Stanley Frost, affectionately known as the Bard of McGill, was a diminutive academic, a gregarious clergyman, a historian and a part-time poet who shaped McGill University’s library system during a turbulent decade of student unrest. He was also the author of a dozen books, including a biography of the university’s founder.
“He was multifaceted, very mischievous and self-deprecating. But when he was wearing his university hats he had a clear vision of what needed to be done and went ahead and did it,” said former McGill chancellor Richard Pound. “The student riots and unrest of the 1970s didn’t faze him at all. He wasn’t one to be intimidated by a bullhorn.”
Dr. Frost lived for a century and died in Montreal on July 25. His wife, Margaret, died in 1997 and his son, David, in 2005. He leaves his daughter, Valerie, and two grandchildren.
In 1975, Dr. Frost became founding director of the McGill history project, devised to make the university’s long history “as well known and accessible as possible to a changing world.” He wrote biographies of James McGill, whose bequest helped found the institution in 1821, and of F. Cyril James, McGill’s principal between 1939 and 1962, as well as the tome McGill University: For the Advancement of Learning.
“Almost single-handedly, Frost turned the study of McGill’s history from an antiquarian pursuit to an academic specialty,” said Peter McNally, who succeeded Dr. Frost as director of the History of McGill Project.
“Most academics excel at one or maybe two aspects of university life – teaching, research and administration. Stanley was one of that small band who excelled at all three. He was shrewd and competent with a reputation for being a tough negotiator, able to make difficult decisions,” Prof. McNally said.
“Although some observers described Stanley as having the qualities of a Renaissance prelate, I would describe him simply as being a good man. He was an optimist, cheerful and friendly, who was entirely supportive and loyal.”
The fifth of six siblings in a shoe repairman’s family, Stanley Brice Frost was born in London, England, on Feb. 17, 1913. He was raised in modest circumstances in the central part of the city. His father was a devout evangelical Christian who worked as a lay superintendent at a homeless shelter.
Young Stanley attended Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham school, where he won a scholarship to Richmond College. He earned his bachelor of divinity degree in 1936, then went to Germany and sharpened his intellect at Marburg University, where he earned his PhD. From that privileged vantage point he watched Hitler’s rise to power.
In 1939, just before the start of the Second World War, he married Margaret Bradshaw, a secretary whom he had met 11 years earlier when he was 15 during a vacation on the Isle of Wight. It was love at first sight. The couple had been engaged for years, but were unable to marry because Methodist ministers in training were prohibited from doing so.
Dr. Frost was ordained in 1939 and for the first 10 years of his ministry held pastorates in London and Stoke-on-Trent, England. He was also an air raid warden during the war. For seven years he was Rowbotham Chair of Old Testament Studies at Didsbury College, Bristol, before coming to Canada in 1956 to accept an appointment as professor of Old Testament studies at McGill.
He later became dean of the faculty of divinity, dean of graduate studies and research, then vice-principal of administration and professional faculties. On three occasions he was also an interim minister at Wesley United Church in Montreal.
“He was very disciplined, very work oriented. The theme of public service ran through all of my father’s endeavours,” said his daughter, Valerie, “whether it was at McGill, Wesley or the Manoir Westmount [senior’s residence] where he lived after he retired.
“At Wesley he not only assisted with the ministerial duties, he drove the elderly and the infirm to church. At the Manoir he assisted with the ecumenical devotions for those unable to get to church, and while he could still drive, took residents out shopping. He certainly liked to be a mover and a shaker, but his goal was always the common good, not personal gain.”
Dr. Frost wrote several religious texts, including Old Testament Apocalyptic: Its Origins and Growth, and published an anthology of his poems, Autumn Harvest, described by one literary critic as “a throwback to Georgian poetry.”
Rev. Ralph Watson, a long-time friend and former executive secretary of the Montreal Presbytery of the United Church, said Dr. Frost brought a religious quality to whatever academic position he held.
“He always had his plans well laid out – he was a smooth operator. If he ever ran into any opposition to his bright ideas he would say, ‘We’ll think about this matter again,’ and then do exactly what he intended to do.”
Rev. Watson said Dr. Frost was an articulate, warm and generous preacher who managed to say a lot in a short sermon. “We were fortunate to have him. His sermons weren’t too long. He could get a point across in 10 minutes when it would take others a half an hour to say the same thing.”
At his funeral, Dr. Frost’s daughter read one of his poems, which could be both his creed and his epitaph.
“It is obviously better to die believing mistakenly that life will continue and never know that you were wrong; than to die believing mistakenly that death ends all, and have all eternity to know what a fool you were.”