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Remembering Dr. Leslie Harris


Fogo Island has lost a great friend. Dr. Leslie Harris, Placentia Bay boy, outport teacher, London-educated scholar, Memorial University president, and adopted son of Barr'd Islands, passed away on August 26, 2008, at the age of 78. Les had been a good friend of mine for over 25 years. We met during the time when he was presiding over Memorial University and I was actively involved in the province's economic development. I had just undertaken my project to preserve and protect the Labrador coastal fishing community of Battle Harbour, a place that was falling into disuse and disrepair. The summer fishing grounds and community that had been essential to the survival of so many families, the place that held a critically important place in our province's historical development, was falling apart. I approached Dr. Harris with the idea of restoring Battle Harbour (an idea viewed as ludicrous to others I had approached) and with wholehearted encouragement and support, he jumped onboard, going on to chair the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Foundation for seven years. Battle Harbour today, thanks to his vision, is one of our nation's cultural icons.

Making our way together - Fogo Island has lost a great friend. Dr. Leslie Harris, Placentia Bay boy, outport teacher, London-educated scholar, Memorial University president, and adopted son of Barr'd Islands, passed away on August 26, 2008, at the age of 78.

Les had been a good friend of mine for over 25 years. We met during the time when he was presiding over Memorial University and I was actively involved in the province's economic development. I had just undertaken my project to preserve and protect the Labrador coastal fishing community of Battle Harbour, a place that was falling into disuse and disrepair. The summer fishing grounds and community that had been essential to the survival of so many families, the place that held a critically important place in our province's historical development, was falling apart. I approached Dr. Harris with the idea of restoring Battle Harbour (an idea viewed as ludicrous to others I had approached) and with wholehearted encouragement and support, he jumped onboard, going on to chair the Battle Harbour Historic Trust Foundation for seven years. Battle Harbour today, thanks to his vision, is one of our nation's cultural icons.

I recall many people saying at the time, if Les Harris believes in Battle Harbour, then it must be good. And that's how he felt about Fogo Island; he loved the place and everything about it and used the island as a reference point in shaping his views about the province, its history and its people. Les and I spent many afternoons and evenings together, picking away at the various issues plaguing our province and sharing stories that defined how great this place is. Always prominent in those discussions were his warm references to Fogo Island.

Dr. Leslie Harris was of the bay and his knowledge of outport Newfoundland and Labrador is without compare. He lived and worked in isolated communities with their faces to the sea and he understood better than most not only how people survived on the headlands and in the coves but how they made a life for themselves.

One of his favourite places on Newfoundland's coast was Fogo Island. He spent many of his summers in Barr'd Islands, one of the most picturesque places in the province. His wife, Mary Hewitt, was born in Barr'd Islands, and they keep a summer home on Hewitt's Point throughout their lives. He told me many times that he had walked every path on Fogo Island, had seen every bit of the land, fished, picked the berries and patiently watched the island's birds. He learned about the ocean floor, the 55 fishing grounds with names like Old Harry, Fiddler, and Bread and Butter Ledge.

I am someone from Placentia Bay, as he was, and I can appreciate to some degree why he was so attracted to a place like Fogo Island. It is a microcosm of Newfoundland, with the rugged beauty of what Dr. Harris referred to as a "sea-smacked fringe of the continent" in his 25-page essay on the outport phenomena. The essay, which appears in the most recent issue of Newfoundland Quarterly, is something every Newfoundlander and Labradorian should read.

Dr. Harris understood how the 500 years of living by and from the sea had created a unique cultural identity for Newfoundland and Labrador. He understood the fishing culture of places like Fogo Island and, as a person with one of the largest private libraries in the province, he had read just about everything that had been written about the heritage and history of Newfoundland and Labrador.

One of the things I quickly came to understand about Dr. Harris was that this man, so outwardly common and elemental - his idea of an ideal afternoon was a walk over the barrens or a ball game on TV - was, in fact, an historical powerhouse in the making. Shane O'Dea, public orator of Memorial University, in his eulogy to Dr. Harris, defined a few of his many accomplishments and contributions.

"...Starting out as a teacher in 1945, he served from Harbour Buffett to Port Hope Simpson and then as principal of Brinton School (now itself resettled). Following a Memorial M.A., and a London Ph.D., he directed the Asian studies program at a number of Virginia colleges.

"In 1963 he returned to Memorial and began what can only be seen as a meteoric rise through administrative ranks. ... In the period of his time as President, a time which followed the great boom in university development, he ensured that what had been sown was brought to fruition and, in particular, that the research side of the university was greatly strengthened.

... His great learning and deep pleasure in life were allied to a particular gift with language - a gift best shown in his magisterial report on the Northern Cod. There the fisher's son stepped back into his role as outport teacher, first listening to and learning from his pupils - fisher, fish merchant, scientist - and then proceeded to teach them this nation's most important and most painful lesson: that they were on the verge of making the once-bounteous Banks a place of poverty. That judgment, based on his broader perspective, far broader than any former assessment, delivered on the eve of doom and in superb prose, convinced the industry, the people and the politicians, and, for the first time in four centuries we drew up our nets. Les Harris altered the course of history and that is a claim few historians can make."

In the fullness of time, Dr. Harris' legacy will unfold. We will refer to his words and insights to guide important moments in our province's development. We will also see his legacy unfold in small ways, like when we read his inscription on a book of art about to be published about Fogo Island. Just a few days before he passed away, he thoughtfully wrote the following comment, which shows his wistfulness for the outport of the past and optimism for its future, for Therese Frere's book of art on Fogo Island and Change Islands. He wrote, in part:

"These carved communities, so in tune with the bumps and dips of the rocky land, are still easy enough to find in Newfoundland outports but with changing economies and expectations, are steadily being supplanted by new, more modern community plans. We will rely on our memory to comprehend the situations as they were. Mrs. Frere's pastels give aid to our memories and our mind's eye to recall those sterling characteristics of the Fogo Island outport that we should not allow to become mere nostalgia."

In Dr. Leslie Harris we have lost a native son who made his mark not only on our own institutions of higher learning but on how we think about ourselves as a people. As a scholar, educator, historian, humanitarian and lover of the Newfoundland outport, his contribution to our province and the nation will be long remembered.

Gordon Slade is a long-time advocate for rural Newfound-land and Labrador and actively participates in many community development projects, including as an advisor with Shorefast Foundation.

Writers of Making Our Way Together are associated with the Shorefast Foundation, a Canadian-registered charity that is using entrepreneurial methods to help secure prosperity for the region of Fogo Island and Change Islands.

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