Professor Elinor Melville brought friends together

She died as she lived, surrounded by friends. Elinor Melville never married (“Just lucky, I guess” she’d say if questioned), and when she died at 65 of cancer – in the early hours of March 10 in the palliative care unit at Toronto Grace Hospital – she had no known relatives, reported the Toronto Star April 17. Instead, she had friends from two hemispheres, both of her careers and both of the countries where she chose to live during the past two decades. Fierce friends, loyal friends, who wouldn’t let her die alone, and who now feel doubly bereft because they lost someone who had become family. “She had this talent; she really gathered us in,” said Morris Thompson, an American journalist who rented and is now buying Melville’s beloved adobe home in Mexico.

A history professor at York University, Melville was a brilliant scholar who wrote A Plague of Sheep, a pioneering work of environmental history in which she said that it was the introduction of European plants and animals in the 16th century that turned the Valley of Mezquital, an important valley north of Mexico City, into a desert in less than a century. Elinor Gordon Ker Melville was born in Papua New Guinea. She received her BA from the University of Toronto in 1972, her MA and then her PhD in anthropology from the University of Michigan. Her research had led her to Mexico 25 years ago, a country that charmed her. She told friends she felt as if she had come home, that here was a country that fit her.

Melville was six feet, a dramatic, dashing woman with a penchant for hats and Eileen Fisher designs, who would moan with pleasure when eating a good steak and who never walked but strode, the Star said. “The world didn’t move fast enough for her,” said Ruth McGuinness, who admitted she found Melville “daunting” the first time they met. It was 2000 and the two were in Buffalo, undergoing treatment for breast cancer. But in 2002, Melville was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “She raged against the cancer; she didn’t just fight it,” said McGuinness. She continued to teach three classes at York until the fall of 2004. Her friends remember her lecturing a grad student as she was being wheeled down a hospital hallway on a stretcher. Last July she officially went on sabbatical.

Often she stayed with McGuinness and her husband, Rory, after a hospital stint, until she was strong enough to return to her own home. But after last Christmas, she was noticeably weaker and stayed with her friend Agueda Shubert, wife of Adrian Shubert, professor of history and York’s associate vice-president international. Shubert was one of the dozen friends who met in February to form Melville’s care team. They didn’t all know one another, although they knew of each other. “She taught me to cherish my friends,” said Jean Levy, administrative assistant in York’s Department of History.

On Thursday, March 9, McGuiness sent out an email – in English and Spanish – and her friends came flooding to the hospital. Her colleague Jeannette Neeson, professor in York’s Department of History, read her a poem from a 1940s anthology, the Star said. Tea was served and the conversation flowed all around Melville, as she lay dying. Her friends held a memorial service for her in Toronto the following Tuesday at 7 pm It was 4 pm in Victoria, BC where Joan Harkness was teaching her Sociology 100 class about Elinor Melville. “I put her death notice up on the overhead projector and talked about her,” she said. “I wanted to be part of a community of people thinking of Elinor at the same time.” She told her students that this is the kind of impact one life can have, that this is what they can do. They can create a family; they can create their own life; their life can be an act of creation – just like hers.

Federal government must back subway project, says Star

The prospect of a new subway line from Downsview to Vaughan has pleased commuters, thrilled York University students and has real estate developers in the area rubbing their palms in anticipation of profit. But their excitement is far too premature. No decision has been made to actually start digging the $2 billion subway extension, wrote the Toronto Star April 17 in an editorial.

In its recent budget, the Ontario government set aside $670 million to push the Spadina line to York University and beyond to the Vaughan Corporate Centre at Highway 7 and Jane Street. But there was one crucial string attached to that money – it won’t be spent until the federal and municipal governments agree to put up identical amounts for this huge project. Rather than moving ahead, the subway to Vaughan is stuck in idle. Before it can start moving, the subway needs to gain some headway on Parliament Hill. True momentum will come only when the federal government matches the commitment made by Queen’s Park. When federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers a budget in the next few weeks, he should include $670 million to extend the Spadina subway line. With federal and provincial money in place, that means the subway construction will be substantially covered. That should make it much easier for the City of Toronto and the City of Vaughan to raise their share of the remaining cost.

The TD Bank recently reported that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government can expect to reap a surplus that exceeds predictions by a healthy margin. Clearly, the Vaughan line deserves to be a priority. Subway expansion would fit the Conservative government’s avowed interest in improving the nation’s infrastructure. Traffic congestion in the Greater Toronto Area is estimated to cost the economy $2 billion yearly in lost time, in fuel wasted by vehicles idling in traffic jams and in damage to the environment. A subway line linking Toronto and Vaughan would go a long way toward easing congestion by supplanting an estimated 83,000 car trips each day. Greenhouse gases would be consequently reduced. Daily access to higher education would dramatically improve for most of York’s 65,000 students and staff. And a subway link connecting the 416 and 905 areas would help knit the GTA together.

