Inspiration, friend, teacher, support, and hero to many.
June 14, 1921 – May 28, 2017
Passed away in the night after a long and well-lived life and a short illness.
Predeceased by his adored wife of 66 years, Betty, and his daughter Elizabeth Ann (Ella).
Grieved by his remaining children (Joan, Geoff, and Mary [Rainer]), grandchildren (Rachel [Pieter], Kate, Miranda, Spencer, and Dexter) and great-grandchildren (Isobel and Oscar).
Remembered for his extraordinary intelligence and wit, unquenchable love of learning, positive energy, sense of humour, eloquence, engagement, and generosity.
Early years: he was the son of immigrant parents and grew up on the east side of Winnipeg during the depression. With the lack of jobs, most of his family worked at his Uncle John’s corner store. At seventeen Norman hurriedly joined the RCAF with many of his teenage friends and was sent to England. He was stationed at various air bases in England for most of the war, most notably at Wombleton (Canadian Bomber Command) from April 1944 till February 1945. Norman gained the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was appointed as Member of the Order of the British Empire for military service after war end.
Norman received his Bachelor of Arts at University of Manitoba in 1950, was awarded the Edward H Perkins scholarship and went on to receive his Masters from Columbia University in 1951 and his Doctorate at University of Pennsylvania in 1955. As a medieval historian and author, his textbooks were used worldwide.
Other appointments: Chairman, Department of History, Franklin and Marshall College 1960-65
Academic Secretary, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1966-69
Acting Director, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1968
Graduate Co-ordinator, Department of History, University of Toronto1969-71
Chairman, Comité canadienne des sciences historiques 1974-77
Chairman, Humanities and Social Sciences Committee, University of Toronto Research Board 1974-77
Director, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto 1978-83
Advisory Board, Canadian Journal of History 1978-86
Chairman, Nominating Committee, Medieval Academy of America 1985-86
In 1966 he returned to Canada to accept a position at the University of Toronto. A long and fruitful career ensued as scholar, Professor, and other academic appointments, including Director of the Centre for Medieval Studies. His sabbatical studies took him as visiting scholar to the Vatican, Princeton University (US) and Cambridge University (UK). Upon reaching retirement age, his passion for his career prompted him to participate in a landmark Canadian court case regarding age discrimination and mandatory retirement, following which he continued as Professor at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (U of T) until 1990.
Over the course of his academic life Norman achieved many appointments, fellowships and awards but always cherished his family and close friends at his summer time homes in the “islands”, the thousand islands in the St Lawrence river, on Hay and Howe island.
Norman was passionate about everything he did, whether it was fixing a toilette on Hay Island, doing Tai Chi on the front lawn, calculating the right pattern for making a muskoka chair on his radial arm saw, or playing the Oboe for the York symphony. He was a voracious photographer, and sojourned every morning in downtown Kingston during retirement taking pictures. Into old age, in Kingston he founded a computer club for seniors, continued to study languages, particularly German, right into his ninety’s.
Golf was something in his past, and Norman quit playing at 85.
I have included one of Normans short stories at the bottom that was published as recently as March 2017, entitled Culture in Uniform.
“The life given us, by nature is short; but the memory of a well-spent life is eternal.”
― Marcus Tullius Cicero
………. thanks for your emails and condolences folks, we love hearing from you, we will continue to publish them here, thank you so much!
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above is a picture of our family as we travelled to Europe on Normans first sabbatical
Joan, Mary and Geoff
My condolences to Norman’s family. I was a colleague for 20 years, and remember Norman for his wit, his warmth and collegiality. I have not seen him for many years, but I remember him as a good colleague. When I first came to Toronto in 1970, he was one of the people who made me feel welcome
Norman Zacour was a magnificent scholar of medieval times, but he was also a welcoming presence to young historians and to women scholars in the late 1960s.
Natalie Zemon Davis
My sincere condolences for your father Norman and his passing.
I will always remember your father fondly.
The everlasting twinkle in his eye, the ready smile and positive outlook on life were always contagious.
The welcome the Reichert children received at the 1000 Islands camp and all the adventures we had will always remain with me forever.
The huge Red River cereal pots your mother made, standing on the cliff to catch perch and fry them for breakfast and the row boat races are all fond memories.
