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Posthumous tribute to a canadian friend

My unique friendship with David Sergeant originated during a marvelous half-year we once spent in Greece. After being granted political asylum in that paradisiacal country, my wife, two children, our spaniel and I were housed—while waiting for our Canadian landed immigrant visas—in the world’s nicest refugee camp. In those bygone times the good food and wine were plentiful in Hellas, where the breathtaking landscapes and ancient classical vestiges also abounded. But most of all we were free from communist Romania.

Only one cloud shadowed our happiness: we were all alone on the sunny side of the Iron Curtain. Without relatives or friends, we also lacked the money to entertain socially in order to make new connections. As we fled the Marxist terror without many possessions, we didn’t carry with us any diplomas or similar documents, essential things when one is aiming at a professional career. Former Greek emigrants assured us that in Canada—though milk and honey weren’t flowing freely—the government sponsored everyone including those who chose not to work, but if someone really wanted them, there were plenty of well-paid opportunities. Upon landing, they said, swarms of recruiting agents scrambled to hire you first, and only after signing your contract asked what you were good at. Those were supposedly nouveaux riches returned to ancestral Patrida to digest at leisure the booty of their holidays in Canada. We didn’t, however, believe them, and the future has proven us right. As advised by people working with the organizations providing for refugees, we preventively endeavoured to establish contacts with potential employers.

At one point in our search I remembered a jovial Swiss I’d met some years earlier at a conference in Bucharest. A habitué of the international congresses, the man was acquainted with countless important personalities in my professional field, which, he assured me, were his intimate friends. To my entreaties about getting from him some letters of recommendation he answered with heartfelt congratulations for our newly gained freedom, and regret at not being able to help in my job hunt. Instead he mailed me numerous addresses of Canadian celebrities whom he advised I address my queries to, mentioning him. Out of a long list only two replied. One of them later indirectly contributed to my subsequent employment at a university in Vancouver. The second, whose answer came just before we left Greece, was David Sergeant. His was a laconic invitation to visit him after arriving in Canada.

In Ottawa we were greeted by blizzards, temperatures as low as -28° C and high snows, and several months passed before we could honour his invitation. Luckily the Sergeant family lived not too far off, at Hudson, Quebec. Because we didn’t have transportation and lived on money borrowed from the government, David graciously supported our travelling expenses to and from Hudson.

David Sergeant was the son of a missionary doctor. Born in 1927 in Hangzhou, China and educated in England, he earned his doctorate in zoology from Corpus Christi College at Cambridge. He had a brilliant career in research, studying marine life on the East Coast of Canada. His wife Johanne and her parents left their country, Norway, when she was only five years old. Fleeing the invading Germans, they crossed the Atlantic in the heart of winter on a small fishing vessel. The Sergeants had a son, Christopher, and two younger daughters, Claire and Katherine.

Over the days and nights spent at Hudson with the Sergeants, we told them our life stories and they told us theirs, happily discovering a wealth of things we had in common. Our shared feelings covered the gamut from the thirst for freedom to the almost religious respect for nature. We parted great friends as if we had known each other forever. But life went on and we had to move to British Columbia, continuing our intercourse with the Sergeants in epistolary form.

Engaged in the frustrating struggle for recognition, we met with tremendous difficulties, which featured in my letters. Although the Sergeants traveled worldwide, bird-watching, studying marine mammals or attending scientific conferences, they always found the time to advise us or to send kind words of encouragement. Unfortunately, in 1994, while visiting Norway with relatives, a young, drunk driver collided head-on with their vehicle and Johanne and three of her cousins were killed instantly. Only David survived, seriously injured. For us it was a dark day when we heard the bad news, and for him life was never the same.

Two years later, the original results of my research work earned me an invitation to a conference held in Milan. But my monthly income wouldn’t cover even the registration fees, not to mention the travel expenses. The authorities I approached for help refused me. Universities are oligarchic institutions and, as a member of the technical staff, I was a metic. Hearing the story, David promptly sent $2,000 cashed from Johanne’s death insurance. “Take your wife and go to Milan! Please consider this as a gift from Johanne who loved you both,” he wrote me. In a world ruled by competition, where money is God, only a true scientist and altruist could have made such a rarissime offer. That gesture touched my soul deeply, and his memory is always with me, more so on a day like this one.

We met David only once more, when he visited us in the Okanagan. He had aged and felt lonely. His big and noble heart had suffered too much and wasn’t able to properly serve him anymore. He died in a hospital bed in Montreal, much earlier than we expected. And my generous friend, the scientist who welcomed me as a brother went to his ancestors in the same quiet and modest way in which he had lived. Requiescat in peace.

Gabriel Watermiller    8/4/2014


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