All the world's a stage
And all the men and women merely players
They have their exits and their entrances
And one man in his time plays many parts
William Shakespeare, As You Like It
Left to right: Karol Krotki, Susan McDaniel and Nico Stehr
Karol Krotki certainly played many roles in his long, productive life, as his obituary in the Edmonton Journal clearly reveals. Over the 37 years I knew him (I can hardly believe it was that long!), he played multiple roles in my life and career. When I first moved to Edmonton in 1970, fresh out of Cornell University's International Population Program with the ink not yet dry on my Masters degree, he was my boss at an innovative think tank on social policy and social problems called the Human Resources Research Council, created and sustained, surprisingly, by the Social Credit Government of Alberta.
I had been warned about Karol while at Cornell: "Brilliant," I had been told, "but very difficult, very Prussian." Here I was a young woman shaking in my early 70s boots at the thought of working for this difficult Prussian, whose work I already knew to be brilliant. Much to my happy amazement, it worked very well. I discovered that Karol, contrary to what I had been told, was not so difficult, although he was a tad Prussian at times, in his British way. He had a lifelong deep respect for intellect, for ambition, and for engagement with the world of ideas. He didn't even mind when I disagreed with him rather forcefully, as young people who think they know more than they do tend to!
I knew Karol as boss, mentor, colleague, and friend. Karol supervised my Ph.D. during the years 1974-78, when I worked on the Growth of Alberta Families Survey, which Karol co-led with Krishnan. During part of that period, I commuted to take Ph.D. courses at the U of A from where I lived and taught in northern Alberta. Karol and Ania took me in as a houseguest letting me inhabit their basement during several of my commutes. I got to appreciate the lovely aromas of rich soups simmering on the stove in their beautiful Clifton Place home, as well as the deep love Ania and Karol shared. When I completed the Ph.D., they held a party for me where I remember I almost choked on the high voltage vodka toast which they enthusiastically insisted be taken from small, elegant cups in a single gulp!
Karol kept touch with me during my thirteen years at the University of Waterloo, both directly and indirectly. One indirect contact took me completely aback when Tom Bruzstowski, former President of NSERC, who was then Vice-President Academic at the University of Waterloo, presented me with the University's Distinguished Teacher Award at convocation. As I shook hands with Tom on the stage, and accepted the award, Tom leaned toward my ear, and told me that Karol Krotki had asked him, in Polish, to congratulate me! I didn't know that Karol and Tom even knew each other!
When I returned to the University of Alberta "all grown up" as a Full Professor in 1988, Karol had tears in his eyes as he welcomed me with a kiss on my hand in his inimitable way. We then developed a new relationship, as colleagues, and shared the promotion of demographic research in Alberta through the Population Research Lab, the Warren Kalbach conferences which Karol faithfully attended (as did Warren himself with Madeline for many years), and the Society of Edmonton Demographers which Karol founded and led. Karol was devoted to the Department of Sociology and came to all events for many years after his multiple retirements. We used to refer to him, in all irony, as the 'perpetually retiring Karol Krotki!'
Karol had a mind — and the personality to match — that provoked. He liked to push and prod people, particularly graduate students, but also colleagues, to defend their ideas, not to accept conventional wisdoms as truth. I remember one time when I was a graduate student, driving in a traffic jam in downtown Edmonton, with Karol in the front seat, heading to some kind of meeting with government people. Unexpectedly, he asked me what I thought about David Ricardo's theories! He wanted to discuss very early 19th century political economy theories of taxation and value while we were stuck in traffic! His mind was a ceaseless wonder and an inspiration. He truly lived a life of the mind, and no idea was uninteresting to him.
The four Fellows of the Royal Society in the Department: Karol, Nico Stehr, Derek Sayer and I, used to meet periodically for what Karol called a Fellows' dinner, which Karol often graciously hosted. These were always engaging, unpredictable, and usually contentious, given the cast of characters involved, and the addition of a little too much wine. Karol was one of the few who could reduce Derek to utter silence. The Fellows' dinners continued even after Nico left the University of Alberta, on the occasions of his return. All four of us are now gone from the U of A.
Karol also had a very human, touching side. Two stories bring tears to my eyes as I recall them. One is captured in a photo taken of Karol, my very good friend, Sharon Abu-Laban, Eric McQuaig (Rutherford's grandson) and me, when I was awarded the University Cup in 2002. When I looked at the photo afterward, Karol, standing at the end next to Eric McQuaig, was scowling. I asked him why since he always took such pride in my achievements and awards. He replied, "because I wasn't standing next to you in the photo!" We remedied that at a celebratory dinner party held afterwards, so there is a second photo of Karol and me holding the University Cup — and no one else in the frame — and this time, Karol is beaming!
The other story reveals another side of Karol, his capacity to see the humour in difficult situations, even at his own expense. This was a story from the war, of which he seldom spoke. Karol was leading a platoon of Polish ex-patriates fighting with the British somewhere in southern Europe, when the British dropped in some food supplies by airplane. Karol admitted that at the time, his command of English was shaky, but apparently his English was better than that of the others. One tub, Karol jubilantly told the other soldiers contained 'butter,' a word Karol understood. Everyone gathered round to open up this welcome gift from the skies… and it was ... brown! "Karol," they declared, "the British sent us rancid butter!" And they threw it away. Karol had not yet mastered the English word, "peanut!"
I promised only two stories of Karol's touching side, but I will share a third briefly. An unfortunate skiing adventure led to a very complicated broken leg, a long rehabilitation and multiple surgeries. Most of the time Karol evidenced good cheer about it, talking animatedly to any and all who would listen about "the sweet young things" who provided physiotherapy. When he faced surgery, however, he became worried. I visited him in hospital and found Ania upset that the orthopedic surgeon had declared that he didn't talk to families, only patients! I tried to talk with Karol and found him very worried that they were going to operate on the wrong leg! My contribution, which seemed to soothe his worries, was to obtain a magic marker and let him put a big "X" on the bad leg. He was like Picasso in the satisfaction he took with his artistry!
I began with a dramatalurgical image and I would like to close with one. Acting is, to a large extent as the great, recently deceased Canadian actor, William Hutt said, "… leaving our own beliefs to explore and inhabit those of others." Certainly, that is an apt characterization of the best scholarship and research as well. Leaving our own beliefs behind trains the mind to see, to animate our sense of belonging to a bigger world, one that extends deep in history and forward into possibility. That is what Karol inspired me to try to do and be as a scholar. Karol, I thank you for your inspiration, your wisdom, and feel blessed that your life crossed mine in so many fundamental ways. You were one of a kind, a pioneer in demographic research and counting highly mobile populations. You were a mentor who changed my life and in whose very large footsteps I have tried to follow, with my own drumbeats of course, ever since. You will be very much missed by me and many, many others to whom you were quite simply, a phenomenon, unlike any other.
Susan A. McDaniel, Ph.D., FRSC
Senior Investigator, Institute of Public & International Affairs,
& Professor of Family Studies,
University of Utah
University Professor Emerita
University of Alberta
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