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Carleton University professor David Farr.
Carleton University professor David Farr.

Lives Lived

Lives Lived: David Farr, 93 Add to ...

Historian, teacher, family man, gentleman. Born on Dec. 19, 1922, in Vancouver; died on Oct. 3, 2016, in Ottawa, of vascular dementia, aged 93.

There was something quintessentially old-fashioned about Professor David Farr, as if he had emerged from a novel by Kingsley Amis or Stephen Leacock. Clad in tweed jacket, shirt and tie, he puffed on his pipe and answered the phone with a brisk “Farr here.” Some misread him as an echo of a bygone academic culture. He had, after all, done a doctorate at Oxford on the British Colonial Office, hardly the stuff of trendy, modern historiography. But beneath this veneer lay an intellectual integrity and meticulousness that typified Canada’s postwar universities.

David possessed unbounded curiosity. As a student at the University of British Columbia, he found summer employment in the remote cannery town of Bella Coola. Each evening, he wandered into a camp of Chinese workers, intrigued by the fragrances emanating from their kitchens. A wartime stint at sea was followed by a master’s degree at the University of Toronto. As veterans swelled enrolment, universities sought young professors to meet the demand. David got his call from Dalhousie University. There, he witnessed the notorious VE Day riots; drunken sailors torched the street car he awaited on Spring Garden Road.

Marriage to Joan Villiers-Fisher in 1946 gave David the other sustaining passion of his life – 70 fulfilling years together and three sons, Chris, Tim and Jeremy. Intellectually, David became fascinated by the mechanics of Canada’s birth as a country. His 1952 Oxford doctorate fit neatly into historians’ then-transcendent theme of Canada’s emergence from “colony to nation.”

In 1947, he joined the history department at Ottawa’s fledgling Carleton College. He remained there for 40 years, becoming dean of arts in the yeasty 1960s, when Canadian universities burgeoned. He expanded his academic scope to a broader international involvement, advising universities in Kenya and Sri Lanka and assisting Carleton’s emergence as a centre of international affairs.

Formal retirement in 1987 hardly slowed him. He wrote a history of his Anglican church in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood. He chronicled Canadian affairs in publications such as The World Book (and contributed Lives Lived tributes to The Globe, honouring departed colleagues). In the 1990s, he oversaw a project commissioned by Parliament to reconstitute the early post-Confederation debates of the Commons and Senate. Until 1875, Canada neglected to record these debates in Hansard style. David and other scholars painstakingly recaptured these debates from newspapers and archives, making them available online.

Curiosity never killed the cat in David. An insatiable reader, museum-goer, traveller and lecture attendee, his interrogations pushed speakers and guides to the limit of their knowledge. Plagued by macular degeneration, he turned to talking books to stay abreast of the latest biographies. His wanderlust also persisted. In 2011, he visited the Hudson’s Bay Co. fur trading post at Moose Factory on James Bay. Denied a vivid impression of the fort by his failing eyes and ears, he simply delved into a lifetime of stored knowledge to bring the experience alive.

David held onto life tenaciously. His last year was a torment of dementia. Undoubtedly, St. Peter was confronted by a man eager to get on with his new existence: “Farr here.”

Duncan McDowall is a friend and colleague of David’s.

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