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Leaving a legacy

Driven by diverse factors, retiring academics are leaving their mark in varied – and often surprising – ways.


Seven years ago, on the very first day of his retirement, Ed Ishiguro got up, ate breakfast, finished his morning routine and then did what he’s done for more than half a century – he went to work on campus. Forced by British Columbia law to retire at the age of 65, Dr. Ishiguro, a professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry and microbiology at the University of Victoria, felt that he had unfinished business. Having taught thousands over the decades, he felt a strong desire to continue making an impression on the intellectual lives of students.

“There are two broad categories of academics – those who look forward to retirement and people like me who, at least a decade before that ominous date, are suffering from nightmares and running through scenarios to shut that whole process down,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh.

Rather than shut it down, Dr. Ishiguro found ways to keep his work with students very much alive during his retirement years. While he had to give up his research lab, Dr. Ishiguro still shoulders a partial teaching load while also running workshops and teaching curriculum design to current faculty members through the university’s teaching and learning centre. These activities, he says, will add to a legacy that he can leave the university and the teachers who follow him. “I haven’t missed a beat,” he says. “I’m more energized now than when I retired.”

Driven by their passions and motivated by factors unique to the academic realm, many professors feel a strong desire to leave a legacy, something that will touch future generations. While this sometimes takes the form of a financial endowment or a major end-of-career opus, it may also take a more subtle and surprising form, depending on the academic. It is always a complex decision, something that is approached and expressed in different ways – sometimes oriented towards people and many times motivated by a deeply personal connection. The idea of a legacy often seizes academics as they near retirement and, for some, long after.

This phenomenon is something that Teresa Dawson, director of the teaching and learning centre at the University of Victoria, has witnessed many times firsthand. While supporting faculty over the entirety of their career span, she has observed an increasing need to help guide academics over the bridge to retirement.

“I see it as a very human need, to leave a legacy,” she says. “Most of these people didn’t go into academia for the money. They went into it to make a contribution through research and teaching, and at the end of their careers, they want to make a mark, although they’re not always conscious of it.”

For professors who always saw their primary importance in the area of teaching, the legacy is people-oriented. Dr. Ishiguro, for example, says that he didn’t spend much time focused on building a legacy for much of his career, but now he sees that inspiring others to learn about science is the main thing that he will leave behind. It is something that he’s passionate about and the reason why he continues to work at UVic seven years after his retirement: “I’m hoping that I can leave a few people really excited about what I do. I want people to follow in my footsteps. I don’t know how many will, exactly, but as long as there’s two, that’s two more than when I started.”

University of Victoria President David Turpin, who will be stepping down this June after 13 years at the helm, says an academic’s thoughts about a legacy change and evolve as the person nears retirement. And, he observes, an academic’s conception of a legacy is as individual as the academic himself.

“Quite a number of people think: ‘I have really invested in my career, and I want to make sure that what I have done continues long after I have retired.’ That could take the form of innovative course design, research legacies, or even developing a new sub-discipline,” he says. “There’s a whole continuum out there, and it’s a very personal quest.”

The most obvious way to leave a legacy is financial. Matt McBrine, acting director of university advancement and the incoming director of alumni and development at Bishop’s University, notes that it’s not simply a matter of writing a cheque. Rather, retiring professors see this as a way to extend their influence on students beyond retirement – something that’s especially important, he says, at a small university like Bishop’s where faculty are routinely on a first-name basis with students. “We typically see professors leave an award in their name to their department. They want to continue to have a presence that way. There’s a huge passion for undergraduate education at Bishop’s, and all of the faculty really buy into that.”

At Trent University, which also prides itself on its small size, this form of financial legacy has taken an unusual form. There, a group of 10 academics in the English department – all of whom were hired around the same time in the 1960s and ’70s and remained at Trent for the entirety of their careers – have decided to work together to leave a combined endowment. As with Bishop’s, notes English department chair Elizabeth Popham, Trent is a student-centered school, and in celebration of the university’s 50th anniversary next year, the group of academics got together on something they’ve called the 2014 Initiative, to fund existing scholarships and bursaries and create new ones.

