This is the saddest of weeks, perhaps the saddest of blogs. Dear colleague and friend Richard Marceau passed away in his sleep Sunday night. As many know, because Richard was so open about it, he had been diagnosed with cancer not long after he assumed his appointment as Vice President Research at Memorial in 2013. Somehow, burdened with that truth and challenged by a brutal regime of treatments, he maintained a mostly cheery, always graceful attitude to everything. There was none of that awkward self-consciousness one might feel with someone wearing such a condition. He wouldn’t have any of that. He made it so easy, so natural to talk to. Now that he is gone, a fact that will take some time to accept, his grace in the face of all he was enduring seems even more remarkable.
The university announcement about his passing rightly describes him as a gentleman, an old-fashioned word that perfectly speaks to his character. In my culture, the commonplace for such an individual is “mensch,” the German/Yiddish word for “human being.” But what gets lost in translation are the key qualities a mensch embodies: integrity and goodness. Gentleman is the closest we probably have to it in English. Gentleman evokes courtliness, respectfulness, qualities Richard also possessed in spades. Gentleman and mensch are rare descriptors. And so it is that those of us privileged to have worked so closely with him feel his loss deeply.
Richard came to Memorial after serving as Provost at UOIT where he helped transform a poly technical school into a fully-credited Ontario university. He well understood the responsibilities of the provost’s office, and our regularly scheduled one-on-one chats were always inflected with the wisdom of his experience. I relied on his insight enormously, always looking forward to our meetings. He usually came to my office with a big smile and a couple of agenda items scribbled on a piece of paper, but we regularly took swift notice of those in order to take a deeper dive into subjects that interested us both: leadership, politics, the complexity of human behaviour. I can safely say our conversations were more candid than any I have had with any other colleague. He created an almost instant trust. Confiding in him was as natural as breathing. He also spoke from time to time about how much more deeply his experience of the world had become since receiving his diagnosis. One could readily understand that for anyone with cancer, but in Richard one could really see it. Whenever asked how he was he would laugh heartily and say, “well, I’m alive, and so it’s a good day,” and you better believe he meant that.
I am sure Richard has always been fully present in whatever he was doing, he was that kind of guy, but his condition must have significantly intensified his experience of the world. In that he was a model of forbearance, not stoic so much as patient, not resigned so much as accepting, tolerant. These are qualities he brought to both his role as VP Research and to life in general. Consider how easily some like to dump on the office of research, blaming it for bureaucracy and all the sins and evils of the grant application process. Richard was well aware of all the complaining, some of it undeserving, but he was fully dedicated every single day to offering an efficient, nimble, and responsive service. He aimed high, refused to be dragged down to the dirt.
It is a bittersweet irony that Richard Marceau died following the most successful research application in Memorial’s history. The awarding of almost one hundred million federal government dollars to Dalhousie, UPEI, and our university to pursue sophisticated ocean-based projects was his crowning achievement. Just a couple of weeks ago he flew to Halifax to share in the glory of the CFREF announcement—a game-changing moment for Memorial, to be sure. That moment came to be because Richard was a proud team player, shepherding the lengthy and laboured application process with the cooperation of researchers and administrators spanning three Atlantic universities. It is more than reassuring to know he lived to see that collaboration through to its success.
A former colleague at UOIT wrote me this week, still reeling from the news that Richard is gone. “He was amazing,” he wrote. “I just spoke with him last week and he seemed so cheery and excited about all the good stuff happening at Memorial.” You bet. It’s so easy to give into negativity. It’s a form of field work for academics. But Richard’s example humbles one to take another perspective. It’s one thing to be critical; it’s another to rise above all the petty stuff and be mindful of just how fortunate we are, to treat others with kindness, to accept challenges with grace. As another colleague eloquently put it, Richard was a very fine spirit. Amen to that. We will always miss him.