CALGARY, Alta. Feb. 15, 2017/ Troy Media/ – A couple of weeks ago, St. Mary’s University in Calgary hosted a wake for David Bershad, a professor of art history. For nearly two hours, the audience listened to remarks from colleagues and friends, as well as prayers and music. The most touching tributes, however, came from the gratitude expressed by his students.
“The first thing God created was love; the second was art,” David told many of them.
For a teacher of art history, that was a formula for success. As one of them said, “He had the patience to teach us each how to read art like reading words.” Art was Bershad’s entrée to the beauty of western civilization, which he deeply loved.
Love of the material he taught, he once told me, was what made life worth living.
David was more than a master teacher. He grew up in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. As a precocious teenager, he haunted the jazz clubs of North Beach and entered Stanford at the tender age of 14. At 20, he was in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship when, having ran out of deferments, he received his draft notice. Rather than be drafted, he volunteered for the Marine Corps, then for Officer Candidate School at Quantico, and finally for Marine Force Reconnaissance.
For Bershad, Force Recon in Vietnam meant High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) parachute jumps, at night, into the jungles of Laos where he observed North Vietnamese activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, followed by a long walk back to U.S. lines. These actions were called Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, LRPP (pronounced “lurp”).
For good reason those conducting lurps were called snake-eaters. Most Force Recon Marines completed one or two lurps; Bershad had four.
Instead of becoming a career Marine, he chose to pursue beauty. After the ugliness of combat, his study of the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque gave his life the serene balance of a Zen master. Yet, his combative personality was always there, under the surface. It was evident more than once at the University of Calgary.
In 1975, he joined the Art Department, most of whose members did studio art or trained art teachers for schools. David and several other art historians had been hired to give the department some academic respectability. The art historians taught courses with huge enrolments that supported their colleagues training teachers.
Conflict was inevitable. The scholars discussed forming a separate department and the administration replied by insisting on changes that would greatly increase the amount of marking they would have to do. The result was an epic confrontation between the art historians, led by Bershad, and the administration.
Had the administration even a passing familiarity with the creed of a Recon Marine they would not have challenged him. The university lost expensively and set a Canadian precedent regarding the limits of administrative interference in the classroom.
The real conflict was cultural. In a meeting to discuss the role of art history, the art historians maintained it was to open the souls of students to beauty.
“That’s not what I want to hear,” replied the dean. Obedience, not education, was on his mind. After David began teaching at St. Mary’s he was amused when the president of the U of C said he was “disloyal.”
The Marine motto is Semper Fidelis: always faithful, always loyal. Semper Fi expresses an unconditional commitment. Not sometimes faithful, always.
Faithfulness may not be the highest virtue, but it is an important one, and David exemplified it as a Marine and as a teacher. That is why his students remembered him with such affection.
Barry Cooper teaches political science at the University of Calgary.
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