Slide a garland across his crown, fluff up his hair a bit and stare boldly into his bold blue eyes. You’d swear Ross Kilpatrick was a Roman lyric poet circa 30 BC, but then there was the 21st-century smile and maybe a coffee in his hand.
As a classics scholar at Queen’s University and former department head, Kilpatrick’s research stretched wide. It included investigating the Mona Lisa smile, solving the Dionysian riddle in Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, and claiming that A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh originated in a story by New Brunswick nature writer Charles G.D. Roberts in 1912.
Although Kilpatrick’s greatest loves were poets Vergil, Ovid and Horace, Renaissance painters such as da Vinci, Botticelli and Titian caught his interest late in his career.
But his first research in the world of art was a study of 20th-century Japanese artist Yoshio Markino. Kilpatrick visited London to discover where the painter lodged for a time, and the cemetery where he had been employed, carving angels.
Kilpatrick’s Yoshio Markino in Italia: The Travels of a Samurai Artist was published in 1999.
He was a member of the Canadian Philhellenic Society, the Vergilian Society of America, the Societa Dante Alighieri and past president of the Humanities Association of Canada. He spoke French, German, Italian, Greek and Latin.
“Ross Kilpatrick was a kind of art historian manqué,” said colleague David McTavish. “He used his very detailed knowledge of the classical authors, especially the Latin authors, to enrich the interpretation of many Renaissance paintings.”
Dinner table chatter in the Kilpatrick home could mean discussing Greek mythology, the Latin roots of words, the meaning of Bible passages or reciting Horace.
“Ross was interested in politics, religion, sports, history, economics, art, the military and language in all its forms and derivations,” said his wife, Suzanne. “He was a great person to have on your Trivial Pursuit team.”
Kilpatrick nosed out this bit of Canadian cultural trivia on Winnie-the-Pooh while head of Queen’s Classics Department:
In Babes in the Woods, Sir Roberts describes a mischievous cub hankering after honey and being assaulted by angry bees. Roberts’ bee-whipped bear waddles over to a nook between the roots of the tree, curls up his nose between his sticky paws, and sleeps.
Kilpatrick died in Kingston from viral cardiomyopathy on Feb. 24 at the age of 77.
He was born in 1934 in Toronto, the youngest of three children, to John Stuart and Ellen May Kilpatrick. His father drove a streetcar and never owned a car. Ross’s intelligence showed itself early: He taught himself to play the piano by ear, following his mother’s example. He soon added the French horn, ukulele and recorder to his list of instruments.
After finishing his homework he’d wolf down a few of his mother’s butter tarts and slip out into the street with the other kids to play cops and robbers, war games or sports.
Edgar Murdock, one of his boyhood buddies, remembered him as an inspiring autodidact of the playground. Over the years they grew apart into their separate lives and careers, but Murdock never forgot him.
“I probably passed by Kingston many times in my semi as a long-haul trucker en route from California to Montreal,” he recently wrote to the family. “We might have spent a few minutes together, but the destination always called. I hugely regret that oversight now.”
After graduating from Toronto’s Malvern Collegiate in 1953, Kilpatrick completed his BA in Latin and English at the University of Toronto. While directing Finian’s Rainbow at the university, he met Suzanne Mitchell, who auditioned for a part.
He turned her down for the role but offered her the next 51 years of his life The couple married in the Trinity College chapel on campus in 1960.
Kilpatrick put himself through school working as a sub-lieutenant in the naval reserve. Shortly after graduation he accepted his first academic position, teaching classics and English at East York Collegiate in Toronto.
In 1964, with a masters of Latin under his belt, he and his wife moved to New Haven, Conn., where he studied classics at Yale. He finished the following year with a second masters, in classics. He graduated from Yale in 1967 with a PhD. Now the father of an infant daughter, and with another child on the way, he accepted a job offer from Yale to teach Latin.
In 1970, he returned to Canada to join the Classics Department at Queen’s. He remained there for 42 years, serving in a range of academic and administrative positions.
He wrote two books on the poetry of Horace and pursued his hunt for and the identification of hidden meaning and symbolism in art.
He retired in 2000 but taught pro bono up until reading week in February. “He loved to teach,” his wife said. “It was also one of his passions.”
Kilpatrick leaves his wife and daughters Katherine, Rosemary and Andrea.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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