What fun and all made available, in that special place, by your parents.
The memories of spending fun filled days with you, your sisters and parents were very special times to me.
Peace to your father and family.
A very sad day but one which also evokes a myriad of wonderful happy memories.I will forever cherish my time with Norman both on the golf course and with him and the Zacour family on our respective decks at our cottages on Howe Island.
At this time, my thoughts and prayers are with Joan, Mary and Geoff.
I was at the Center for Medieval Studies as a student when Norman was the director, and he was one of the sweetest and most generous people I met there. I recollect that his retirement present was a chainsaw (to remove trees from his property)! I know, however, that having such people among us for nearly a century does not make losing them any easier. My sincere condolences to all of Norman’s friends and family.
Celebration of Life Details
For friends, family and colleagues of Norman we will gather in a celebration of his life at the Queens University, Grad Club in Kingston, Ontario at 1:00 pm, June 24, 2017.
Please feel free to post messages, condolences or ask questions
The Grad Club – Queens University
The Grad Club - Queens University
162 Barrie Street, Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3K2
Your Messages and condolences will be posted here if you wish
Please feel free to contact us using the web submission form below, to leave condolences, messages and/or RSVP s
Joan, Mary and Geoff
I’m very saddened by the news of the passing of your father. I was lucky enough to get to know Norman a little bit over the past years and I will never forget his love for good food and wine, his intelligence and his unstoppable yearn for knowledge. He was an incredible storyteller with a unique sense of humour, it’s very easy to picture him giving eloquent and passionate lectures to his students. Above all I will remember his kindness and his love for his family. I’m very proud that I can call him my children’s great grandfather. I hope they will in their own way take after him. My thoughts are with you.
It is with great sadness that I offer up my heartfelt sympathy to you, the family.
Norman and his brother Wallace spent much of their youth in Winnipeg, in the company of their eight Zacour cousins; my mother, Adele being one of them.
My earliest recollection of Norman dates back to the mid-fourties, when I was a young girl. I remember he and his beautiful new bride, Betty, visiting our home. Down through the years, he and my Mother kept in touch. After she passed in 2003, Norman maintained contact with myself and another cousin’s daughter, Edwina. Edwina always managed to take Norman on trips down memory lane when he visited Manitoba.
All of those connections via visits, phone, email and post, were so precious. He was the last remaining link to a generation that was quickly passing. He so very often shared his knowledge of our family history with me.
Although I will miss our treasured conversations, I will hear his voice whenever I read his notes. Thank you Norman and God bless you.
Norman taught me many things, especially but not exclusively about the crusades. I took his year-long seminar on the crusades in the Centre for Medieval Studies in the late 1980s. I remember many many things about that class, which had not only Norman as a wonderful professor but a great cohort of students. But what I remember most, and have striven to emulate as a teacher, is that I always left one-on-one appointments with Norman feeling like a genius. I would go in with some level of despair about the paper topic I was thinking of or the paper I was writing, feeling stupid and maybe like I didn’t belong in this profession, and I would come out thinking, Yep, I’m definitely a genius. Norman could do that for you–emphasize the positive, draw out ideas you didn’t know you had, help you crystallize your argument, and (I suspect) convince you that some of his insights were actually yours. I dearly dearly loved him, and although I haven’t seen him in decades, I can still feel that the world is a little bit less wonderful without him. My condolences to his family. I am very sorry for your loss.
Bonnie and I were so saddened to hear about Norman’s passing. It was always such a fun time whenever he came to Ottawa to visit my parents, Elva and Lou Zacour. Norman loved Lebanese food and Mom and Dad would always make his favourites. On one visit, he challenged our 8 year old son, Jamie to a game of chess. Although there was no chess board or pieces at my parents, they made a set out of paper and away they went, laughing throughout the game. Please accept our sincere condolences. We will miss him dearly.
Bob, Bonnie, Jamie and Laurie (Zacour)
I just wanted to extend our sympathy to you and the rest of your family. I remember your Dad and Mom very well. I had the opportunity visit them at a Thousand Islands when I was a teen and saw them on a few occasions over the years. One is the reunion held in Ottawa in 1986 and this is a picture of Norman and Wally and Lou. I do know that your Dad and mine had a great and loving friendship as well as the bond of cousins.
