Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In Memory of Robert H. Dunham, November 12, 1939 - May 18, 1990

There is a Moment in each Day that
Satan cannot find,
Nor can his Watch Fiends find it;
but the industrious find
This Moment & it multiply,
& when it once is found
It renovates every Moment of the Day
if rightly placed.

William Blake - Milton

Dr. Robert Dunham was a professor in the English Department at Simon Fraser University from 1966 until his untimely death from AIDS in 1990. An eloquent and passionately committed teacher, he brought the Romantic poets to life for many students, instilling in them a love of poetry. Because of his dedication to the teaching of literature, he won the SFU Teacher of Excellence Award in 1986, and the prestigious 3M Teaching Fellowship in 1988.

Sitting in Rob's class for the first time in January 1987, I remember thinking that there was no place on earth I would rather be than in that room listening to him. He did indeed instill a deeper love of poetry in me and a continuing love of the Romantic poets.

A little later, as a graduate student, I had many opportunities to talk about poetry and life with Rob. As his AIDS progressed, his students gathered around him, initially I'm sure, in some determined attempt to shield him from the disease. Later, when he was nearer death, we spent much time helping with the many mundane tasks of life and talking endlessly about poetry, which seemed to ease his mental pain, at least.

I can never truly express the love and admiration I had for this man. He was so passionate about poetry and teaching, so charming, elegant, and generous. Even today, nearly twenty years after his death, I think of him every time I read or teach poetry. 

There are only a very few individuals who deeply mark one's life. Rob Dunham marked mine.

Today is World AIDS Day, a day to remember all of those lost too young to this terrible affliction, a day to celebrate the advances that lengthen the lives of many, and a time to remind everyone that the fight is not over.

I leave you with one of Rob Dunham's favourite songs - "A Change is Gonna Come," by Sam Cooke. The change involving life-prolonging drugs has come since Rob's death in 1990, but there are still significant changes that we must bring about.


Anonymous said...

What AIDS does to the lives of those around us is heart-wrenching. I only pray that a cure is coming and that those we love and admire are spared the suffering this vile disease imposes on its victims.

ChrisJ said...

Samantha, I couldn't agree more.

askcherlock said...

What a wonderful tribute and a sincere raising of consciousness regarding the devastation wrought by AIDS.

ChrisJ said...

Thank you, Cher.

Rose Belle said...

I love poetry but sometimes I have a hard time understanding the meaning of it. You are fortunate to have known a fine man like Professor Dunham. My literature professor was a compassionate and wise man who fell ill from an disease (forgot what it was called). He had a profound impact on his students just likr Professor Dunham.

ChrisJ said...

Hi Rose Belle,

Professor Dunham used to tell us not to try too hard to understand a poem, better to just enjoy it as we would a piece of music.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I too was a student of Dunham's in the 80's. As he said of Keats "you will find yourself falling in love with his mind" so too were there those who simultaneously found themselves falling in love with his. He embodied the idea of the mind as a work of art.

Meam Wye said...

Those who get a chance to learn from a great teacher are indeed very fortunate. Realizing the greatness of that teacher, however, depends on those learning from him/her. You are a great person to acknowledge your teacher's greatness in this nice manner.

ChrisJ said...

To ANON, I am so glad that someone else who was Rob's student read this post - that's the best. I ended up doing my thesis on Keats, and rob was right!

To Meam Wye, Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Chris...I had the good fortune of having Robert Dunham as a prof and TA in 1977. He taught me an appreciation for poetry that pushed me through Whitman and The Beats. I still read and re-read Wordsworth and everytime I open the original textbook at my bedside I think of Dunham. A favourite memory was when he had returned from New York where he had just attended the play, "For Coloured Women Considering Suicide..." and he recited about 10 minutes from the script completely from memory. Thanks for keeping his memory alive.


ChrisJ said...


It always amazes me how many people he influenced in such a positive way.

Thanks for commenting.

aaron said...

Thanks for this. I was thinking of Rob tonight, as I often find myself doing, and wondered what might be out here. I loved your description of being in his class and of talking more intimately with him - he was an amazing listener and brilliant teacher. I took classes with him through a couple of degrees and he was one of the few teachers I've been with who students would come early for, so they could sit at the front. He saw it as his vocation. When I started teaching and felt a nervous wreck he said to me, the secret is to dress better than anyone expects, have really great handouts and if you seem to be losing them, start to cry mysteriously - so they'll really want to understand what moved you so much. Great advice that still serves me :)

ChrisJ said...


Thanks for commenting. I can totally imagine Rob giving that advice. He always was a snappy dresser. I'm not sure whether or not the tears would work these days - probably the students would complain!!!

Anonymous said...

Hello Chris. I was also a (perpetual) student of Rob's and, like so many who had the fortune to know and study with him, I think of him very often. So many circumstances and situations call Rob to mind. I found your message about him tonight because I search his name on the internet occasionally, always hoping to find a new bit of something about or left by Rob to add to the wealth of memories that I have of him. He offered so much, but to this day I think he left us all wanting more. As you know, Rob possessed and shared a unique combination of generosity, brilliance, passion and knowledge and offered it to his students in a way that was beyond articulate. His passion for language was palpable and every word he spoke felt as he wouldn't even have considered wasting the speaking of it if it weren't the one that would best deliver his intended message. Like you and the others who've commented here on his classes, I feel SO fortunate to have known and experienced Rob. I remember in one class he used some lyrics from the song "Fame" -- which he said he had heard on the car radio on the way to the university -- to illustrate how poetry and the ideas in it offer the poet some permanence in a world where we are not (apologies to Rob for even attempting to paraphrase this). He quoted the lyrics: "I'm going to make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame/I'm going to make it to heaven, if you remember my name". Well, Rob, clearly many of us do remember your name -- with huge gratitude and fondness -- and we're so glad that we do! Thanks for starting this conversation, Chris. And happy unmooring to you.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, Chris. Just to try to get it right, I think the song is called I'm Gonna Live Forever and the lyrics Rob quoted are:
I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame. Fame!
I'm gonna live forever
Baby, remember my name
Thanks again for creating a place to remember Rob!

ChrisJ said...

Hi Anon.,

Thanks for your comments. I'm so glad the post brought back memories for you.