By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
I am not an obituarist by training. I just fell into writing them—obituaries, I mean. It started while visiting the celebrated papal biographer Peter Hebblethwaite in his Oxford digs when he got a note from an editor at The Guardian commissioning him to write—pronto, as it were—an obit for Paul-Emile Cardinal Leger. He was pressed by other datelines so he gave it to me to do: within the hour, minimum prep, unalterable word length. It was a baptism by fire. And since that date—a good several decades now—I have written a score of obituaries, homages, eulogies, etc. at the request of The Globe and Mail and The Tablet of London.
But when you know your subject personally and for a long time the content is tinged with affection and nostalgia and is a locus for personal memories.
Such is the case now on the occasion of the recent death of Ross Labrie, a professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia, a respected English literature scholar with an estimable publication record, an admired, even loved, teacher and mentor for a platoon of students and colleagues, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He was a friend of St. Mark’s, attended Mass periodically in the chapel/parish, served as President of the Newman Association, and remained a voice of reason and fidelity in the Catholic community of Vancouver.
I first met Ross in 1978 during the International Thomas Merton Conference being held on the UBC and VST campuses, a fecund moment in terms of scholarship and media coverage. A book—Thomas Merton: Pilgrim in Process and a CBC Ideas series—Thomas Merton: Extraordinary Man—as well as a Man Alive documentary, came out of the three-day symposium and Ross was in all of them: articulate, focussed, and hospitable.
For many years he was President of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, active in the International Thomas Merton Society, and a regular contributor to both the Merton Seasonal (a hefty newsletter) and the Merton Annual (a peer-review journal). And he could be counted on to contribute in every way. A collegial man, a community man, a man of faith and with integrity to burn.
When I informed Bernie Lucht, the former Executive Producer of Ideas, who has a deep and abiding interest in Merton, that Ross had died he commented on what a sweet gentle man he was and how he combined that with a searching intellect intolerant of shoddiness.
In my view, and I knew him as a fellow Merton scholar and as a friend, he is an appealing example of what we mean when we talk about the witness of a Catholic intellectual.