Passings: Professor Emeritus Gerry Jordan was an expert on British naval history

photo of Gerry Jordan

York Professor Emeritus of History and Senior Scholar Gerry Jordan died on Aug. 15 at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre after a long struggle with cancer. His colleague, Professor Jonathan Edmonson, chair of the Department of History in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, shared this reflection on Professor Jordan’s life and many contributions to York University.

Gerald (Gerry) Jordan grew up in Southend-on-Sea in Essex on the south-east coast of England during the Second World War, after his family had been evacuated there during the Blitz. After a youthful career as, among other things, a radio officer on British commercial and passenger vessels and for two years an air-traffic controller at Goose Bay, Nfld, Gerry attended Parsons College in Iowa as a mature student. With the support of his wife Gail, he graduated and continued to the University of California at Irvine to study British naval history under Arthur Marder, a well known maritime historian. Like many of his generation, he was hired to join the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts at York University in 1970 well before finishing his PhD. He duly gained his doctoral degree in 1974 from UC Irvine after successfully completing his dissertation on “The Politics of Conscription in Britain, 1905-1916”.

photo of Gerry JordanGerry Jordan

Throughout his career Gerry taught 19th- and 20th-century British culture, he also ran a very popular fourth-year seminar on war and society in 20th-century Britain. Groups from his seminars in the 1970s and 1980s continued to meet socially and to visit him up to, and well past, his retirement from York University. Assigned an office in McLaughlin College, Gerry devoted many hours to college life and McLaughlin students, serving as senior tutor and in wide variety of other responsible roles. He continued to be a mainstay of McLaughlin College life and was preparing a history of the college at the time of his death.

After some early publications on modern British radicals, Gerry focused his research on British naval history, not least the heroic figure of Admiral Lord Nelson, on whom he published a series of important articles, including one in the prestigious Journal of British Studies (vol. 28.3, July 1989). He also edited Naval Warfare in the 20th Century: 1900-1945. Studies in Honour of A. J. Marder (London: Croom Helm, 1977). He extended his range to explore the place of other admirals in British society in the Hanoverian period and to probe various naval campaigns involving British fleets in the late 18th- and early 19th century. In 1988, he edited and contributed to the volume British Military History: A Supplement to Robin Higham’s Guide to the Sources (New York: Garland).

Within the Department of History, Gerry assumed a series of important administrative roles during the 1980s, chairing the curriculum committee at a time of some major policy changes and serving as undergraduate director under Paul Lovejoy and then Richard Hoffmann from 1986 to 1988. Two years before his retirement, he was happy to serve as coordinator of the interdisciplinary program in East Asian Studies and on the executive committee of the York-University of Toronto Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies.

In the later 1980s, he switched his focus to Asian ports and archipelagoes, which in part reflected his own earlier maritime experiences in the region. He enjoyed a very successful year as a visiting exchange professor at the National University of Singapore from 1989 to 1990. As a result of that experience, he returned to York University to pioneer new courses during the 1990s on the history of Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam and focused his British history seminar on British military and political affairs in the region. He published a series of reviews in various journals relating to southeast Asia, including Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs. Behind the scenes, he was a significant moving force behind the expansion of the Department’s commitment to the field of East and Southeast Asia.

For the last 20 years, both before and after his formal retirement from York in 1998, Gerry went on a series of academic exchanges and took up various visiting professorships in Singapore (at the National University of Singapore), Hong Kong (at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the graduate history program), and Japan (at Meiji University), as well as travelling extensively across the entire area from Burma to Korea and from central China to Indonesia. He returned to York to teach his course on Singapore for several years after his retirement.

On his own or with Gail at his side, Gerry sailed or steamed up the Yangtse, Mekong, Irrawady, and other rivers draining the interior of Borneo and Sumatra. He loved to talk to ordinary people, and did so despite never really studying any local languages, and took many splendid photographs of those fascinating parts of the world.

Gerry Jordan was throughout his career and in retirement a person with an inquisitive mind and a generous spirit. He remained cheerful, calm, and provided eminently sensible and valuable advice to colleagues and students alike. He always had time to share a story or hear the latest news from the Department’s staff on his regular visits to the main History office from his McLaughlin base. He will be much missed by all his many friends, colleagues and students in the Department of History, at McLaughlin College, and more widely at York, but also in King City, his home for many years, at the Jordans’ retirement community in Ballantrae and across the globe. A private cremation ceremony has taken place. A memorial event will be held in McLaughlin College in the fall.