For a long time, Del Harnish worked down the hall from me, but we barely knew each other. He did his work in virology. I did mine in haematology. We crossed paths, but oddly, none of our interactions stuck in my memory. Then I met the real Del, the shadowy secret agent, and he would be a vivid character in my life for the duration of our friendship.
I was walking across campus one night. It was dark and still, with a thick fog resting heavily on the ground. Coming up to MUMC I could see someone at the back of the medical centre. He was leaning at an angle against the building, one leg bent back against the wall. He was smoking a sinister-looking black cigarette. As I approached, this mysterious figure took a long drag, tilted his head back and blew the smoke up to feed the fog.
He looked like a character from a black-and-white Bergman movie—a spy, a cat burglar, an agent provocateur!
“Del,” I said, “is that you?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“What are you doing?”
“Thinking,” he said. I was soon to learn that when Del was thinking—which was almost always—amazing things would inevitably follow. In fact, for the next 30 years, I watched Del embrace the role of covert operative and agent provocateur based largely on the power of his thinking. He may have started in virology, but he found his calling in education. He set aside the linear discipline of basic research and moved into a field and a role where his devilish imagination would not be constrained. He always carried with him valuable lessons learned in the lab—the power of a well-framed question, for example—but a figure who could look that cool smoking in the fog was destined for something different than the grind of laboratory work.
Predictably, every time I retold the story of that fateful, foggy encounter, Del would belt out his wonderful laugh. I was never sure if he was laughing at the circumstances of the meeting, at his own image, or at the obvious delight I took in telling the tale.
Around the dawn of the new millennium, our Faculty was looking for someone to lead a novel program called the Bachelor of Health Sciences. With some hesitation, Del took the position and quickly displayed his immense capacity for disruptive and constructive innovation. As the program’s founding assistant dean from 2000 to 2015, he excelled as an educator and champion of inquiry-based, student-centred pedagogy. His vision and character defined the program’s trail-blazing reputation and helped make it the most sought-after undergraduate program in the country.
If ever there was the perfect job for a person who tolerated university rules while dedicating himself to anarchy, it was Del’s job. He would often remark that education should be a full-contact sport. He was a man who loved the scuffling and high sticking in the corners around the pedagogical goal.
Del had a prodigious mind and a formidable memory for the most microscopic and tedious rules and regulations … provided they supported his argument of the day. And when it would be brought to his attention that there was an opposing perspective on the same guidelines, he would give his half smile and simply say, “Well, that’s one interpretation.” One of Del’s several subversive mottos was, “Don’t bend the rules. Break them.” He would often begin his morning with the question, “What kind of trouble can I cause today?” He would just as often end the afternoon by declaring, “The rest of the day is cancelled, due to a lack of interest on my part.”
As the BHSc program evolved into national prominence, Maclean’s magazine declared it to be the finest undergraduate program in Canada and Del soon arrived in my office full of pride, pointing to the article. He said, “You know what’s best about this? Every student arrives wanting to go to medical school and by the time I’m done with them, most realize there are better things to do with their lives.”
His leadership style was ambitious and idealistic, inspiring many. As the vice-dean of undergraduate health sciences education from 2015 to 2018, he was a visionary leader in launching collaborative cross-Faculty programs. Yet, as his influence, profile, and impact expanded, he maintained a delightful inability to suffer fools gladly, and I learned emphatically that I was a frequent inductee into his gallery of dunces. However, the curmudgeon in Del was always quickly overrun by the obvious joy he derived from the colleagues and students who were drawn to him like steel filings to a magnet. It was even more obvious that he adored his wife Liz and children Shaundra and Lauren. Outside of work, you never saw Del without Liz, unless he was at Home Depot.
Del Harnish was one of our country’s most decorated educators. He earned several McMaster and national awards for curriculum development and was a 3M Teaching Fellow, Canada’s highest award for university pedagogy. Yet, these resumé virtues describe Del the same way the word “orange” describes a sunset. Del wasn’t a biography, he was an experience. He was qualitative … and the essence of that quality was that he is irreplaceable.
There are things in life we can read and hear about, but we cannot truly understand until we experience them ourselves. Not coincidentally, these are the most encompassing, confounding, and transforming experiences—things like falling in love, becoming a parent, discovering something revolutionary. With these experiences, we never truly understand until they happen … and Del was a happening.
For someone who loudly professed his love of all things “messy,” Del’s office was surprisingly neat and tidy. I was confused by this juxtaposition until I realized that the order in his office allowed visitors to notice the important things. To me, the most important was a simply hung photograph of our dear friend Del surrounded by his beloved, inspired and inspiring students.
That is the Del Harnish I remember and celebrate.