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 April 23, 1999 Volume 6, Number 15

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Year 2000


Swan retiring after bringing classical world to U of S for four decades

Professor Swan in the Museum of Antiquites, which he was instrumental in founding. For many, the personification of classical studies at the U of S.

This year, the University will say good-bye to Professor Michael Swan, who, for many, personifies classical studies here.

For 37 years, he's taught Roman and Greek history to hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students. He has also served on many University committees; been assistant dean of Arts and Science, acting head of Art and Art History, Classics, and Modern Languages; and directed the University Studies Group and the 1979 Learned Societies Conference.

After such a lengthy involvement in the University's affairs, he has mixed feelings about retirement.

"I won't miss the big doses of marking, and there are some academic politics I won't mind escaping. But, on the whole, I've been very happy during these four decades at the U of S."

And he doesn't anticipate being stuck for things to do. Two immense piles of loose manuscripts - his planned two-volume book on Roman historian Cassius Dio (165-222 AD) - are awaiting completion and final editing.

"Dio is an important historian, not so much because he had a brilliant mind, but because he covered the whole range of Roman history up to and including his own time.

"Much of his work has been lost, but in the extensive portions that have survived he tells us a great deal no one else does and is certainly the fullest source on Augustus, even though they weren't contemporaries."

His work chronicles the events of each of the years he wrote about, thus providing an invaluable chronology of Roman history.

But life after retirement won't be just writing, researching, and editing for Swan. He anticipates travelling to Rome to continue searching out the remains of the world Dio experienced.

"One of my richest historical experiences was standing with the Rostra on my left, facing directly toward the Roman Senate, at the centre of the Roman empire 2000 years later."

A key impetus

Such experiencing of the monuments and artifacts of the past was a key impetus behind Swan's work in establishing the Museum of Antiquities, housed in the Main Library since 1981 and now, with its ever-growing collection, in search of larger facilities.

"Being able to see a replica of the Rosetta Stone, for example, and to try to decode what's written on it, is so much better than just reading about it. My hope in working towards the establishment of the Museum was to make works of art from the classical world accessible to students."

As early as 1973, he and art historian Nicholas Gyenes compiled a list of replicas they were interested in obtaining from the Louvre's replication department. The realization of the Museum became a 10-year saga of finding money for acquisitions, shipping, and display; storage space (originally, many of the statues were stored in Swan's office), and ultimately a permanent home where the statues and artifacts could be safely displayed.

In the end, though, he says, the lengthy undertaking was worthwhile. "It's been a wonderful asset for a wide variety of courses."

Swan's own involvement with classical studies began in Kennedy, Saskatchewan, a small town of about 250 people when, during grades 9 and 10, a "very good" Latin teacher by the name of Pearl Eubank taught at the local school.

"She moved to a bigger school after that; but, I'd been introduced to Latin and that was the cast of the die. With every year that passes, I'm ever more amazed that such opportunities were available in that small town - opportunities which often are not available to students in larger centres today."

His father, he adds, felt that studying Latin was "something good" and encouraged him to study it when he went to Regina College for his first year.

"My father was 12 when he emigrated to Canada as the son of a Scottish coal miner who saw coming here as a way out of servitude. There was a grammar school in the town they came from which my father had attended. It instilled in him a deep respect for learning, especially for subjects like Latin and Greek."

Therefore, when asked at Regina College what arts program he had in mind, Swan replied that he wanted to study Latin, even though he was a keen science student.

My father's counsel

"I'd always enjoyed studying science, but my father's counsel to be sure I did some Latin rang in my ears."

He went on to do his BA and MA in classics at the U of S, before obtaining a PhD in Greek and Latin literature and history at Harvard, in 1965.

He particularly remembers two of his professors from his U of S student days: "One of the most illuminating experiences I had as an undergrad was taking Professor Jake Rempel's biology class. He was a master of clear exposition, despite a heavy Russian accent. It took me years to understand that his references to 'long fish' were 'lung fish.'"

As well, he says, Dr. Francis Leddy, then head of Classics, was a great influence on him: "He taught me Latin on a one-on-one basis and wasn't afraid to set the bar ever higher."

Swan now teaches his own graduate students Greek on a one-on-two basis, an indication that some things haven't changed too dramatically on campus over the years.

And that the University remains committed to classical studies is evident in the recent hiring of Dr. Angela Kalonowski - a U of T graduate with a specialty in patronage as it relates to architecture in the Roman empire - to a tenure-track position.

Swan's best wishes for the University are that the current funding crisis be resolved, that we be able to prevent such heritage sites as the College and Thorvaldson Buildings from becoming ruins, and that students continue to be given the opportunities he had, particularly as they relate to languages.

"If I'm saddened by any development on campus today, it's the shrinkage of modern languages. A university is diminished when they aren't advanced."

As for the History department, he hopes it continues to thrive. He says he's enjoyed the great range of knowledge his colleagues have contributed to the Department.

"That includes such colleagues as Professor Emeritus Ivo Lambi, who played with historical events and concepts as with a chess game; Dr. Peter Bietenholz, whose singular knowledge of ancient and modern languages has informed his teaching of Renaissance Europe; and Dr. Michael Hayden, whose innovative and bold approach has enabled an American scholar with a specialty in early modern French history to write the definitive history of the U of S."

Finally, there's the hope that the study of history will remain valued at the University.

"It provides us with a map of time and shows us where we fit in the scheme of human experience. Consequently, it's as important as exploring the outer reaches of space."

- Sigrid Klaus

On Campus News is published by the Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan.
For further information, visit the web site or contact communications@usask.ca

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