Bob and I are going to attend Norman’s memoriam in Kingston on June 24th and hope to reacquaint with the Zacour clan.
With deepest sympathy,
Linda, Ken, Holly & Tracy Krauter
My sincere condolences to Joan, Mary and family.
I am so thankful to have known your father for a brief time.
He was so clever and humorous and had such a quick wit!
I remember a very early morning showing him that his books were available online and he quickly remarked in a self deprecating manner: “People actually pay for that ****?”
Special man. Thankful to have known him.
It was our daughter Erica, 2 years old at the time, who first introduced us to the Zacour family 60 years ago. She had again escaped from the watchful eye of her mother, leaving her shoes on the concrete steps of our 4 apartment building in Norwood, Pennsylvania to which we had recently moved from New York State. Rita, in a state of near panic, tracked Erica down 3 apartment buildings away where she was babbling with a baby in an outdoor playpen. The baby was Geoffrey Zacour and through that meeting Rita and Betty bonded and a six decade family relationship was born.
At that point in time Norman was away in Rome researching in the Papal Library doing his Doctoral thesis where he persisted in taking more pictures than his budget allowed making it Betty’s problem to resolve by juggling her limited resources. It was also the time when Elizabeth developed her fatal blood infection and Rita, with Erica, often visited and helped Betty by caring for Joan and Geoffrey while Betty went to see Elizabeth in the Philadelphia hospital.
We then met Norman upon his return from Rome, and as he quickly eased Zacour family life realised the vitality of his personality
I am Herb, Rita’s husband, an engineer working for GE in the fledgling aerospace industry of that time. As the son of first generation and relatively poor parentage, my exposure to broadening life experiences was limited and I was absolutely taken aback by my early interactions with Norman. He conversed on most any subject with an absolute authority of knowledge and if perchance an area of discourse arose wherein you had a cyber edge, you had to be on guard at your next meeting with him for he would have girded his loins in preparation. He was a forever student and teacher exuding constant charm, joy and enthusiasm. Norman was fun to be around and have around. Through Norman and some of his cohorts I gained an appreciation for the vast world that existed outside the technical fields defining my early professional work. Rita was similarly affected but to a lesser extent since she had obtained a Liberal Arts degree. We often recall attending a low budget wine & hors d’oeuvre party at the Zacour apartment at which Norman showed his Italy slides to a rather large gathering of fellow doctoral students and professors.
We felt honored to be invited. Norman’s pictures were wonderful, Betty was glad she had scrounged the film money, Norman gave a sterling performance, the wine was Mateus, the hors d’oeuvres were teeny hot dogs, and the conversations were generally opaque – – but Rita and I left with a desire to travel and I was nudged towards a broader vista of knowledge.
Over time our families became more geographically separated but managed to stay connected with visits during the Philadelphia, Lancaster, Toronto and Kingston years and we shared wonderful family vacation time at the Thousand Islands. Our four children have many treasured memories of their times with the Zacours and especially of Norman and his witty, infectious and intrepid spirit. He inspired us to pursue a lifetime of travel and expand our cultural and knowledge vista. Norman often whistled as he worked or walked. We will always hear him.
The Reichert Family
Herb & Rita Reichert
On behalf of the CMS students who never got to meet Norman but who benefit now from his gift of support, many thanks once again. Norman played a crucial role in development of the Centre during and after its formative years, and has a permanent place in its history, as also in the hearts of the students whom he taught and the colleagues with whom he worked.
Norman was a great model, as a teacher, scholar, and human being. I still recall his marvelous seminar on the Avignon papacy, which was among the most demanding but also among the best classes I took as a graduate student at CMS in the late ’80s. Norman’s style has influenced every seminar I have taught over the past 26 years. He will be missed. Please accept my condolences on your loss.
Hello Joan, Geoff and Mary —
I was very saddened to hear of Norman (and Betty’s) passing. I remember them well — first when I TA’ed in medieval history with Norman in the History Department at U of T. Later I visited with my husband Thayron many times at Howe Island, and I remember all of you there too. What a lovely family! Norman was the most enthusiastic, generous and kind scholar I’ve ever met — and so much fun as well! And the hospitality at the cottage was always first-class! Thank you for the site and for all the memories. I wish you peace.
