Remembering Burt

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is difficult to know what to say about Burt to a group of his friends.
All of us are aware of how extraordinarily generous he was and how
patient he could be with the foibles of those who knew him. I particularly
must have sorely tested his tolerance many times, when I daily complained
to him of my frustrations when I worked in the Bay Area in 1978
and 1979, or when I asked that he find me an apartment one summer
and gave him a list of 67 requirements that had to be met, or on
the hundred and one occasions that I bothered him with small and
annoying requests of one sort or another. But he always indulged
me with good grace and kindness and would gladly welcome me to his
home and his office whenever I visited the area. Burt had a great
sense of humor and he would regale me with stories about what life
was like during his days as a hat salesman going from one small
southern town to another. And we often traded quips about how strange
humans could be. Above all, Burt was a man of principle, unwavering
and fixed in his commitment to justice as he understood it, regardless
of the cost. That above all, I think, made him a true mensch.

I remember
some years ago talking to him about death and I observed that he
scared me senseless that on the day I died everything would continue
to go on as if nothing had happened, people would go about their
usual routine and the TV nightly news would still be on at its customary
time. And Burt said that, far from finding that eerie, he felt it
was reassuring that things would continue as before. He was very,
very dear to me and the light that illuminates the world in which
I live is so much the dimmer for his passing. Words cannot express
how terribly I will miss him. When I heard that Burt had died I
was torn between two feelings, relief that he had finally been spared
more of the pain and torment associated with his last illness and
also that I had lost a beloved friend and that my world would never
be the same. What came to me was a line from the letter Adam Smith
wrote on hearing of the death of his friend David Hume, which –
if it applies to anyone I have known in my life – applied to Burt.
Smith wrote of Hume:

the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and
since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly
wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will

Goodbye, dear

14, 2009

Hamowy [send him mail]
is emeritus professor of history at the University of Alberta.

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