While she’s not a member of the group of 10, Dr. Popham, as chair of the department, played an active role in setting up the funds. Within this collective effort, she says, individuals are leaving their mark on the areas dearest to them. One academic, Leonard Connolly, has funded an award to support graduate students who want to present research at conferen-ces or visit research libraries; another, Gordon Johnston, a poet, painter, actor and musician, has funded an initiative to support students’ efforts in the arts. “They’re all anxious to leave a legacy for students,” she says. “There’s definitely a sense of passing the torch.”

Carolyn Savoy, who recently retired from a career of studying and teaching the psychology of sport and coaching some very successful women’s basketball teams at St. Francis Xavier and Dalhousie universities, has also decided to pass the torch – or perhaps more appropriately, the ball. While Dr. Savoy has published two scholarly books and won nine championships as a coach, she says what she’s most proud of is that 100 percent of her players graduated from university. “My legacy is the personal development of my students and players,” she says. “We are makers of people, no matter what they’re studying.”

In that spirit, Dr. Savoy has created an endowment in perpetuity to support the studies of a woman basketball player at Dalhousie, and she continues to work behind the scenes to build the fund. The Dr. Carolyn Savoy Award of Excellence is a “natural extension” of her 38 years of work in academe and sport, she says, and a way for her to continue to mould student athletes long after her departure from the classroom and the court. “I coached for all those years and I had to fundraise a lot of money. This is my way to try and pay it forward.”

Like Drs. Ishiguro and Savoy, Roger Emerson has remained active into his retirement, driven by a desire to continue with his research. Dr. Emerson, professor emeritus of history at Western University, hopes that his work on Scottish intellectual history will continue to serve as a basis for learned debate far into the future. But he has also placed a high priority on finding a home for his family papers.

With roots that lead back to a history in Vermont, Dr. Emerson is still writing about topics drawn from the papers, including essays on his grandmother’s courtship and on wool producers in mid-19th century Vermont.  Appropriately, he is leaving the papers at the University of Vermont. “These are stories worth telling, and they would be even if they weren’t my people,” he says. In his retirement, Dr. Emerson has also spent considerable time completing a memoir begun by his mother. “I don’t believe in tombstones,” he says. “This is a memorial.”

Ruth Gruhn, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alberta, says that the full extent of her legacy – and that of her late husband, Alan Bryan – is just now becoming clear. Drs. Gruhn and Bryan worked side-by-side as a team for decades, excavating sites of early settlement in Central and South America and publishing books and papers on the results, which argue that people have inhabited these regions as far back as 15,000 years ago – at least 3,000 years earlier than was previously thought. While they first posited this theory back in 1969, it is just now gaining wide acceptance. “This area is very dynamic right now, particularly as North American archaeologists come around to the fact that the picture we’ve had for 50 or 60 years just won’t do anymore,” she says.

Both she and her husband worked long after retirement, even excavating a site in Baja California, Mexico years after they had officially left full-time service, and Dr. Gruhn continues to publish and speak on the topic at major international anthropology conferences. The current shift toward their ideas, Dr. Gruhn observes, also serves as an important, living testament to the work of her husband, who died in 2010. “I’m very glad that his early ideas, which go back to his time as a grad student, have been vindicated. That’s a very good feeling.”

Dr. Gruhn says their most important legacy may be the large professional library that they donated to U of A in 1989 and continued to enhance for years afterward. This contribution was honoured last year with a plaque renaming the collection in their honour as the Bryan/Gruhn Archaelogy and Ethnographic Collections. “It will always be there. Those reports on archaeological sites will always stand,” she says.

However, she concedes that while it’s a very important thing to many academics, a research legacy is bound to change, given the fluid nature of knowledge. “An academic goes into the field thinking that they will contribute to knowledge, and that this will last,” she observes. “But, as far as theories and ideas and models go, of course those are bound to change. … I’d love to be around a hundred years from now to see what people think about the initial settlement of the Americas. It might be nothing like what we think now.”

Tim Johnson is an award-winning journalist and travel writer whose home base is Toronto.

Tim Johnson
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  1. Dr. Mary Valentich / January 10, 2013 at 19:08

    Greetings: Why surprising? Getting older doesn’t mean losing one’s sense of purpose, creativity, and drive. One just has a sense of time running out…and there’s still so much to do.

    One only hopes that universities realize what valued resources their professors emeriti(ae) remain and continue to facilitate their making their,usually unpaid contributions.

    ps The word “retiring” isn’t an accurate descriptor for most of us. I just say I left my full-time paid employment and diversified by academic, social and personal interests.

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