In Memoriam: George Ignatieff

Throughout my life I have had discomfort in getting to first-name terms with people considerably older than myself. It is a cultural, generational, and personal matter. But with George Ignatieff, whom I met for the second time nine years ago, somehow it happened easily and at once. From the time he first occupied the Chancellor’s office at the University of Toronto, his door was always open to colleagues sharing his interest and devotion to world peace. It didn’t matter whether he was being inconvenienced, he always had time.

It was at that time, and stimulated by George and the large forthcoming conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that Eric Fawcett formed “the Committee for Directing Science toward Peace”, which became Science for Peace in March 1981. George accepted a Directorship in the new organization fairly early on.

My frequent visits to the Chancellor’s office gave me incidentally an opportunity to observe a great mind at work. Here was a man who worked fast and unfalteringly, who always centered in upon the nub of a problem, and who always seemed to be in possession of the latest relevant information. He was open to new ideas even if he didn’t need them — because he always had a full slate of his own. I don’t know where his inspiration came from; perhaps it is the charm of human achievement that it cannot be perfectly analyzed.

In time I came to regard him not merely as a worthy, successful and gentlemanly person, but as one who had achieved true greatness. Ability, brilliance, the gift of profound comprehension, and above all, warmth and magnanimity were his. George never condescended. He was one of us.

During his presidency of Science for Peace (1986- 88) several significant steps forward occurred; among these were initiation and funding of our 1988 Arctic Conference, and acquisition of the Franz Blumenfeld Peace Fund. When George retired as President and became our first Honorary President, he was spending very much of his time with Alison, his wife, who needed his full-time care at that time, but he was also suffering from the lingering aftereffects of pneumonia which made his life especially difficult. But he never showed outward signs of the fatigue to visitors to his office.

Great men have faults just as others do, but if George had any, I have forgotten them already. He liked people in positions of responsibility to be independent thinkers, and had little use for small-mindedness. When he came upon deficiency in this area, he could quietly and wittily describe such an individual to his friends in a single word — with great effect. “A rat”, or “sleazy”; the only disparaging words from him that I heard, but devastatingly apt. For George there could be no merit in timidly following a safe policy that in fact meant acquiescing to more militarization, threat or complicity in war preparations.

My great luck was that George became a friend, just as Lois and John Dove had done over a similar period of time. With the Ignatieffs it was no longer the great diplomat and his consort, but the lovable George and Alison. The friendship was still developing when it was cut off, but I can never forget it and will live the rest of my life enriched by the memory of all our interactions.