In Memorium: Jim Giffen
Jim Giffen was my close friend and colleague for over fifty years. Jim was always at the height of his intellectual powers, a brilliant razor-sharp mind coupled with a wickedly funny tongue. The combination was truly formidable. He could extract the nub of a discussion with a quip that made further comments superfluous. His humour was nearly always irreverent, often ribald, sometimes biting, at other times just light-hearted, but always wonderfully perceptive. For example, he often referred to committees as “the pooling of ignorance.” The only times I can recall when that wicked wit was not present was when he talked proudly and affectionately about his children and grandchildren.
I wish I could remember more of these instances. Perhaps if there had been fewer, I might have taken more note of them, but they flowed effortlessly and endlessly like a fresh stream, never missing, and they left us laughing and laughing and laughing. He was the most engaging companion.
I have always cherished one instance, which involved putting-things-in-their-proper-perspective. It occurred in the Borden Building in the early 1960s.The scene was the main hall outside the departmental office. The chairman stood emperor-like, surrounded by the members of his court from whom he was seeking counsel. A serious problem had just arisen. A young new secretary had arrived wearing a tiny miniskirt. What should be done? (Keep in mind that this was in the early 60s, shortly before the world turned upside down, and the miniskirt was still a novelty; this one was so short, it left little to the imagination.) The chairman and his court, all male, chewed on the problem like the proverbial dog on a bone, without resolution until Jim came into sight. The chairman who, when confronted by any serious issue, almost always said, “I wonder what Jim would think” eagerly sought his advice. “Easy,” said Jim without hesitation, “Just give her lots of filing on the lower shelves.” That was pure Jim.
But you can find examples for yourselves. Just read Jim’s account of his chairmanship in the book marking the Sociology Department’s 40th anniversary. All the chairmen during that period were asked to write a piece about their tenure. Jim’s had been in the worst of times. The department was bitterly divided between the militant radical students and, much worse, their faculty allies, on the one hand, and, on the other, a smaller group of us older troglodytes. (We were in our forties and fifties).
As chairman, Jim had to hold the Department together, but he was both by conviction and association clearly a member of our group, and therefore highly suspect and vulnerable. With shrewdness, diplomacy, and patience he succeeded admirably, but at great cost to himself. So, understandably, he was most reluctant to revisit that scene when asked for his contribution to the book. He said no, but was pressed to reconsider. Out of his revisiting that gut-wrenching ordeal came an account that is a funny, light-hearted, and irreverent masterpiece. Here are three typical sentences — the first and last, and one more. First, the opener: ‘‘This brief but turbulent period was notable for its excessively participatory democracy.” The closer went: “And when the pot smoke settled, we thought we could see a better road ahead.” I can’t resist one more — about how Jim became chairman of the department: “A draft movement limped through the corridors of the Borden Building and I, unhinged by the implied flattery, agreed to a three-year term, counting time served.” Without Jim there will be a huge void in all of our lives.
Quoted, with kind permission off the author, from: Zakuta, Annette. Leo Zakuta: Reminiscences, Rants and Raves. Toronto: Iquana Books, 2013.