I was saddened to read that Peter Millard, who was my professor for a summer session survey course on William Shakespeare back in 1991, has died after a three month battle with leukemia.
The Globe and Mail published an adulatory bio last Saturday, which based on my experience was wholly accurate.
“In everything, Peter was a teacher,” said Norm Zepp, who met Millard as a first-year education student. “No matter what he talked about, everything he said came across as valuable information.”
. . . Millard’s tenure as chairman of the faculty association came at a time when relations between the administration and the association was particularly turbulent. The provincial Progressive Conservatives went so far as to pass back-to-work legislation and [Professor Larry] Stewart was able to observe his colleague’s mettle first-hand around the negotiating table.
“He wasn’t an imposing character and his manner was usually quite moderate, but his opponents learned very quickly that he wasn’t afraid of anything,” Stewart said. “I’ve never seen anyone stand up to such abuse and intimidation. You simply couldn’t scare Peter off. He was the most courageous man I’ve ever met.”
Pat Atkinson was able to see Millard’s skill and courage operating in the area of sexual politics. Now an MLA for Saskatoon Nutana, she was the minister of health and education when the provincial NDP amended the Human Rights Code. Millard played an important role in that process and in advancing the cause of gay rights in the province. (He helped to establish the Saskatoon Gay Community Centre and taught the first course ever offered in Gay and Lesbian Literature at the University of Saskatchewan.)
“You couldn’t say no to Peter because he was so charming and so persuasive. He was also a good strategist with impeccable timing,” Atkinson said. “In all of his dealings, he was hugely principled and honest.”
For my part, I remember how terrified I was just before his Shakespeare course was set to begin. For one, he had a reputation for being a demanding professor and a tough grader. More distressingly, Millard was a prominent gay advocate, and I at that time an abiding homophobe.
I mean homophobe quite literally. I didn’t hate gay people, but I was afraid of them. It was fear based on ignorance, and reinforced by a cultural milieu that wasn’t exactly gay-friendly. It didn’t help matters that I was a hormone-crazed, beer-swilling, football-playing lunkhead.
Don’t ask me what I was afraid of, I can’t recall exactly. I suppose I was nervous that he would ‘force’ his orientation on me, make me uncomfortable, maybe render Shakespeare somehow faggy.
Whatever my concerns, they were dispelled quickly. He walked into our first class and quickly established himself as an immensely knowledgeable and authoritative teacher, with undeniable charm and a ready wit. It was impossible to withhold respect from the man, he simply commanded it.
It goes without saying that he was very fine professor. I was right, however, to be fearful of his academic standards, he lived up to his reputation as an uncompromising grader. A glib reference in my first essay to ‘The Bard’ prompted him to write ‘AVOID CORNINESS!’ in the margin. He would say of other mistakes, ‘this is not sloppiness, it’s illiteracy.’
I quickly became a more diligent proofreader of my essays. Somehow I managed to scrape out an A- in the course, feeling genuine satisfaction (and relief) with the final grade.
One of Peter Millard’s last acts as head of the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan was to award me a scholarship that saw me through my undergraduate degree. Three years later I entered a graduate program at McGill. When I moved to Montreal, I rented a room in one of those groovy brick and wrought iron triplexes that are all over the Plateau. My roommates were three gay men.
I wasn’t afraid of them at all. My sexual orientation hadn’t changed, but I had.
Thank you Peter Millard, 1932-2002.
::Robert Enright, Globe and Mail: Scholar shaped prairie city’s cultural life