By Rev. P. W. Platt
Should you happen to mention to someone that you are from St. Joseph’s College, the question immediately comes back, “Oh, and do you know Father Pendergast.” This is precisely what happened to me some years ago, shortly after my arrival here, when I met a youngish-looking young man at a reception downtown. I answered that indeed, I did know Father Pendergast, and said he was flourishing. “Were you his student?” I went on to inquire. “No, I just met him once in the library, 20 years ago. I was new to the University, and he helped me find the book on economics I was looking for, I have never forgotten him.”
This is typical of the impression Father Pendergast has had on students and faculty and administration of the University since his coming here 24 years ago. That was when the College passed from the direction of the Christian Brothers, who had founded it, funded it and guided it at considerable sacrifice for 37 years. In 1963, Father Dore came as the new rector, and Father Russ Pendergast as bursar. St. Joe’s has not been the same since.
This year, the quarter century of the presence of the Basilian Fathers at the U of A is rounded off, and Father Pendergast becomes Professor Emeritus. He continues to vitalize, amuse, counsel and characterize St. Joe’s and many other parts of the campus. He has seen a good deal of development of the College during these years, and he himself has been responsible for most of it, even though he has never taught a course at St. Joe’s. He points out that the enlarged academic scope and influence of the College is probably the most striking thing that has taken place: from two courses in 1963 to 39 in 1987, and from 54 students in 1963 to some 1,500 in 1987.
Russ Pendergast believes that an affiliated college in a large university should be a place of learning, a place of friendship, and a place of welcome. The tradition of St. Joe’s, he says, has been such; and, though he would not be the one to say it, it is in these things that his talents and tendencies lie. . . in spades. Go down the main hall of the College almost any time, and you’ll find his door open, the desk impressively cluttered, the jelly-bean collection on the bookshelf, and the man in the red-striped shirt, with the white mane and ruddy face, pouring over the Financial Times or a PhD thesis.
Interrupt him, and his time is yours. You will perceive his love of people, his spontaneous service, a wit as colorful as it is sharp, and a keen, optimistic evaluation of life: a kind of homespun prophet, seeing things as they are, suggesting how they should be, and making you laugh even while you know you are hearing a wise man.
Dr. Russell Pendergast — though you rarely hear him referred to in this way — has been a member of the department of economics since he came to the University. He has, over the years, served on many committees and been part of many projects at the University. He has been consulted locally and nationally on matters financial. But his heart is really in the classroom, where his enthusiasm for teaching and his interest in his students remain undimmed. His talent and service in this area were suitably recognized two years ago when he received the Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.
Some years ago, a student who was in the habit of going to listen to a sample lecture of a professor before she signed up heard Father Pendergast and knew she wanted to take his course. To her dismay she found that it was full. Thinking she would try anyway, she approached him: “Dr. Pendergast, I know your course is full, but I would really like to take it. Is there any way . . .?”
“Sweetheart,” came the gracious reply, “you’ll get in this course if we have to take down the walls.” And she got in, needless to say.
The spirit and the calling of St. Joseph’s College is embodied in Father Russell Pendergast. He also personifies the meaning of affiliation: respect, richness of learning, and the making of something great.
Published Autumn 1987.