So sad to learn of Norman’s passing. He stood out in the History Department for his warmth, wit,humanity, scholarship, and as many have said: twinkle in his eye. Always a positive experience when our paths crossed.
I was one of your dad’s students back in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Most of us, of course, knew that we wanted to be professors before we came to Toronto, but your father showed us the kind of professors we wanted to become. I am so sorry for your loss.
Norman Zacour was a wonderful teacher: funny and lively and supportive but also candid when he thought you were pursuing a dead end. I was lucky to know him and owe him a great deal. My sympathies to his family: he spoke of you often and clearly loved you very much.
My deepest condolences to Norman’s family on his passing. Although I only got to know Norman over the past few years we went out for walks together and I considered him a friend. He had a quick wit and great sense of humour. I have never known anyone with such a positive outlook and so full of gratitude. I will miss him.
Norman and Betty became close friends after Norman and I joined the Department of History in the late 60’s. In addition to our shared time as colleagues in the Department, when Norman and I found ourselves on the same side of most contentious issues, we shared time on the golf course, Saturday morning shopping at the St. Lawrence market and on research leave at Clare Hall, Cambridge. My family has many happy memories of our time renting the Zacour cottage on Howe Island and our son, Simon, cherishes the chess board made for him by Norman. Norman and Betty were at Ann’s and my wedding and we spent many happy hours with the two of them drinking their favourite tipple, Gigondas. Ann and I are greatly saddened by both their deaths.
Joan and Family. Please accept my heartfelt sympathies. I was sad when I saw this notice in the paper. Norman was such a robust gentlemen he was always had a big smile and a hug for me when I was at St Lawrence Place whether it was when we were moving him or there to work with someone else. I loved reading his stories published in the Vista Magazine, he was a man that left no stone unturned we are richer for having met him. May he and Betty rest in peace together.
I worked with Norman on Vista, the monthly magazine of the Seniors Association in Kingston. When I arrived as Editor, he was one of the fine columnists we published monthly. He continued to write personal reminiscences regularly for Vista, and we met frequently as the Seniors coffee shop. It was always a pleasure to encounter him., He always had a twinkle in his eye, a big smile, and a lively story to tell. His enthusiasm for life was quite contagious, and he will be very much missed.
One of Dad’s short stories, and published as recently as March 2017 in his seniors magazine entitled……Culture in Uniform
by Norman Zacour
A civilized, perhaps old-fashioned, view of life in uniform was reflected in the Royal Air Force classification of “Musician”. This was a category comparable to such other “trades” as Rigger, Fitter, Cook, MT Driver, Clerk, and the like. Of course, there’s nothing surprising about musicians in uniform; they were needed to fill the military bands that played the marches behind which the rest of us occasionally strode on public parade. But here we were late in 1942, on an airfield near Topcliffe in Yorkshire which we were in the act of taking over from the RAF, grateful that they had left a staff to handle things until our own personnel arrived in sufficient numbers from Canada. A large wave of these, including me, had recently arrived on the over-crowded Queen Elizabeth, its construction not quite finished before being pressed into service as a troop ship. There were 17,000 people on board. I can still remember our stateroom on A deck, promising luxury with an indented wall surrounded by muted, indirect lighting, designed to embrace the head of a large bed – the sort of thing we only saw in movies. What we really had to sleep in, however, were six triple-decker bunks for eighteen of us to squeeze into. At least we had a private bathroom, even if it didn’t have a door!
Oh yes, musicians … among the many RAF staff who stayed on with us at Topcliffe during the transition were two musicians, a violinist and a pianist, real pros. Their function, apparently, was to entertain and so raise the morale of the rest of us. None of your simple pop tunes, mind you. Each week the two of them would visit in turn the Airmen’s Mess, the Sergeants’ Mess, and the Officers’ Mess, to play a half hour or so of classical music – lots of stock items often heard those days in tea rooms, but also some spirited performances of things like Pablo de Sarasate’s Zapateado from his Spanish Dances – no small feat, that.
