The Professor Who Never Went to School

K. Westhues homepage

Kenneth Westhues, Professor of Sociology, University of Waterloo

Remarks at the memorial service for Eleonora A. Cebotarev (1928-2007), Professor Emerita of Sociology, University of Guelph, at the Guelph Arboretum, 14 October 2007. See also Asako Shiraishi and Hiro Ishida's interview of Professor Cebotarev on Women and International Development, which I have edited for publication here.

On a spring day in 1970, Nora flew to Guelph from Penn State to interview for a faculty position. That same day, I flew here from New York for the same purpose. The sociology/anthropology department hired us both.

There was more freshness and promise here than anywhere Nora or I had ever been, even granting that we saw things through the rose-coloured glasses of new Ph.D.’s, new immigrants. Canada was still on the high of Montreal Expo. Its soldiers were not making war in Vietnam but keeping peace in trouble-spots around the globe. The University of Guelph was six years old, growing like Topsy. MacKinnon was not a big building on campus but a big man on campus, the Dean of Arts.

Our department seethed with restlessness, several professors having left the year before in a kerfuffle, a European ordinarius having been imported to whip into shape the remainder, along with a motley crew of recalcitrant junior and new faculty – not just Nora and me but Viennese Walter (who knew how to bow and kiss ladies’ hands), Prussian Rolf, sexologist Ed, Helen from Cairo, Montrealer Gerry, Roger the Christian demographer.

On Halloween of 1970, Nora and I and Walter and Rolf and Gerry and Barb, I forget who else, went trick-or-treating to the homes of the university president, the dean, the department chair – aiming to cultivate their sense of humour.

Six weeks later, about the same group of us were knocking on the doors of the homes of the same administrators, to sing them Christmas carols.

Nora was not just an able professor, a skilled sociologist, an effective teacher. She was a lot of fun – in an unpretentious, gentle, hospitable, democratic way.

Just after Anne and I got married, we moved for research in the summer of 1972 to Asuncion, Paraguay, traveling there and sharing a furnished house with Nora and her mother. Nora dragged Anne and me to all kinds of social occasions, repeating like a mantra, “Hay que cumplir…,” and giving us a priceless introduction to what was for us an exotic land.

On a visit to the Jesuit ruins in Misiones – the road was closed on account of rain, but Nora knew someone and we just drove around the roadblock (Nora was skilled at bypassing roadblocks of many kinds) – we stopped at the farm to which Nora’s parents had moved from Prague when she was about six years old, the farm where she grew up. I realized then how far Nora had traveled in her life, and not just in kilometers. I pictured her parents in that farmhouse, poor, isolated, deep in the continent’s interior, teaching their little girl their languages, and listening with her to the BBC on the radio, to add English to the list.

Nora was among the few professors in Canadian universities who never went to elementary or high school. She was a better professor, a better intellectual, for that. Her mind was only half full of academic generalities; the other half was filled with particular human lives.

A story Nora often told captures a value she held dear. It was of a mother at some social gathering in Paraguay telling her daughter, “Just sit and look pretty.” Nora found that advice chilling, abhorrent, disempowering, wasteful.

Nora was a beautiful woman, but she never ever just sat and looked pretty. She worked – to support herself, to buy her mother a piano and provide for her with dignity, but basically because in Nora’s view of things, work defines our humanness, work is our entry into history, work gives meaning to our lives.

With Nora’s death, Anne and I have lost a colleague, a friend, a big sister. So have many others. Peter Sinclair phoned me last week from Newfoundland to say he regrets he cannot be here today, but sends his respects. Nora’s life was a gift, her memory is a treasure.