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Vol 37  No 15
June 9, 2005


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Oration honouring Dr. David Pitt

I seek your indulgence for a generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians raised on www.com and blogspot.ca, apprenticed by Donald Trump, believing the great Aviator was Howard Hughes, not Charles Lindbergh, that the great communicator is Oprah, not Marconi, that the goddesses of myth are Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie. Who can blame today’s graduates for thinking when they heard Memorial University was giving a degree to a man named Pitt, they would see the closely shaved, heavily muscled Greek hero, Achilles, otherwise known as Brad, not the hirsute, dignified professor named Dave.

Let me reassure you, Mr. Chancellor, that the Senate of this University was not seduced by any promise of post-nuptial millions. It places a higher value on scholarship, service to the university and humanitarian principles than on the profession even Brad Pitt describes thus: When you whittle everything away, I’m a grown man who puts on make-up. So, today, we honour a man named Dave Pitt whose magisterial biography of a cultural icon of Newfoundland and Canada ­ Edwin John Pratt ­ has ensured the immortality of the artist and university scholar in the pantheon of real, not legendary or virtual, heroes.

Long ago, in this place of his “first affections,” Dave began his epic quest for learning. Like the poet William Wordsworth, Dave found in nature and language the “fountain light,” the “master light” of all his seeing, yet this mischievous outport boy, son of an itinerant Methodist minister, was not without his rebellious streak. He used his power with words not to pen solemn sermons, but to write shocking parodies of serious Victorian hymns. He tried to resist the “shades of the prison-house,” “closing in on the growing boy” and once blocked up the chimney of his two-room school to ensure an afternoon’s holiday. Fortunately, these early proclivities for truancy and arson were countered by the more exciting and exhilarating environment of Memorial University College, where Dave excelled. Armed with scholarships, Dave went “Westward” to “a strange land,” “far from home” to study at the University of Toronto. The other Pitt, paid for his Westward quest by driving strippers to night clubs, by posing for his college calendar; Dave won fame exposing his intellectual gifts. His final essay is still preserved in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

Dave blazed the trail, followed by so many of Memorial’s graduates who have had the advantage of an education here. Unlike many, he resisted the lure of a more lucrative academic appointment elsewhere and chose to return to his alma mater, to contribute to its growth and development. Like the poet whose imagination is grounded in place, though Dave had been far inland, his

Soul had sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither
and he longed to
Hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

At Memorial, Dave conveyed his love of learning and literature to generations of students, always drawing out excellence in them, always preserving high standards, always wary of the vagaries of fashion in course design, always interested in his students’ progress in all ranks of life and never leaving class before the hour was up. As head of the Department of English Language and Literature from 1970-1982, he continued the work of his visionary predecessor, Dr. Ron Seary, in supporting George Story, Bill Kirwin and John Widdowson in producing the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, and in saying “You’re hired,” to a number of new apprentices from the best academic institutions in the world. Dave relished his work as head, drawing inspiration from the Romantic poets, he could Look through and through in pleasant spleen,
At the broad follies of the licensed world.

He had the advantage of a perfect partner, his wife Marion Woolfrey Pitt, herself an English professor and mentor to a new generation of colleagues combining careers, marriage and motherhood, and the affection of a loving and talented family, all schooled at Memorial.

Of course, the words on his bumper sticker, a gift from his daughter-in-law, Janet, were also an inspiration.

We will get along fine
As soon as you realize I am God

Yet through all the “fretful stir” and “fever of the world” of administration, Dave longed to devote himself to scholarship and never lost sight of the “glory and the freshness of the dream,” or of Wordsworth’s injunction:

Thou whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy soul’s immensity;
Thou best philosopher who yet dost keep
Thy heritage.

So, on his retirement as head, Dave kept his heritage and his dream with the publication of E.J. Pratt: The Truant Years (1984) and E.J. Pratt: The Master Years (1987). This work of meticulous scholarship and engaging, often lyrical prose, praised by Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood has preserved the name of one of Newfoundland’s cultural heroes. The media guru, Marshall McLuhan, called E.J. Pratt the “one-man creator of a climate of letters in Canada,” and, though McLuhan is all but forgotten, E.J. Pratt lives on in David Pitt’s portrait of a Newfoundlander shaped, but not confined, by this province, a man who became the presiding genius of the early literary world of Canada, a man who believed that the true heroes of civilization are the

Wordsmiths, the word-bringers,the word-wielders
and that the
form which culture must take, before it is either garden in the
wilderness, or a city which cannot be hid, is a state of mind and imagination.

Mr. Chancellor, these resonant words belong to David Pitt, reared in the old outports of Newfoundland, those visible signifiers of the power of the human mind and imagination over nature, where people knew instinctively that the better part of what makes us human is our social interactions and our irrational desires, that only the poets record.

In the old outports, the teller of tales, the maker of verses was honoured during the festive times that lightened the darkness after the storms that placed the

sculpture of granite seams
upon a woman’s face

So in this contemporary, festive community, I ask you, Mr. Chancellor, to be so bold as to rewrite the gospel of St. Matthew, who said

a man is not without honour, save
in his own country, in his own home.

In your new designation, Mr. Chancellor, as St. John, I ask you to confer on this native son, this “word-bringer” and “word-wielder,” David George Pitt, the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa.

Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy public orator

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