My only experience of anything faintly comparable was back in Camp Borden a couple of years earlier, where the record player in the Airmen’s Mess actually had a recording of Sibet~l’n.’ Finlandia, a stirring piece of classical music keeping strange company with the popular tunes of the day. Surprisingly, it was played more frequently than any of the other records, even the most popular song of the year, “Oh Johnny”, sung by Wee Bonny Baker. Remember her?
Anyway, some might snicker at the attempt to bolster the morale of the troops with bits of classical music. Indeed, Sarasate and his like could hardly hold their own against the big band recordings of the time, like Glen Miller’s “That Old Black Magic”. But in retrospect I have to marvel at the influence of the many cultural activities that continued to flourish under the most difficult conditions, and the earnestness of those who sought to bring them to men and women in uniform. For example, the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute (NAAFI) in England arranged popular entertainments that often went far beyond song and dance affairs. I can thank the NAAFI for the first live play I ever saw, George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. It was a satire, a witty but serious play about serious things. What especially thrilled me was that it starred Robert Donat, whom I had seen in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, a very popular movie that you may remember used to turn up occasionally on late night TV.
After closing in London, Heartbreak House had gone on the road, sponsored by the NAAFI, to play at military bases throughout England. I recall Donat’s feigned concern about whether the ham sandwiches we fed him in the mess after the performance reflected our view of his performance, a mild joke he must have used many times before. I also remember his very sincere interest in watching the planes takes off on a bombing mission later in the evening.
But what I remember most of all was the cultural missionary work and continued even outside of official circles. I suspect that there were many who had experiences similar to my own. My introduction to the historical monuments that surrounded us in Yorkshire came at the hand of three older officers, who felt for some reason that they could never forgive themselves if they didn’t introduce me to medieval monasticism by dragging me through the remains of Fountains Abbey.
Nowadays the ruins of this famous Cistercian monastery are carefully guarded, but at that time we saw no fences, no caretakers (they were busy elsewhere) – just grass, trees and the remains of stone structures hollowed out by time, open to anyone to wander about freely. I also got a good dose of medieval architecture from my instructors via that mighty fortress of medieval divinity, York Minster, and also spent some time admiring the splendours of Ripon Cathedral. That’s where I met my first misericord – you know, those curious half-seats with biblical figures carved on the underside, which leg-weary choristers could lean against or half-sit on when they had to stand through a long service.
Then too, there was live theatre – repertory theatre, they called it. It had been usual for many cities in England to support a resident rep company, often presenting a different play each week, either a revival from the full range of classics or, if given the chance, a new play the rights for which might have been recently released after a West End or Broadway run. There was just such a company in York, easily reached by bus from all of the Canadian airfields, scattered about as they were just north of the city. To boys raised on weekly Saturday afternoon 10 cent movies, usually starring Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, or Hoot Gibson, it was certainly different, but it
played on sensitivities we never knew we had.
And there was opera! Our Staff Sergeant Major twisted my arm to join him in seeing the Sadler Wells Opera company, also playing in York. The Sadler Wells Theatre was in London, but it had to be closed because of the bombing. The company itself, however, never quit. Now homeless, it simply went on a five-year tour of the provinces. All its productions were in English translation, to attract audiences unfamiliar with opera. I confess, I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the Sergeant Major’s invitation. While I had learned in the mess bar all the words to “On Ilkley ~~Ioor”, I had the usual prejudices of the musically ignorant, and only gave in because I felt that it didn’t pay to irritate those of higher rank. The work we went to see was called The Marriage of Figaro, about which I knew nothing. But when the lights went down and the overture began, darned if I wasn’t suddenly at home in Winnipeg, listening to one of my father’s records on the old Victrola, which my brother and I used to fool around with, changing its speed and the like. The familiar music was both a shock and magical moment, while we were suddenly dazzled by the brightly lit stage when the screen went up, with Susanna sitting at a mirror trying on a new hat for her upcoming wedding, and Figaro, down on his knees, measuring space for the nuptial bed. They were both singing, Susanna crying in a bright voice “how do you like my new hat”, while Figaro, paying her no attention whatsoever, went on measuring the floor and singing in a rich baritone “four feet, five feet … “. It was a delightful moment, soon to be followed, some of you may remember, by a wild plot of jealousy, revenge, and frustrated seduction all wrapped up in the gorgeous music.
This was culture? I was hooked!