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Monday September 6, 2010

Dedicated to the pursuit of lifelong learning

Founder of Thomas More Institute for Adult Education had fierce vision and passion for knowledge

Special to The Globe and Mail

MONTREAL -- For decades, Charlotte Tansey put in a harder day than most. Only she did it at night, leaving the apartment she shared with her sister in the early evening and working steadily at her desk until dawn. As a founding director in 1945 of the much-lauded Thomas More Institute for Adult Education, she was a night owl by choice, preferring her books, art and a good glass of red wine to pointless interruption and idle chitchat.

It was not a vocation but rather a calling. No-nonsense and occasionally prickly, Tansey, who died on Aug. 26 at the age of 88 from kidney failure, was so devoted to a life of learning that she remained celibate all her life in order to better serve that purpose. She often said she had no time for children and domesticity. How could there be time when the school, named for the Renaissance writer, social philosopher and Catholic martyr beheaded by Henry VIII, demanded it all?

"Thomas More was Charlotte's baby, her real passion," said Heather Stephens, the school's registrar and academic co-ordinator. "The extraordinary thing was that she helped create courses every year that gave people something they weren't even aware had been percolating under the surface, questions they'd never before even thought of asking. She helped open people up because she was so open herself. When you were speaking to her, you felt she was really listening."

Even on Fridays, when Thomas More was closed to give the rest of the staff time off, Tansey never lost sight of it. She went shopping, not for the latest in fashions, but for delicate, colourful hand towels that she placed throughout the institute's bathrooms.

"When people washed their hands, it pleased her that they would dry them with something that was at once utilitarian and beautiful," Stephens said. "It was the paradox of her. She was a person of the mind but that didn't mean she didn't recognize or appreciate a beautiful piece of art or jewellery - or a hand towel."

The passion for learning came naturally to Tansey. The eldest in a family of five children, her parents, Michael and Charlotte Tansey, placed a premium on a good education, even during the Great Depression, when work and money were scarce. Somehow, the couple managed to cobble together enough to make sure their four daughters and one son all got university degrees. In a way, there was little question that they'd do otherwise: Young Charlotte's maternal grandfather, James Hunter, a former Presbyterian minister from Scotland, had immigrated to Montreal and started a school to prepare young men for a higher education. His grandchildren deserved as much, he'd thunder, if not better.

At the same time, young Charlotte and her siblings were raised as Catholics, the faith of their father. Each Sunday, they'd be dressed in their best clothes and go to mass, leaving their stern, hard-working mother behind.

"It was like their mother's religion was cast aside," said Dr. Moira Carley, a long-time friend. "In the end, it left Charlotte with a great tolerance and acceptance of many forms of religion and, I guess, non-religion. She didn't have much time for piety or religiosity, but she was a woman of deep faith in the sense that she accepted and lived in the mystery of human life."

Tansey first studied English literature at Marguerite Bourgeoys College in Westmount, which was affiliated with the Université de Montréal. After that came an M.A. at McGill University, where she wrote her thesis on Gertrude Stein, the expat American writer known for her Paris salon, art collection and various relationships at the turn of the 20th century.

She continued that tradition of education and reading with her own nieces and nephews, even starting up a "lending library" under the guest bed at her brother's lakeside cottage in Sainte Adèle, about 80 kilometres north of Montreal. That was how the children were both introduced to books such as the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis and learned responsibility by having to check them out and return them within the prescribed period of time.

In 1945, Tansey and several friends started Thomas More, with its emphasis on adult education through question and debate rather than rote and lecture. The idea was to give people a place to complete a degree at night; to that end, the school had the right to award undergraduate degrees through arrangements, first with the Université de Montréal and then Bishop's University in Quebec's Eastern Townships. Courses ranged the gamut, from dealing with the Christian identity as a personal vocation to issues over the Holocaust.

The tradition of challenging variety continues to this day, with a current curriculum that includes "A Hitchiker's Guide to the Symphony," "The Greek Tragedies: Mirrors of Desperation?" and "How Do We Assess the Quality of Life?"

With accolades that included honorary doctorates from Bishop's and Concordia University, Tansey's own life was influenced by the work of Northrop Frye and theologian Bernard Lonergan, who believed you could be authentic as long as you were attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible. She was wont to say that the good is the sum of judgments made over a lifetime, through triumphs and trials.

She continued to live by that mantra when health problems related to diabetes forced her in 1998 to give up the presidency of the institute and leave her apartment for a room in an assisted-living residence. The transition was not easy - she had problems letting go of power and was often caustic to those who took her place - but she was always looking for ways to adapt to her new situation and connect with people.

"There she was, losing her eyesight and confined to a wheelchair and during visits, I'd often find her sitting with people who had dementia," Carley recalled. "I expected to feel her rage but instead, she mostly accepted this new way of being with the same steadfast attentiveness she brought to her earlier life.

"Once, when she was in the emergency, I overheard her ask forgiveness of someone she had hurt a lot," Carley continued. "When he left, she whispered, 'Now, if only I can forgive myself.' I think in the end she mellowed. She was fierce about her vision and she was right. There are no teachers. Everyone is a learner."

Even Tansey's dying became a lesson. It was there when she lay in her hospital bed surrounded by friends and she stated that she'd always wondered what the last moments of life would be like. And it was there during another old friend's visit only a few days before she died. By then, she was barely conscious and seemed incapable of speech. The friend sat there, silent and meditative, until it was time to leave.

"Charlotte, I'm going now but I'll be back," she said.

Somehow, Tansey found the strength to whisper: "Friendship persists."

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