Ronald Rompkey’s wide-ranging research and energetic scholarship broadened and deepened the culture and history of Newfoundland and Labrador, and brought to light the often overlooked French element of the province’s story.
Dr. Rompkey, who died in St. John’s on July 31 at the age of 71, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
“Ron Rompkey had a broad vision of Newfoundland and Labrador studies,” said historian and author Peter Neary. “He wrote a masterful biography of [British medical missionary Sir] Wilfred Grenfell and broke new ground in our understanding of French influence in Newfoundland. His office at Memorial University was a research hub for the institution.”
Dr. Rompkey, who learned to read and write French as an adult, was fluently bilingual and could lecture, publish, and research in both languages.
He “devoted a large part of his work in recent years to a fascinating, though largely unknown or forgotten, French side of Newfoundland’s history,” said Scott Jamieson, a professor in Memorial’s department of French and Spanish. “He uncovered, in libraries and archives from St. John’s to Paris … numerous writings by French visitors to the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador.”
These previously unknown writings, which resulted in a 2004 anthology of 19th-century French writings, La Patrie du Vent, “describe many aspects of the place and its people and enrich our knowledge of this important segment of our past,” Dr. Jamieson said.
Dr. Rompkey was also the founding director, in 1995, of the J.R. Smallwood Foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. And he served as chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council from 1992 to 1997, and as a board member for the Canada Council of the Arts from 1994 to 2000.
At the heart of his academic work, he was a dedicated teacher of literature.
“Many of his students have told me how he drew them into English language and literature,” said his older brother, Senator Bill Rompkey. “And he was an intense scholar. He had his own standards and he made sure what he produced was the best he could do.”
“He was an accomplished scholar,” agreed Donna Walsh, head of Memorial’s English department. “He has a 22-page CV to show for it. But he was also funny, personable and very social. He had a silly special song for everyone and was a fount of goofy jokes. He made it a point to touch base frequently with almost everyone in the English department,” she said.
“He had a horrendous degenerative disease with an inevitable end that he surely recognized, but it didn’t get him down,” Prof. Walsh added. “He remained upbeat and endlessly cheerful. He continued to work and make plans for more publications. He was a real inspiration and a delightful human being.”
Whatever the project, Dr. Rompkey was a meticulous, thorough and tireless researcher whose many valuable contributions have been recognized by number of national and international awards. Not even his devastating illness could completely distract him from his life’s work and he leaves at least one unpublished manuscript.
Since childhood, he had been interested in Dr. Grenfell, who died in 1940. During his decade of research for the 1991 biography Grenfell of Labrador, Dr. Rompkey interviewed the physician’s sons, discovered letters and other records, and re-evaluated the influence of Anne Grenfell, whom he described as “absolutely central” to the physician’s work. As for the biography’s subject himself, he said: “I think Dr. Grenfell would love television. He was very much a public figure – he was a performer.”
Grenfell of Labrador was very well reviewed, with one critic, William Kilbourn, calling it “a fascinating account of one of the great apostles of muscular Christianity and British cultural imperialism … Rompkey’s biography captures him live and whole.”
His dozen other books include memoirs or biographies on other Labrador medical figures such as Harry Paddon and Jessie Luther, and Literature and Identity: Essays on Newfoundland and Labrador.
He also edited A Life Composed, a volume of essays and criticisms about Newfoundland visual artists Reginald and Helen Parsons Shepherd, which won an Atlantic Book Award.
Ronald George Rompkey was born in St. John’s on Feb. 10, 1943, the second son of William Rompkey, an accountant, and Margaret Fudge. His father died in 1971, and his mother went to work at Memorial University Library.
As a lad, Ronald was involved in Boy Scouts, earning many badges. “But I think his real take from that was about looking after yourself, and being independent,” said his brother Bill. “Ron was independent all his life, with his thinking and his personal affairs.”
Ronald attended Bishop Feild school, liked to play hockey, and joined the naval reserve, eventually attaining the rank of commander.
At Memorial University, he earned two bachelor degrees, in arts (1965) and education (1966), and a master’s degree (1968). He was particularly influenced by one of his teachers, Patrick O’Flaherty, who supervised his master’s thesis.
“Ron then went to [the University of London, King’s College] to do a PhD and I was on leave there working on Samuel Johnson,” recalled Dr. O’Flaherty, an author, historian and former head of Memorial’s English department. “I put him on to Soame Jenyns, the 18th-century [British] philosopher … Ron not only wrote a dissertation on Jenyns but turned it into a fine book,” he said.
“Ron really liked writers and literary figures whose reach was broader than the pen. His biography of Jenyns was his first major publication,” said Noreen Golfman, dean of graduate students at Memorial, who was married to Dr. Rompkey for 15 years (they divorced in 1998). “Jenyns was a poet and essayist, but what attracted Ron was Jenyns’s political engagement, as a member for the board of trade, as a pamphleteer and as a member of Parliament,” she noted.
Dr. Rompkey had taught at several universities in Western Canada, including Victoria and Saskatchewan, before marrying Dr. Golfman in 1983. They then moved to the University of Maine where she was an assistant professor and he was housed in the Canadian-American Studies Institute. After a year there, in 1984, Dr. O’Flaherty offered both of them jobs at Memorial.
“When we moved to St. John’s he finished the Grenfell biography, and the accomplishment of that motivated him to focus more intently on Newfoundland and Labrador writings,” Dr. Golfman said.
“As a teacher, he was really turned on leading a graduate seminar in Newfoundland literature, a course he single-handedly designed and shaped,” she said. “It’s no small irony that he had real reservations about coming home again to work and live, but ended up embracing the culture and mining a rich vein of Newfoundland material – French and English – on which he built his impressive academic career.”
Dr. O’Flaherty said his former student turned out to be a “real find” for Memorial: “Ferociously industrious, a stylish prose writer, varied in his intellectual interests, and highly productive in print. He had a great sense of humour, enjoyed life immensely, and had real aptitude for friendship. His books on Wilfred Grenfell and Soame Jenyns are solid contributions to knowledge.”
Among Dr. Rompkey’s other achievements, he was a commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, honorary French consul in St. John’s, and received several French medals, including L’Ordre de la Pleiade, from the French Parliament.
In 2003 he was appointed an officer of the Order of Canada, and was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 2006.
He was also a visiting professor at the University of Bordeaux, teaching 18th-century British and modern Canadian literature. In 2001 he was designated university research professor at Memorial, which comes with research funding and a reduced teaching schedule.
“My last conversation with him [in June] was about his scholarly plans,” Dr. Neary said. “Ron never gave up, and left behind a body of scholarship that will endure.”
He leaves his partner, Jane Leibel; brother Bill, nephew Peter, and niece Hilary.
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