By F. M. Salter.
R. K. Gordon came to the University of Alberta in 1913 and remained until 1950. His home from first to last, with the large hospitality and grace of Mrs. Gordon, has seen hundreds of visitors, and he has known personally everybody who has made any significant contribution to the life and growth and success of the University. His memoirs, if he could be induced to write them, would provide a fascinating story.
They would, that is, if he would write as he talks. No man has ever been a more delightful companion. None has had that gift of understatement, of oblique reference, of ironic gravity, and of pure wit in such rippling abundance as he. He can toss off verses of charming pithiness and point, and he can savor a story in the telling so that what one remembers is not the mere story, as with other men, but the story plus Gordon — which is altogether another thing. With some men, also, the rest of us, ordinary plodding duffers, feel at a loss, inferior, aware of our own shortcomings, our inability to find these bright, casual gems of speech; but no one ever felt ill at ease with Dr. Gordon. Somehow we all become part of the fun; we even think more highly of ourselves because we have given him a chance to talk! But all this charm is released among his private friends. In public and in books he shrinks from self-revelation.
Books there have been, and none of them inconsiderable: The Life of John Galt, Anglo-Saxon Poetry, The Story of Troilus, and (with E. K. Broadus) English Prose from Bacon to Hardy. In addition, he has given in many articles some expression to his enthusiasm for Hazlitt, Sir Walter Scott, and others. An enthusiasm which I wish he would express, so that he may have leisure for it, is that for ancient Norse sagas. In them he finds, in a very special, peculiar sense, his spiritual home; but one might know him for years and never hear of this passion, so reticent he is, so diffident, so little disposed to proclaim himself.
His diffidence, a sort of boyish shyness, will have made him seem stern and severe to some students over the years; but most of them have been enriched by knowing him. The most modest of men, he would probably be amazed at the wealth he has bestowed upon others and the depth of his influence. For he has never realized how quickly the brighter lads get on to him or how they enjoy that little stream of dry wit, half-submerged but sparkling ever and anon to the surface, that weaves its way through his lectures. And even the dull ones, after a little, come to realize that they have to do, not with some cheap, coarse comedian constantly appealing to the gallery, but with a man whose teaching they will still savor long and long afterward.
In the early days of the University, when it was small and intimate, his sense of fun was in great demand. He was the piéce de rèsistance at every meeting of the men's Faculty Club – and sometimes, especially when he and Killam (a bonny lad who taught mathematics, and who was the essence of deviltry) were up to their antics, they kept the whole table at a roar.
Severe he always was — the students were right in that estimate. And a good thing too. Without such men as he, our graduates would not value their degrees. Thirty-seven years of his high, uncompromising standards have helped to make the University of Alberta what it is. No student has ever received a First or a Second or even a Third from Dr. Gordon without knowing that he had earned it, without pride in a merited accolade.
But they also knew that he was kindness itself, and honesty, and sincerity. Last year one of my better students lamented that something had made it impossible for him to hear Dr. Gordon read Wordsworth's 'Michael' on the radio." 'Michael' and Dr. Gordon," he said, "were made for each other!" I repeated the remark to him, and I think it pleased him. For what it implied was a recognition of the deep simplicity and sincerity of the man who read.
But there were other authors in English Literature for whom he was made, and who were made for him. One was Shakespeare, another Housman, but his deepest loyalties were given to Scott and Burns and Chaucer. A man's taste, after all, is an index to his character. There cannot be much wrong with a man who loves, and with a deep, abiding love, such manly men as these. To hear him read, as my student knew — and a fine judge of reading this lad is — was an experience, especially when the matter in hand was some old tale or ballad, the poems of Housman, or "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner."
Actions, it is said, speak louder than words — and the Department of English, desperately afraid of offending his modesty, found yet upon his retirement a happy thing to do. They called upon the fine talent of Mr. Glyde and presented to Dr. Gordon a painting of Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford. There the Clerk stands in his clerical robes with his horse behind him "as lene as is a rake" — but the figure, the position, the hands, and the features of the Clerk suggest those of Dr. Gordon himself! For of no man could it be more truly said, that,"Gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."
Published Fall 1950.