8430 Michael Keefer: One of 5 in the family with RMC roots
Article coordinated by WJO
8430 Michael Keefer was born in Kirkland Lake, Ontario (his father, 2330 Thomas Keefer, was a mining engineer, both in the few years between his RMC graduation and the outbreak of WW II, and then for many years after the end of his war service)–but I Michael grew up in Toronto. His mother was a singer and composer who in 1939 had earned a position in the Sadler’s Wells Opera company. When the war began she worked instead in the famous early-musical-instrument factory of Arnold Dolmetsch–which had been converted to producing bombsights. His parents met and married in 1942, and then after the war lived for six years in hard-rock mining camps in northern Québec and Ontario: not an easy life for a young woman who had anticipated a career in concert halls in London and elsewhere. In 1951, by which time Michael had three brothers, the family moved to Toronto, which is where he grew up and graduated in 1966 from Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute.
In his own words…
My decision to enter RMC was influenced by the examples of my father and of my two older brothers, Bowie and Tony (who were in the graduating classes of 1965 and 1967). Great-grand-uncle Harold (number 17 of the Old Eighteen) may have had some say in the matter too: though he was long dead, his photograph hung in the living room of my childhood home. Perhaps I should add that as a teenager I was keen on naval history and knew the names, armament etc. of every capital ship in the major navies from WWI onward. I was interested in spending time at sea, though I didn’t aspire to a naval career: I entered RMC under the reserve entry plan because I intended to become a scholar and academic.
I entered RMC Kingston in 1966. I remember arriving in Kingston by train, as part of a small herd of rookies; we were met by ferocious-looking seniors in scarlets and sashes. I’m two metres tall: a couple of those seniors who must have been members of the college basketball team rushed me off to what was then the Old Gymnasium to see what I could do on the court. Could I dunk a basketball? No problem. What else could I do? Nothing: I’d never played basketball in my life.
I hadn’t played rugby either, but I joined the college team and may have been some use in the line-outs, though not elsewhere on the field. When we beat other universities’ teams (which we did, more often than not) it was because we were more fit rather than more skilful. Our opponents would build up a lead over us in the first half of the game, and then in the second half we ran them into the ground.
I graduated in 1970. I thought of parade-square drill as idiotic, but developed a perverse pride—I think we all did—at how good we were at it. I remember shaking my head in pity at film footage of the British guards regiments on parade. One of our highlights was the “Feu de Joie”–a ceremonial three-round ripple-fire volley fired by the entire cadet wing dressed in three ranks. We called it the “Soupe du Jour.”
I have grateful memories of three members of the English faculty: Professors Walter Avis and Reginald Watters, and Dr. George Parker, all of them fine scholars and dedicated teachers. I remember Watters lecturing on Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”: an otherwise slightly dusty lecture sprang to life when he passed around a crumpled photograph of the barrel-chested Lowry looking very happy on the beach at Dollarton, outside Vancouver, where he wrote his great novel in a fisherman’s shack. Beside him stood a weedy-looking graduate student who was unmistakably Watters himself: he had apparently made the mistake of bringing Lowry, who was a very serious alcoholic, a large bottle of gin.
I was particularly fond of Professor Avis—though initially he terrified us all. He had a fierce demeanour, and a huge spade beard: we called him Hrothgar, after one of the characters in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem “Beowulf.” In my final year, I dropped out of rep team rugby and took an extra English course: I was aiming at graduate school, and wanted to earn a fellowship. During that year, Professor Avis gave me a one-on-one reading course in Icelandic saga literature. Powerful stuff.
The biggest challenge at RMC was finding a balance among the various demands made on us by rigorous academic, athletic, and military programs. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that to a degree unequalled in any other Canadian university, all of us had to do serious work in disciplines far removed from those we wanted to specialize in: I managed to survive courses in mathematics, physics and chemistry, and my classmates in engineering physics had to slog their way through courses in English, French, history, economics and so on. Having some understanding of statistics later proved useful in administrative work, as well as in the analyses of electoral fraud I got involved in.
