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In Memoriam
Donald Ewing Cameron

Of the hosts of friends in all walks of life who think of the passing of D. E. Cameron with a keen sense of personal loss, many are readers of The New Trail. Most of these will have their own vivid and pleasant memories of our late librarian. Before saying something about mine, let me give a few salient facts about his career.

He was a son of the country school-house, the Scottish country school-house, which has had a notable reputation in its own land for producing more than its share of the 'lads o'pairts.’ One of a family of men and women who achieved distinction in various fields, he himself had a brilliant university career. In the University of Edinburgh, he was medalist for his year in Mathematics — a special flair for this subject appears to have run in his family. But he was the all-round type of student who stands out from the average in any class he enters. In his case, this early versatility was not what it usually is, a passing thing. It stayed with him and matured at last into a special kind of scholarship, of which I shall have more to say presently.

On completing his Arts career, he commenced his course in Theology at New College, Edinburgh. It was pretty generally accepted that one member of a family of scholars should go into the Ministry. A distinguished career in the Theological College was followed by a period at Gottingen University in Germany. Thence he returned to England to commence his pastoral work. He had two heavy city charges, first in London and then in Manchester. It became clear that this sort of environment (coupled no doubt with his own propensity for going two miles instead of the dutiful one) was undermining his health. Muggy Manchester, in particular, must have been all wrong. A change to a dry and bracing climate was imperative, and he came to Western Canada to a charge at Cardston in the south of the Province. It is altogether characteristic of the man that his few years in that region not only resulted in lasting friendships but left his mind stocked with a wealth of memories and anecdotes revolving around its many colorful characters, some of them already half-legendary He was never more entertaining than when drawing on this fund.

The next phase came with the outbreak of war in 1914. He crossed the seas again, this time as an army chaplain. I wish I had written down some of his reminiscences of this period, especially the details of that story of how he handled the defence of a young officer whom he knew to be a thoroughly decent fellow at bottom but who had an obviously hopeless case against a charge which might result in his being cashiered. By dint of a meticulous and painstaking investigation (guided by Cameron ingenuity) the 'prisoner's friend' discovered a technical irregularity which caused the charge to be dropped; he got the man off to everybody's immense relief.

It was at this time that he made the acquaintance of Dr. H. M. Tory, the first President of the University. The position of librarian had just become vacant and Dr. Tory invited Mr. Cameron to accept it.

I first met the man on the day following my arrival in Edmonton to join the staff of the Department of Philosophy. That is exactly a quarter of a century ago, and for me it was the beginning of a friendship without which my life would have been very appreciably poorer. Time, which can stale most things, worked the other way in this, for it brought an ever deepening appreciation of his rare qualities of mind and character.

There was his scholarship. As Dr. R. K. Gordon put it in another connection: 'Mr. Cameron was a scholar but of an unusual kind. He ignored the usual boundaries between this and that field of knowledge. He was no narrow specialist or expert. His mind was searching and curious and, above all, humane.' His scholarship had indeed qualities which in their combination are rare enough to be almost paradoxical. It was remarkably many-sided but without a touch of dilettantism. It was thorough and profound but without the least flavor of pedantry. And its resources could be mobilized for the purpose in hand with amazing facility and effectiveness. He himself refused to see any merit in what he attributed to a gift of sheer memory — my fly-paper kind of memory — he called it. The truth is that it was a clear case of the kind of memory that is a function of superior mental capacity.

I have often thought that he would have been on acquisition to the teaching staff of any university in the English-speaking world. On the other hand, if he had set himself to write for publication, with his power of summoning whatever he needed from the 'vast deep’ of his scholarship, his instinct for humanising his learning without cheapening it and, to cap it all, his command of a style which gave distinction to whatever he wrote (he could make one limpid sentence do the work of a paragraph), I have no doubt that he could have made a lasting contribution to the literature of the English Essay.

He chose the other way, the way of direct personal influence. That influence has left its mark in many places. Among his academic colleagues, I imagine there are very few who are not in his debt for fresh stimulus and direction, often in the field of their own specialization. I would drop casually into his office and just as casually he would show me a sentence in which old Montagne had stated the essential principle of Freudian therapeutics or de Quincey had formulated the basic concept of Gestalt psychology. And so it went on.

His personal influence on students was especially noteworthy — he was proverbially 'the students's friend.’ I have often found myself wondering how many of our students, in looking back over it all, have felt that the best part of their education came from their occasional contacts with the Librarian. Lest anyone take such a statement to be just pardonable exaggeration, I quote from a letter to the ex-editor of The New Trail, which was shown to me just after I had written that very statement: This sudden recall to alumni consciousness [the writer is forwarding the annual dues] has been prompted by the news of the death of D. E. Cameron. I am deeply grieved. I knew Mr. Cameron for only a few days at the close of my four years at the University of Alberta, but the short contact has left on me a lifelong impression. Anyone who has known the man will know what I mean. My only regret is that I did not know him longer. I attribute this omission in my education to the fact that, as an Engineering student, I made no contact with him. But I am now thankful for the circumstance of being Senior Class President, which brought me to him. Little did I realize that the little time and effort required of said position would be so extravagantly rewarded.’ If more is needed, let the reader turn to the literary vignette from the pen of an artist (Gwen Pharis Ringwood) which the editor tells me was 'unsolicited’ but for which (being all the better for coming in that way) I hope he finds space in this issue. It is surely fitting that Cameron's last service to the University should be in the capacity of adviser to students returning from the armed services; and we know how he threw himself, heart, head, and hand, into that.

