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Carl Bjarnason
Carl Bjarnason

Lives Lived: Carl Bjarnason, 98 Add to ...

Teacher, professor, Carolingian enthusiast. Born on Aug. 20, 1915, in Brandon, Man.; died on Jan. 30, 2014, in Victoria, of a heart attack, aged 98.

The Carolingian kings of the early medieval Franks? Who has ever heard of them? Certainly not me. But it turns out my father had. And the Carolingians, it turns out, have a lot to teach us (more on that later).

Carl Bjarnason had a full run at life when he passed away at 98. One of 10 children, he came from humblest of origins (his father was a carpenter); his immigrant parents, he said, could trace their linage back to Viking times in Iceland. They arrived with almost nothing in the late 1800s, to a wild Manitoba that was frontier country.

A child of penniless newcomers, he went on earn several degrees, including a doctorate; he became a high-school teacher, then a school principal, then superintendent and finally a university dean. He saw in his family’s story what a jewel immigration can be for a country.

He sprang from an Icelandic culture that put great stress on literacy and learning, and had a lifelong fascination with history. He was captivated by ancient Rome, as (he would note) were the authors of the U.S. Constitution. He knew Latin, which made him an ace at crosswords. And he was in love with the elegance of mathematics, which he taught.

At teachers’ college in the late 1930s he became best friends with Ray Spafford and met Ray’s younger sister, Edna. They married in 1940 in the southern Manitoba town of Bannerman, where he began his teaching career in a one-room school. In the Second World War, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and served as an instrument technician, working on B-24 Liberator bombers in Boundary Bay, B.C.

At war’s end, Carl and Edna focused on raising their sons, Dan and David, in Brandon. Carl returned to school, graduating in 1949 with a B.A. from Brandon College. He went on to earn education degrees from the University of British Columbia and the University of London, and a doctorate from Michigan State University.

After teaching high school math in Brandon, he became a principal and then superintendent of all the city’s schools. In the late 1960s, he was appointed dean of education administration at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. In the mid-1970s, he lectured for a year at the University of Victoria. After retiring to Victoria in 1980, he continued to lecture part-time for a few years more.

Dad loved history and politics. He would tell me, with great glee, of going to a speaking rally in Brandon in the 1940s featuring Mackenzie King. When the prime minister dodged a question, a heckler shouted: “What about the public’s right to know?” To which Mr. King lashed back without missing a beat: “It’s none of the public’s business!”

Dad felt he was lucky on two counts: to have met the pretty young woman who became his bride, and to have been born in Canada. To the end of his life he proudly wore a pin in his suit lapel indicating his RCAF service. Teachers, he would say, are patriots, too, nation-builders constructing our future. He had a profound belief in public education, which he saw as the key to democracy’s greatness and vitality.

Which brings us to those Carolingian kings who ruled central Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries. The greatest of the Carolingians, Charlemagne, although basically illiterate, promoted public education and learning. To my dad, that made Charlemagne one of the giants of history. My father studied and admired those Carolingians all his life. And I never knew it until a year ago, when he mentioned it in passing. I now wonder what else I didn’t know.

Dan Bjarnason is Carl’s eldest son.

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