I was a reserve entry cadet, and having paid tuition fees and received no monthly stipend, I had no formal military obligations after graduation. (I did spend the summer after graduation, as a newly-minted Acting Sublieutenant, training naval reservists on the west coast.) Some months later, having in the interim become hairy and bearded, I drove up to Camp Borden to spend some weekend time with classmates who were doing training there. A senior officer quite promptly invited me to leave the base: he clearly had no trouble identifying me as a Bad Influence.
After my RMC years, I entered the academic career I had chosen. I took a master’s degree at the University of Toronto, and a doctorate at the University of Sussex, which in the late 1970s had one of the finest English faculties anywhere. After some apprentice work teaching in a community college, I had the good luck to teach for short periods in universities in several European countries, and to hold positions, beginning at the humblest level and rising to senior appointments, at a number of Canadian universities, including the University of Guelph, where I spent the last two decades of my career.
My academic career was in some ways an upside-down one. In the early and middle part of it, I foolishly took on a disproportionate amount of administrative work (which is usually late-career stuff): I chaired a small department, served as president of the national association of college and university English teachers, chaired a research grants adjudication committee for the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and engaged in strategic planning work for my own university, and consultancy work for some others. In the latter part of my career I shook off that kind of work and concentrated on teaching and research.
Old buffers who don’t acknowledge the evanescent quality of their life’s work are deceiving themselves. I would like to believe that some of my scholarly publications provided definitive solutions to a modest number of intractable problems in the fields of Renaissance literature and early modern philosophy. But how widely might that opinion be shared?
I’ve mentioned Walter Avis as an early mentor. I was invited in 1993 to deliver a Walter Avis Memorial Lecture at RMC. The event was more informal than I had anticipated, but I was very happy to be able to honour his life and work in that way. Another person I’ll mention as a mentor (though he can only ever have been marginally aware of my existence) is Richard Okros, captain of HMCS Columbia (DDE 260) in 1968. Okros had a remarkable career, entering the RCN as an Ordinary Seaman in 1947 and retiring with the rank of Commodore in 1980. Columbia was a happy ship, and the training given under his leadership to midshipmen was excellent: I’ve long since forgotten how to do position fixes with a sextant, but I remember the huge intellectual buzz of taking the helm for antisubmarine screening exercises. Other mentors in the academic world included two internationally celebrated scholars, Alan Sinfield and Tony Nuttall, who was a generous supervisor for my doctoral thesis.
Apart from meeting and falling head-over-heels for the woman whose husband I became in 1972, I can’t speak of turning points or road-to-Damascus moments. But about a quarter-century ago I did begin to feel that I could be doing more by way of recompensing the society that had contributed so generously to my formation as a scholar and researcher—through my education at RMC, through the fellowships that helped finance my postgraduate studies, and through research grants that subsidized my ongoing work in archives and research libraries.
One of the functions of universities is instrumental: as institutions of social reproduction, they provide us with a constant stream of highly skilled specialists in medicine, engineering, economics, climate science, sociology, law, you name it. But they also have a critical function—to provide society with people who can productively analyze and assess where we have come from, where we are going, and to what degree and in what ways our trajectory deviates from an optimal one.
I had been doing work of that kind in relation to the textual and cultural archives of past centuries; I began increasingly to turn the same scholarly methods I had applied to materials from the Renaissance and Reformation to issues of our own time: resource wars, electoral fraud, terrorism (including state terrorism), human rights and international law, and a very interesting category of events that an increasing number of American social scientists refer to as “state crimes against democracy.”
It occurred to me some years ago that the RMC motto of “Truth, Duty, Valour” translates one of the central concepts of ancient Athenian democracy. Their word parrhesia refers to what they believed to be a central role in democracy: the active citizen’s duty to courageously speak the truth—even, and especially, when other citizens (perhaps a majority of them) don’t want to hear it.
Goals for the future? I’ve just finished a piece on Indigenous human rights in Canada for a collection of essays on human rights. I’m an associate member of Independent Jewish Voices Canada, whose activities involve working for Palestinian human rights. And I’m writing a little book for my four-year-old grand-daughter: it’s about a naughty Mouse who gets into all kinds of trouble.