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lives lived

Norman Zacour: Optimist. Scholar. Whistler. Ice-Cream Lover. Born June 14, 1921, in Winnipeg; died May 28, 2017, in Kingston, of cancer; aged 95.

Norman grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Winnipeg. Means were scarce but there was no shortage of prejudice. He would later chuckle about how his mother's family refused to attend her wedding. Immigrants themselves, they would still stand for no marriage to a different immigrant. His father's family, meanwhile, was mostly insulted to find they'd been mistaken for Italians – they were Syrian, for heaven's sake!

The boy whose ability to read in English was the pride of his father would grow up to be a university professor and a renowned scholar, writing books on the Crusades and medieval institutions that are still used today. (On research trips to Italy, he was frequently mistaken for an Italian, which pleased him inordinately.)

Norman's fascination with medieval history was awakened by the ruins and cathedrals surrounding his Yorkshire bases during the Second World War. He would serve seven years and earn the MBE award.

Norman had barely begun his higher education after the war when he met Betty, the angel of his life. He had the good sense to marry her immediately. They would treasure each other for the next 66 years, a marriage, he would tell her mourners, that had not been long enough for him. Norman condensed the usual five years of PhD study into a single year. He would good-humouredly credit his newborn daughter, Elizabeth, for his accelerated learning: He spent his nights rolling her pram back and forth in the hallway with one hand while reading from the other.

It was a devastating blow seven years later when her bone marrow was wiped out by an antibiotic. Norman kept her alive until her small body would no longer tolerate his transfusions. He was deeply moved the day his entire college class lined up behind him to give to the blood bank. On April 28, 1961, Elizabeth died. There would be dark years before Norman took his wife and three surviving children, Joan, Geoffrey and Mary, back to Canada, leaving Ella's grave behind. Ultimately, his positive nature and ability to find new purpose would win out.

Norman was always good at the things he tried. He always won at Scrabble, often by getting the 50 points for using all seven letters. He was a whiz as a handyman, and loved to tell the tale of having won his bride by fixing her toilet. Known for his continuous whistling, he taught himself new instruments, too, then began playing in symphony orchestras.

We all loved his study trips, especially to Rome. There he haunted the archives of the Vatican library, discovering letters full of political intrigues. The best thing about being a historian, he said, was that he got to read other people's mail.

Norman loved good food and had a special fondness for ice cream. Once he was discovered cooing and making an O with his lips as he spooned chocolate ice cream into his brand-new grandchild's mouth. Shamefaced at being caught, he submitted to the onslaught of maternal wrath, then stammered, "but she likes it!"

Many years later, as he lay in his hospital bed, ice cream was his last pleasure. "This is the greatest place in the world," he would say of his palliative-care ward, "I can have ice cream for breakfast!"

Mary Zacour is Norman's daughter.

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