Monday, June 25, 2012

With sadness

The department announces the death of Peter Burnell, whom many of you will know. The following is a tribute to Peter given by Frank Klaassen before the University Council.

I am here today to celebrate the life of my friend and colleague, Peter Burnell who died of cancer on the 7th of May, 2012.

Peter was born and raised in Cardiff, Wales. He took his BA and MA degrees at the University of Wales before coming to do a PhD in Classics at the University of Toronto in 1969. He taught at several universities in Canada and the United States before joining the Department of Classics here in 1983. He served as Department Head from 1994 until 2000. Subsequently, he moved to the Department of History where he was Full Professor until the time of his death. He was an internationally respected scholar; he wrote articles on classical literature and theology, and two books on St. Augustine, the second of which was written while he lived with cancer.

Raised on the classics from boyhood, Greek and Latin literature flowed in his veins in a way that they do for few modern intellectuals, and I never ceased to learn from him. When I asked for his assistance with translations, Peter’s suggestions were like epiphanies: unadorned yet poetic and elegant witnesses to the original texts. As a teacher, Peter was demanding, but this was wound inextricably with his charm, pointed humour, and his deep commitment to the humanistic enterprise.

In first-year Latin, Peter would routinely begin by putting a few English sentences on the board for the students to translate into Latin. One day a student raised his hand to ask a point of vocabulary: 
“Professor Burnell, what is the Latin word for “toga”?

Without hesitating Peter responded “Hmmm. What is the French for “Je ne sais pas?” He then went on to explain kindly that the Latin word for “toga” is “toga.”

Peter was a true intellectual and humanist. He had an insatiable, wide-ranging curiosity and a great moral passion. One colleague quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald in reference to him: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” The coincidence of many sorts of opposites were somehow resolved in Peter’s mind. He was at once a devout Catholic dismayed by modern innovation (by which Peter sometimes meant medieval ones) and a great interpreter and student of St. Augustine. At the same time, he was profoundly engaged by popular culture. He valued truth wherever he found it, whether in The City of God, or David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Virgil’s poetry or South Park. 

And it was with infectious delight that he would leap from the miles gloriosus of classical literature to Flash of the Black Adder television series. Another colleague remarked that at times Peter reminded him of Woodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, not for the latters silliness or inanities, but rather for his boyish innocence: “his utterly charming enthusiasm for, and delight in, things.”

Peter’s many friends were his family, and in those relationships he also embraced remarkable differences. Among the closest of these were those with whom he fundamentally, sometimes tumultuously disagreed on the most basic issues, whether intellectual or professional.  This speaks to his honesty, his intellectual passion and depth of conviction every bit as much as it speaks to his essential courtesy and civility, his fundamental good will, and ultimately, his capacity for love. These and friendship were, for Peter, inseparably wound up with the life of the mind. 
I ask you to join me in a moment of silence to remember and celebrate the life of Professor Peter Burnell.

(Substantial portions of this were drawn from the suggestions of John Porter and Bill Bartley.)