April 4th, 2014
This week I was going to write about other things, but I am sadly distracted today by the passing of a colleague, Dr. Priscilla Renouf. Priscilla had been struggling with cancer for a number of years, a nightmare she faced with her typical good humour and almost casual acceptance. We were all hoping for a miracle. Life is short, though, and for her it was much shorter than it ought to have been.
In the coming days and weeks many people will be paying tribute to her remarkable achievements in research and scholarship, among many other strengths of personality. Priscilla had earned just about every honour and distinction one could possibly achieve in this country and beyond. She was a model and inspiration for so many of us, especially as an uncomplaining female academic who just got on with the job and never seemed to take the daily grind of duties and responsibilities too seriously. Her passion was her work as an archeologist and she dedicated much of her remarkable career to the people, history, and culture of the communities of Port aux Choix in northwestern Newfoundland. Her work opened us up to understanding settlement patterns in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and helped shape an entirely new way of narrating the history of North America, let alone this island. She steered legions of students, as in the picture above, through the necessary paces of excavation and reconstruction of long-buried societies, an example of the finest kind of academic leadership.
I am confident that some, if not many, of the people she trained will continue the work she started.
In the School of Graduate Studies we have long been well aware of how successful her graduate students have been, so well mentored and coached. I think every single one of her students who applied for major scholarships and awards got them. Their résumés were always well supported by Priscilla’s research projects and they had clearly risen to meet her high expectations. One of these whom I know rather well used to joke about the sheer impossibility of matching Priscilla’s standards, always observed with affection and admiration.
I wonder whether working as an archeologist gave Priscilla a deeper appreciation for the ephemeral nature of life. Perhaps that’s what informed the utterly open way she talked about her illness and why she persisted as much as she could with finding joy in everything. A measure of such appreciation is finding delight in the everyday and, in particular, in good wine and good food. I am always suspicious of those who do not. Hours spent recovering the shards and fragments of past societies, the objects of everyday life, are bound to give one a more philosophical perspective on history, time, and the meaning we make of things. Hamlet’s iconic address to the skull of fondly remembered court jester Yorick pretty well sums up the archeologist’s appreciation of the fragility of life.
It’s a sad time, to be sure, but also an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of someone who made such a remarkable difference in so short a time. I imagine a Memorial scholarship will eventually be set up in Priscilla’s name and I, for one, will be quick to sign up.