By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
Nothing reminds me more acutely of my mortality than the death of my friends and peers. It has been a demanding year with so many such deaths.
The most recent, and disturbingly unexpected, was the death of Michael Danby-Smith, a friend for 5 decades whose kindness and intellectual curiosity were inspiring human marvels.
I met Michael while I was an undergraduate at St. Francis Xavier University in the 1960s. At the time, he was a junior lecturer having done graduate work at McMaster and he was full of enthusiasm. He was only a few years older than his students and he understood us well. He was an exotic dude, really, having only been in Canada for a short time—he was a Dubliner with a University College Dublin degree—and his accent was a mystery to solve. AND. His sister was married at the time to Ernest Hemingway’s son and Michael owned a signed copy of The Old Man and the Sea, which he proudly displayed at choice moments.
We both left for graduate studies at the same time—he went to U of T for a philosophy of law doctorate and I went to York for an English literature doctorate—and being in the same city allowed for many an occasion for revelry and deep thinking. Possible to do both, I discovered.
Our paths eventually parted as I married, took up positions at St. Michael’s and then St. Jerome’s, and he moved on to Vanier College in Montreal where he would live out his teaching career. But we retained regular contact via Christmas cards, which he wrote in his crabbed penmanship chronicling as best he could the highlights of the year, leaving ample room to inquire about his correspondent.
He was like that; the other always mattered to him; his friends were a treasure he never took for granted.
We would connect in person whenever I was in Montreal and in the last decade or so we had special fun adding Gregory Baum to our dinner gatherings. Gregory, the eminent ecumenical theologian, sociologist of religion, Second Vatican Council peritus and McGill University Emeritus, had moved into the same apartment building as Michael and they became fast friends. I had known Gregory for years prior but this new arrangement provided additional energy, intellectual vivacity, and great good humour.
Gregory died in his 90s and now Michael in his 70s. I am the remnant. But greatly enriched by knowing them both.
They were a model for me personally demonstrating what a meaningful life as a Catholic intellectual and scholar entails.
For sure the coming Christmas festivities will be diminished. There will be one less Christmas card.