hour of the big game. Noting his impatience someone once had the temerity to call his bluff and ask why he was so enthusiastic when he never actually played himself. With a deep twinkle in his eye and a great roar of laughter he replied, “Because I would never want to destroy the illusion of my own perfection.”

His great learning and deep pleasure in life were allied to a particular gift with language – a gift best shown in his magisterial report on the Northern Cod. There the fisher’s son stepped back into his role as outport teacher, first listening to and learning from his pupils – fisher, fish merchant, scientist – and then proceeded to teach them this nation’s most important and most painful lesson: that they were on the verge of making the once-bounteous Banks a place of poverty. That judgement, based on his broader perspective, far broader than any former assessment, delivered on the eve of doom and in superb prose, convinced the industry, the people and the politicians, and, for the first time in four centuries we drew up our nets. Les Harris altered the course of history and that is a claim few historians can make. His pupils then were not just the nephews and nieces who came into the university and found a home with him and Mary but all the students of Memorial, and, outside, the fishers, the people and the politicians of Newfoundland. And so, Mary, today with you we pay tribute to the first of our graduates to become President of our university, to the one who made us think of our future in order that we might have one. As we launch forth your boat into the deep, Leslie Harris, we salute your words and we salute your work. Ave atque vale.

Shane O’Dea
Public Orator
Aug. 30, 2008
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