Jockey’s focus is on sport, not modeling

Chantal Sutherland (BA ‘99) grew up on a farm with horses and, after graduating from York University in Toronto, leaned on the likes of Hall of Fame rider Angel Cordero and Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens to learn about the sport. Cordero and other riders have called Sutherland patient on a horse and quick out of the gate, reported the South Florida Sun-Sentinel April 14. Gulfstream President Scott Savin said she has been humble and easy to work with on promoting the track’s meet. While her riding experience is beginning to pay off (she won 14 races at Gulfstream this winter and plans to spend the spring and summer in New York), Sutherland realizes there can be a lucrative career away from the track. Along with being photographed for this month’s issue of Vogue and February’s Las Olas, Sutherland has been called by Maxim, People and FHM. Sutherland is trying to balance her desire to become a top jockey with the opportunities of becoming a model as well as the face of Gulfstream.

No progress until poverty eliminated

One must admire the enthusiasm for improving life in Toronto that the Star and its writers brought to its recent special section, wrote Dennis Raphael, professor in York’s School of Health Policy & Management, in a letter to the Toronto Star April 17. However, he said, nothing to improve quality of life will really be accomplished unless the grinding poverty, hunger and homelessness that stalks the city is eliminated. As Leslie Scrivener succinctly summarizes “The long-term solutions are obvious all the experts say raise the minimum wage, increase welfare rates, create more affordable and supportive housing.” Until that is done, everything else is just words and pipe dreams. And by the way, Scrivener’s described activities are not long-term solutions, said Raphael. They could be instituted tomorrow if the political will to do so were there.

Portfolio Doctor prescribes a dose of Milevsky

Moshe Milevsky, professor of finance at York’s Schulich School of Business, studied mortgages between 1950 and 1999 and concluded that nine times out of 10 consumers would be better off selecting the variable rate over the five-year fixed rate, reported the Toronto Star April 16 in its Portfolio Doctor column. However, numbers aren’t the only consideration; you also must figure in peace of mind. If choosing the variable rate is starting to give you heartburn, or fluctuating payments make your financial life too difficult, then maybe you are a candidate for locking in.

Joshi recommends the flip side of the ‘bad-boy’ image

Harley-Davidson and gangs have been associated since the 1940s when the Hell’s Angels adopted Harleys as their motorcycle of choice, reported the Toronto Star April 16. When a company’s brand has been hijacked, it should respond by building or reinforcing the brand’s positive associations, says Ashwin Joshi, professor of marketing at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “Instead of tackling negative associations,” Joshi says, “[a company] should increase its associations with positive reference groups.”

Young says details of legal prostitution can be worked out

Alan Young, a professor at York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, suggests striking out laws that prevent indoor prostitution, thereby opening the doors to a red-light, brothel-type system in Toronto, reported the Toronto Star April 16. “Under the current laws, prostitutes are being endangered by the fact that they can’t work indoors,” Young says. “Prostitution per se is not illegal but all the activities associated with it, including the broadest one, communicating for the purpose, they are all criminalized, so it’s kind of a paradox that you can do this legally but you can’t do it in any way that’s safe, and that’s why the law’s deficient and should change.” Residents would no longer worry about hookers and johns in their ‘hoods. Police wouldn’t need to do periodic “sweeps.” So where would Young put a Toronto red-light district? “Nobody wants them in their backyard, but those aren’t insurmountable problems.”

Retired professor Frank Cosentino turns his pen to fiction

Espionage, Olympics, the Cold War, a manuscript from the grave, fallout and reconciliation of father with son, the mysterious Ange St. Michel and the Pope’s unwavering faith are ingredients in the mix of Hail Mary Heaven Sent, a novel by Frank Cosentino, York professor emeritus, reported The Daily Observer (Pembroke) April 15.

A great year to graduate: Class of ’06

This year’s crop of university graduates is being hotly pursued by employers who are sniffing the impending labour crunch, expected to hit big by 2011 when the first wave of baby boomers turns 65, reported The Gazette (Montreal) April 15. To attract those graduates, L’Oreal has created Brandstorm, an international case competition, in which teams of business undergraduates spend the school year creating a marketing campaign for a new product line that they devise. In Canada, students at HEC Montreal and the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto participate, garnering course credits with their work. Last year, 4,000 students from 176 universities participated, many of them landing jobs with the company. Of the 18 Canadian undergraduates who participated in the 2005 case competition, nine were hired by L’Oreal.

