University of Toronto English Prof Fred T. Flahiff: Student of McLuhan & Biographer of Sheila Watson

28Sep17

Professor Fred T. Flahiff (1933 – 2017)

“What a world, what a world,” was Fred’s refrain, sounding something like a honeyed mantra: What sweet sounds he takes with him.

He was Professor Flahiff to me when we met during my first year of PhD studies at the University of Toronto when he was acting chair of the English Department, and my “Jane Austen and the Brontes” instructor.

He would become Fred the night his friend, and mine, Professor Leslie Sanders and I burst in on him – surprising the dearly modest man in his pyjamas and robe, and he would remain close to my heart for almost 30 years, and still.

Fred meant a great deal, if not the world, to so many of his students. At the beginning of each year, and this is unheard of, he held a personal meeting with everyone. He was an exceptionally dedicated professor.

While considering the somewhat Eliotic Dr. F.T. Flahiff, it occurs to me that a great professor does not teach you information, but how to think – about the information at hand; about everything.

Fred called his students “Miss” and “Mister”; He never taught without a suit and tie. He was nonplussed by students who wore hats indoors; he had a large laugh and a love of the absurd.

When asked how to write an exam, he said, “Astonish me.”

“I feel like a little bird sometimes,” he told me, of lecturing, “singing on a branch.” When I became a professor, I understood him: how much of what we say is just ambient noise; how much, in his case, was as clear and lovely as, to cite Shelley’s praise of the skylark, “a star of Heaven.”

There is much to say about Fred: about his crush on the city of Rome and the actress Angela Lansbury, his piety, and vast, protean mind; about his collection of signed movie-star glossies, including, which amused him to no end, Claudette Colbert in The Egg and I; about his cherished Jack Shadbolt illustration of novelist Sheila Watson.

His cooking was terrible and endearing (macaroni with onion quarters and corn) and he had an acute love of cinema – a few years ago, he gave a Trampoline Hall lecture about his strange and persuasive respect for The Godfather: Part III.

He loved opera, Stanley Kubrick, writer Sheila Watson, his niece Theresa and near-son, Matthew Bronson, who lived in the flat below him.

Fred grew up in Vancouver, with his adored parents and two brothers – the rough, broad-voweled accent of this city popped up occasionally in his lofty, lovely voice.

He moved to Toronto in the 1950s, where he completed his graduate work at, and was hired by, the University of Toronto.

He never married; he had no children, except the hundreds and hundreds of students who moved in and out of his life; who loved him, truly. The bookshelf in his dining room-slash-office was covered with tacked-up photographs of former students’ children, often sitting with a beaming Fred.

Fred’s thesis, its defence presided over by a harried Marshall McLuhan, having rushed back from shooting Annie Hall, had to do with place. Place, as he perceived it in Shakespeare and Milton, those great writers of artistic blueprints, wherein one’s location and identity is fixed and central in the former, and moveable, fluid in the latter: “All places thou.”

I learned about Austen and Brontë this way, and I learned about humanity, through the notion of who we are and what we value; and through other of his piercing insights – “The world will come to you,” he assured me, in my youth, and it did.

He radiated that life is strange and beautiful: One would leave his small, gorgeous orbit, feeling invested in the possible.

Lynn Crosbie is one of Professor Flahiff’s former students. (Source: https://goo.gl/J4aAFU)

Sheila & Wilfred Watson with Marshall McLuhan

F.T. Flahiff first met the renowned Canadian author Sheila Watson when they were both graduate students in Marshall McLuhan’s graduate seminar at the University of Toronto. The two formed a connection that, 40 years later, compelled Watson to entrust her biography to FlahiffAlways Someone to Kill the Doves: A Life of Sheila Watson was released in 2005. (Source: https://goo.gl/GmVKyt )

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