By Philippe Devos
After 18 years of school, there are only two teachers I remember fondly. When I was 7 years old there was my grade 2 teacher Mrs. Edmonds, whose patience and caring made her the next best thing to a mother.
And 14 years later, as a cynical and hardened 22-year-old journalism student, there was Louis Feldhammer.
Louis started teaching sociology here in 1977 and Ryerson was one of the only colleges or universities that didn’t fire him. No, Louis retired from Ryerson—reluctantly, I think—in the spring.
Students who started here in September will be the first in 22 years who won’t get to experience his irreverent, raucous, high-decibel and moving lectures.
I recall one particularly passionate oration where Louis was, as usual, lecturing right through the midway break of a two-hour period. As his blazing rant against systemic racism reached its crescendo, some students began gathering in the hallway. Louis had his back to the open door but his shrill voice and invective words carried into the hall.
The students in my class were already captivated, silently fixated on the small man who gesticulated wildly and paced the floor in front of us. Slowly Louis’ words and delivery drew the attention of the students babbling in the hall as well. In small groups, they broke from their private conversations and were drawn to the doorway to listen. Within a few minutes, Louis’ lecture has reeled a crowd of students who clustered around the door to hear him hold court.
Lecturing was more than a job for Louis. It is his vocation. Visiting his office would invite a lecture. Stopping him in the hallway for a question would lead to a mini lesson. I know he wanted to keep teaching here but I think he felt unwanted by the administration. At age 67, I think he felt pressure to make room for younger profs.
In his long, colourful career, that’s as willing as Louis had ever been to leave a teaching job. He was fire from his first position at the University of Wisconsin in the ‘60s for giving an entire class A’s to keep them from being drafted to serve in the Vietnam war. He was fired from the fledgling Simon Fraser University in B.C. after the provincial government took control of the department he helped create there.
You see, Louis is a communist. Once a senior organizer in the Communist Party of Canada, he has since become disillusioned with the party but not with the ideology. He’ll be the first to tell you he’s still a godless red commie.
Louis helped create a radically democratic campus at SFU, which threatened the conservative government. He lead protests against the government actions at the university until he and seven other profs were fired from SFU. The profs, known as the “SFU Eight,” were blacklisted. For eight years, Louis applied for jobs at colleges and universities. For eight years, solid job offers were always pulled at the last minute for mysterious reasons.
Finally, the University of Toronto took a chance and hired him on contract to teach one course. It was a success and before long Ryerson hired him,
Louis chose Ryerson over U of T because he liked the students here. “They’re like me,” he says, “and I’ve always liked myself.”
Louis’ teaching career at Ryerson wasn’t without bumps. A history professor here took him to court in 1983 for smoking in the elevators. He received death threats at the school for his work against the Klu Klux Klan. His irreverent, expletive-filled lectures often landed him in trouble after students complained they were being offended. I remember a student in my class storming out of his first lecture in sobs. He shouted the directions to the harassment office at her as she fled, hands on her face.
But he endured at Ryerson, probably because he liked his students so much, and they liked him. His classes attracted a following. Students would take whatever he was teaching just to learn from him. Others not enrolled in his classes would sit in on his lectures. I’ve talked to graduates who took a Louis class here over 20 years ago and they still remember him fondly.
I’ll always remember him fondly too.