Marco Iannucci (BBA ‘05) is one of them. A graduate of the Schulich school, Iannucci now works in Montreal as a marketing assistant. “It’s a very intelligent recruiting method,” he said. “You get to present your case in front of L’Oreal’s top management. All three of the people on my team were offered jobs and we all accepted. I am now in charge of a new line of men’s grooming products.”

Reanne Holden was a standout for Lions women volleyball

York first-year science student Reanne Holden of Cobourg, a member of the 2005 Durham Eclipse Juvenile girls’ basketball team Guard, was a key performer for the York University Lions women’s volleyball team as they captured the Ontario Universities East division championship, en route to a strong fifth place finish at the CIS national championships, reported Oshawa-Whitby-Clarington This Week April 13. Holden’s speed and ball hawking prowess added an extra and useful dimension to the York backcourt.

York expert likes controversial Exodus documentary

A provocative $4-million documentary by Toronto filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici claims to have found archeological evidence verifying the story of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, 3,500 years ago, reported The Globe and Mail April 14. Religious Jews consider the biblical account incontrovertible – the foundation story of the creation of the nation of Israel. Indeed, they celebrated the Exodus Wednesday night and last night with the annual Passover recitation of the Haggadah. But among scholars, the question of if and when Moses led an estimated two million Israelite slaves out of pharaonic Egypt, miraculously crossed the Red Sea ahead of the pursuing Egyptian army and received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, has long been a source of contention. Barry Wilson, a professor of religion at York University, calls the documentary “a fabulous detective story…Perry Mason goes biblical. It’s a remarkably well-executed study.”

Memory of Richler’s convocation comments sparks laugh no longer

James O’Hearn of Toronto wrote in the The Globe and Mail Online April 13: A couple years back I was working a convocation at York University when Mordecai Richler was getting an honourary degree. Mordecai made a comment that had everyone laughing – “To those of you today who are receiving your liberal arts degrees, you will soon overcome your handicap.” I laughed with the rest then but the chuckles come quite thinly now. Several times in the past few months, when I phoned agencies to register with them, I was told that having a degree was worthless, that to be an office clerk or call centre representative required years of experience in an office environment.

Globe writer Virginia Galt replied: James, a lot of grads go back to their university career centres well after they have graduated. It’s a good source of information and the market is improving somewhat. Employers who were not hiring a couple of years ago might be hiring now. Plus, it is a service that a number of university and college career centres now feel obliged to provide.

AGYU exhibitor’s methods messes with reviewer’s head

I’m awash in confusing memories that aren’t even mine. Stan Douglas’s new work at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery, Inconsolable Memories, is messing with my head, wrote a reviewer for Toronto’s NOW Magazine, April 13. Douglas likes it that way. The internationally acclaimed visual artist has for years been working with recombinant narratives, toying with our confusion. Inconsolable Memories opens Wednesday at the Art Gallery of York University as part of both the Contact and Images festivals. A demanding and fascinating exploration of post-revolutionary Cuba, it consists of 18 large, gorgeous photographs of Cuba’s decaying architecture and a 16mm recombinant film based on Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s groundbreaking 1968 film, Memories Of Underdevelopment.

Magnus Gunter taught at York

The cut and thrust of politics fascinated former York professor Magnus Gunther, reported The Globe and Mail April 14. As a youth in Johannesburg and later in the Netherlands, he played active roles in the international student movement and in the struggle against apartheid. When those activities left him without a South African passport, he brought his passion for political science to Canada, where he taught at York and Trent Universities, and took on a number of fact-finding missions for the federal government. In 1975, after Prof. Gunther was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 40, he moved from York University to Trent in Peterborough, which was closer to the farm. Otherwise he refused to slow down. Few people were aware of his suffering, says former colleague Derek Cohen, a professor in York’s Department of English, Faculty of Arts. As always Prof. Gunther was the centre of attention at any social gathering. Friends say he had an infectious sense of humour, a love of conversation and a sincere concern for the problems of others, as well as a passion for books.

Magnus Gunther was born on Sept. 17, 1934, in Munich. He died in Ottawa on March 7, 2006, two months after being diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. He was 71. He is survived by his wife Jan de Crespigny, and by his children David, Katherine, Julian and Harriet. He also leaves his first wife Phyllis and three grandchildren.

On air

  • Ajay Sirsi, professor of administrative studies at York’s Schulich School of Business, spoke about the dangers for small businesses of getting bogged down in paper work, on 680 News (CFTR-AM) in Toronto April 15.
  • Debra Pepler, professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, and the Lamarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, spoke about violence among females in schools on CFTO-TV April 13.
  • Saeed Rahnema, professor of political science in York’s Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, spoke about Iran and nuclear weapons on CBC Newsworld’s “Canada Now” April 13.