On June 30, 2015, David Frank retired from the University of New Brunswick Department of History. Over his 35-year career at UNB he supervised over 30 MA and PhD students, and was the editor of Acadiensis from 1981-1986, 1991-1994 and 1998-2001. On the occasion of his retirement we have asked a number of his former students and colleagues to reflect on David and his contributions to the study of Atlantic Canadian history. This is the first post in a series.
by Don Nerbas
In 2004 I left my hometown of Winnipeg to pursue an MA in History at UNB. I had come for David Frank, who had been strongly recommended to me by Nolan Reilly at the University of Winnipeg. Before leaving Winnipeg I had the opportunity to meet the late David Montgomery, the eminent American labour historian, at a public event. Nolan introduced me and explained that I would soon be departing for New Brunswick. Montgomery’s response was adamant. I was fortunate, he said, to have the opportunity to study with David. He was right.
There are many reasons to celebrate David Frank and his career. His published work has consistently demonstrated a depth of research and analysis equaled by few. His work also reminds us of the power of a well-developed narrative in history writing. David, in my view, performed one of the great historical recoveries and reconstructions of his generation in his monumental biography of the Cape Breton labour leader J.B. McLachlan.
Yet David does not view the production of scholarship as the singular product of individual brilliance, but of collective effort and exchange. Through the New Brunswick Labour History Project, he has been instrumental in recent years in supporting new work on New Brunswick labour history, some of which he has written himself. His editorial contributions to Acadiensis and Acadiensis Press are also part of this record of intellectual generosity. I could go on.
But the main statement I want to make here is about David’s record as a teacher and mentor. David supervised 33 graduate students to completion during his career, and served on many more thesis committees. What is most impressive about this is not the number of students supervised, but the time and effort committed to each. Anyone who has been lucky enough to work with David will understand what I mean.
Feedback on chapters was always meticulous and came with a lengthy typed-out note. Conversations were also usually lengthy, and always illuminating. I also came to better appreciate the breadth and depth of David’s knowledge. When our conversations moved to diverse and sometimes arcane subjects, he always seemed to be able to recommend the principal five or so texts that one should read.
I had the feeling that David was looking out for me. And I don’t think my experience with him was unique. Like many students who enter graduate school, the academic world was largely foreign to me. David helped me to understand and navigate it. He kept his eyes open for professional opportunities that might suit me and advertised my work to others. His guidance and advice was of undoubted importance in facilitating my career.
David’s efforts as an educator indeed have a moral quality and purpose. He does not only study and write about the historical experiences of working-class people. He has been shaped by and identifies with the best of working-class principles: a keen sense of fairness, a suspicion of various forms of status and privilege, and an instinctive tendency to side with the underdog.
The car that I drove from Winnipeg to Fredericton in 2004 was on its last legs by around 2007, and the tires severely worn. David offered me a spare set that he had. The size wasn’t right, so I couldn’t take them. But the offer says something about him. In an age when exchange value is increasingly used to evaluate everything, even the humanities, we may look to David’s record of scholarship, teaching, and public engagement as a source of inspiration and powerful example of the social value of what historians can do. It is a model to emulate. We may even hope that, as McLachlan told the coalminers, “both the grave and womb of time are fighting with us.” And certainly, even though he is no longer earning a salary, David will be as busy as ever.
Don Nerbas is an Assistant Professor of History at Cape Breton University. He completed his PhD under David Frank in 2010.