Obituary: Gerry Jordan, Associate Professor Emeritus of History (1933 - 2012)

It is with profound sadness, we announce the unfortunate news that our retired colleague Gerry Jordan, Associate Professor Emeritus of History and Senior Scholar, passed away after a prolonged struggle with cancer yesterday, Wednesday 15 August, at 7.00 a.m.

Gerry was brought up in Southend-on-Sea in Essex on the south-east coast of England during the Second World War, after his family had been evacuated there during the Blitz. After a youthful career as, among other things, a radio officer on British commercial and passenger vessels and for two years an air-traffic controller at Goose Bay, Nfld, Gerry went to Parsons College in Iowa as a mature student. With the support of his wife Gail, he graduated and continued to the University of California at Irvine to study British naval history under Arthur Marder, a well known maritime historian. Like many of his generation, he was hired to join the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts at York in 1970 well before finishing his Ph.D. He duly gained his doctoral degree in 1974 from UC Irvine after successfully completing his dissertation on “The Politics of Conscription in Britain, 1905-1916”.

Throughout his career Gerry taught 19th- and 20th-century British politics and 20th-century British culture, gaining many very loyal students in the process. In particular, he ran a very popular fourth-year seminar on war and society in early 20th-century Britain. Groups from his seminars in the 1970s and 1980s continued to meet socially and to visit him up to and well past his retirement. He worked hard to help those, especially from backgrounds new to the university experience, who were struggling to find a place at York. Assigned an office in McLaughlin College, Gerry devoted many hours to college life and McLaughlin students, serving as senior tutor and in wide variety of other responsible roles. He continued to be a mainstay of McLaughlin College life and was preparing a history of the college at the time of his death. He gently mentored a number of younger colleagues who joined the college and all those who, for a time, comprised a sizeable colony of York historians and others scattered about the region north of York and even into southern Simcoe county.

After some early publications on modern British radicals, Gerry focused his research on British naval history, not least the heroic figure of Admiral Lord Nelson, on whom he published a series of important articles, including one in the prestigious Journal of British Studies (vol. 28.3, July 1989). He also edited Naval Warfare in the 20th Century: 1900-1945. Studies in Honour of A. J. Marder (London: Croom Helm, 1977). He extended his range to explore the place of other admirals in British society in the Hanoverian period and to probe various naval campaigns involving British fleets in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In 1988, he edited and contributed to the volume British Military History: A Supplement to Robin Higham’s Guide to the Sources (New York: Garland).

Within the Department, Gerry assumed a series of important administrative roles during the 1980s, chairing the Curriculum Committee at a time of some major policy changes and serving as Undergraduate Director under Paul Lovejoy and then Richard Hoffmann from 1986 to 1988. Two years before his retirement, he was happy to serve as Coordinator of the interdisciplinary Programme in East Asian Studies and on the Executive Committee of the York-University of Toronto Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies.

In the later 1980s, he switched his focus to Asian ports and archipelagoes, which in part reflected his own earlier maritime experiences in the region. He enjoyed a very successful year as a Visiting Exchange Professor at the National University of Singapore in 1989-90. As a result, he returned to York to pioneer new courses during the 1990s on the history of Singapore, Hong Kong, and Vietnam and focused his British history seminar on British military and political affairs in the region. He published a series of reviews in various journals relating to southeast Asia, including Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs. Behind the scenes, he was a significant moving force behind the expansion of the Department’s commitment to the field of East and Southeast Asia.

For the last twenty years, both before and after his formal retirement from York in 1998, Gerry went on a series of academic exchanges and took up various visiting professorships in Singapore (at the National University of Singapore), Hong Kong (at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the graduate History programme), and Japan (at Meiji University), as well as travelling extensively across the entire area from Burma to Korea and from central China to Indonesia. He returned to York to teach his course on Singapore for several years after his retirement. On his own or with Gail at his side, Gerry sailed or steamed up the Yangtse, Mekong, Irrawady, and other rivers draining the interior of Borneo and Sumatra. He loved to talk to ordinary people, and did so despite never really studying any local languages, and took many splendid photographs of those fascinating parts of the world. Post-retirement, Gerry frequently lectured on cruise ships plying the waters of the south and east China seas, mostly smaller vessels which visited all sorts of out-of-the-way ports of the region. He also became and remained a principal and much-loved mentor to a great array of students from the whole region, helping them adjust to Canada and York, providing wise counsel and inviting them into his home. Former students and mentees became his and Gail’s hosts every time they returned to Asia. He was universally revered and loved by his students as everyone’s “grandpa” away from home.

Gerry Jordan was throughout his career and in retirement a person with an inquisitive mind and a generous spirit. He remained cheerful, calm, and provided eminently sensible and valuable advice to colleagues and students alike. He always had time to share a story or hear the latest news from the Department’s staff on his regular visits to the main History office from his McLaughlin base. He will be much missed by all his many friends, colleagues, and students in the Department of History, at McLaughlin College, and more widely at York, but also in King City, his home for many years, at the Jordan’s retirement community in Ballantrae, and across the globe. There will be a private cremation ceremony. A memorial event will be held in McLaughlin College in the Fall.