Hardly less remarkable was his influence on the general public. As Dr. Gordon put it in the tribute already mentioned: never had a university a better 'spokesman’ — one would have said 'advertisement’ except that he would have abhorred the word. With the business man, the professional man, the farmer, the homesteader in his shack, he was equally well met. I have observed him often in these relationships, especially in the last. If Dr. E. A. Corbett reads these lines, he will, like me, find clearly etched on his memory the picture of many a perfect day of hunting in the Alberta woods, the Alberta October at its glorious best, dropping in at this 'place’ and that, extricating Cameron from cronies who would not let him go, ending perhaps with a harvest-home supper in the little community hall and, at some point in the proceedings, the inevitable 'few words’ from Mr. Cameron, punctuated (but not at all interrupted) by someone going outside to walk a vociferous infant around or, it might be, to stop a general war which had broken out among the dogs. Cameron knew all these people, including their children, by name. One of them said to me once, when I remarked how they all seemed to enjoy Mr. Cameron's visit, that he 'lived for it.’

He was widely in demand as a public speaker. How many a club secretary has got himself out of a jam by a last-minute appeal to the Librarian! While he could give a most effective address on short notice – so short as to make the thing practically extempore — when asked to prepare a formal paper, he set a very high standard on himself. It would always be a finished thing, based on an exhaustive investigation of relevant sources and could easily have been expanded into a learned brochure. The resources of wit and humour were delight-fully at his command and they were used not so much for themselves as to make important observations stick in the mind. In repartee, he could be neatly squelching, and yet without hurt. To give a single sample: once, when he had given a talk on a Biblical subject (he was a Bible scholar of the first rank), one of the audience stood up and asked whether it was not the case that a vessel built according to the specifications given for Noah's ark would not float at all — to be suavely assured that 'the ark floated very well indeed on those legendary waters for which it was built!’

He had that quality of detachment which some philosophers have considered the most characteristic trait of the cultivated mind. It had no doubt much to do with the calmness of mood and manner which was habitual with him. But he could be roused to anger and, when so stirred, his denunciation was forthright and fearless and could be scathing. But it was always some concrete instance of wrong or injustice which galled his soul. The red-hot abstractions left him cold. I think he saw in them a reincarnation of the spirit of old bigotries which made for suppression of free and reasonable discussion; and his weight was always thrown in the scales of the side of tolerance.

He was quite unworldly in the sense of having little concern for his own material interests. Indeed, as I always thought and sometimes told him, he had that quality to a fault. He was of the kind who never would lay up treasures on earth. But he assuredly laid up a goodly treasure of fragrant memories in the hearts of his friends and there it will remain and be fondly hoarded until they, too, in their time, come to journey's end.

A few years ago, the University lost by death another distinguished member of its faculty. Not long before his death, this gentleman dropped into Mr. Cameron's office where I, too, happened to be. He had just come out of hospital and looked very shaky. When we asked him how he felt, he replied that there was nothing to bother about now except his epitaph. 'I have one all ready for you,’ said Cameron, entering into the spirit of this stoicism. 'Here lies a man who never allowed his mind to lie down on the job.' The professor was obviously pleased as well as amused by this formula, which, by the way, was an absolutely exact characterisation. If I were asked to suggest an epitaph for D.E. himself (to use the old familiar sobriquet), I think I know where I would find it. I would turn to that noble line of the Latin dramatist Terence and adapt it to make it read:

Homo fuit; nil humani a se alienum putavit.

–John MacDonald


For D.E. Cameron

They say you are lost to us, but we know that isn't true. Your presence is felt in every corner of the campus you helped to build. You are there, for all of us who knew you, standing on the library steps, stoop-shouldered, in your brown buffalo coat, a pipe in your mouth, your face a mingling of kindliness and irony and a kind of pondering detachment. You rich Scotch voice has brought us out of our ivory towers and taught us to think in terms of individual responsibility. Again that same voice has cut through our preoccupation with 'getting on’ and directed us towards the stars. You knew more about life than most men, cared more about it. You knew that a thousand small things and a few great events fuse to shape our lives. You knew that education is of no value unless it kindles an excitement in the mind, a zest for learning, a delight in knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. You told us that no man can count himself worthy of a degree, unless he has learned to think for himself.

There seemed to be more simplicity in you than in most men. You never talked down to people. Out of your own rich appreciation of books and people, of little oddities of human thought and behavior, out of a deep, chuckling spring of humour, and a quiet affection for your fellows, you gave counsel to all of us who asked for it, and there were many — counsel and when needed, practical help. Yet you never allowed us to feel that we were in your debt. You did make us aware of a debt to our communities, our country and humanity.

You sent us to some books for facts. (They say you never forgot a book that had passed through your hands.) You sent us to other books for light along the track of human thought. You sent us out to look for jobs, knowing us to be callow and untried or filled with self-importance, but you bolstered us with your faith in what we might achieve. You shared with us the comedy that came your way, taught us not to ignore the comedy that came ours. You gave us a sense of some inner strength to be derived from homes where people, not things, are what matter.

There will be many winter evenings when, between four and five o'clock, some of us who knew you will walk in the blue dusk across the snow-covered covered campus. For us you will be there too, standing at the East door of the Arts Building, smoking your pipe, looking on the world with compassion and affection and delight. While we who knew you live, you can never be lost to us.

–Gwen Pharis Ringwood

Published January 1947.

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