On September 7, 2007, Jeff Cormier passed away. To commemorate five years since Jeff's death, I have decided to post the eulogy I wrote and delivered at a memorial service that was held at McGill. In the eulogy, I did my best to honour Jeff's memory by telling typical stories of my friendship with him. My hope is that those who knew Jeff, and maybe a few who never did, will read this and be reminded of the kind of warm, wacky, and compelling human being he was.
Since many of us simply called him ‘Cormier,’ that is how I will refer to Jeff today.
I was a PhD student here at McGill with Cormier. He and I were interested in many of the same topics in sociology. We were never in a class together because Cormier started his studies a few years before I did, but this did not prevent the two of us from becoming friends. In the next few minutes, I am going to tell you a few memories of my friendship with Cormier during the McGill years. I already know that most of you, who were also friends with Cormier, will recognize aspects of your friendship with him in the stories that I recount.
One of the funniest things about my friendship with Cormier is that, if I reflect back on the first couple of encounters I had with him, I never really thought that it would have been possible.
The first time I met Cormier, I got a very bad impression. I stumbled into the TA room early in my first semester in the program, I think 822A in the Leacock Building, and saw this guy holding court with what I assumed to be a group of other graduate students whom I had not yet met. Maybe they were even undergrads. There was a brief introduction, but I really did not like Cormier. Why did I not like Cormier? I didn’t like Cormier because he was this big guy with really long hair who seemed to be very charismatic and animated in his conversation with the others. Durkheim, an early sociologist, suggested that the bond between like and like cannot be as strong as that between unlikes, and since I also had long hair at the time and since I was also known to be somewhat charismatic with my peers, when I saw this guy looking like that and making the others laugh, I just didn’t like it. Who would want to be friends with a charismatic guy with long hair?
Cormier was a very good hockey player, and I think my second encounter with him came after a weekly game at the McConnel Arena that the sociology and geography graduate students used to play back then. I did not really know the guy that much and, after the game, I found myself standing around with him in the lobby of the arena as we waited for the others to emerge from the dressing room. We had a short conversation then and, if memory serves, one of the topics that came up was teaching. I told Cormier that I was pursuing a PhD because I wanted to teach one day. Cormier, so much taller than I am, looked down at me, shaking his head, and said something like, “Avi, you think that as a teacher you have something interesting and enlightening to bring to your students. Your students will want to get good grades. The two things are not compatible.” “Who was this guy and why did he say these terrible things?” I asked myself. That Cormier was so smooth on the ice, but who would want to be friends with a guy who dispenses such disheartening advice?
We didn’t start out as friends.
Strangely, though, as the years of grad school progressed, things really changed for me and Cormier. The more encounters I had with him, the more I found Cormier’s advice to make some sense or to be kind of funny. There was a certain charming irony in the fact that he was into political sociology and loved Trudeau, Gellner, and Charles Taylor, but that I found him to be so apolitical. I experienced hilarity in the way that he would come into my apartment, head straight to my book shelves, and be genuinely tickled to examine some of my new selections, and I was intrigued by the fact that he was a roadie for a local band. There were engaging conversations at meals—a few at his apartment with Julie and many at Amelio’s or at the Vietnamese place at Les Cours Mont Royal—and there was banter, uproarious but always witty banter, in the locker room at the weekly hockey game. We loved to make up nicknames for the profs. Steve Rytina was ‘Stevie Awry,’ Roger Krohn, ‘the Artful Roger,’ and John Hall, well, John was simply John. Cormier admired John Hall as much as a grad student can admire his or her favourite professor.
Cormier and I had become friends after all.
Cormier worked hard while he was at McGill. He worked hard with Axel. He worked hard to complete his degree under the guidance of Suzanne. He always seemed to be working. He often had an article he wanted to share. He always had something intellectual cooking with Philippe. He was serious about sociology. He seemed to know where he wanted to go with this academic thing. I noticed how hard he worked and, in seeing this and reflecting on myself, I thought that I would never make it because I don’t, I can’t, work as hard as this guy does. One day Cormier said, “Avrum” (by this time he would sweetly call me by my full first name) “I treat it like a 9 to 5 job. I work all day and when I leave the library I leave the work behind. The next day at 9 I start over again.” Thinking that I was so clever, I responded to Cormier, “Cormier, I will never succeed at this, I will never be able to work hard enough, I don’t have the Protestant work ethic like you do!” Cormier looked at me and laughed like crazy. He laughed that laugh where you think you must be the funniest person alive. I thought he laughed because he knew it was true, he had the Protestant work ethic. After he laughed, Cormier looked me deep in the eyes and said, “Avrum, I’m Catholic.” I never knew if he laughed then because I thought he was Protestant or because he thought the joke was truly funny.
I am going to wrap up my storytelling now by sharing two quick, but my most favourite, memories of Cormier from those days.
The second last memory occurred when Cormier, Jimmy Kennedy (another grad student), and I were hanging out in a different TA room, it was near Suzanne’s office but I don’t actually remember the room number. Jimmy and I had been talking recently about Cormier and we both mentioned that we could not get over this guy’s laugh. He was out of control when he laughed. Everyone knows it. Everyone! Jimmy and I were so into Cormier’s laugh, that when we sat chatting in that TA room, without really planning to do it, Jimmy and I found ourselves laughing intentionally just to draw Cormier into laughing too. It started and it went on and on and on. Jimmy and I just kept laughing and Cormier laughed even louder. We were like school children. I was sure we were disturbing Suzanne. We put it on so we could derive enjoyment from hearing him laugh and Cormier was totally unaware of what we were up to. That just made the whole thing funnier. Cormier, hearing this story now, would probably say that Jimmy and I were taking the piss to him. We were. We did it out of affection.
My final memory is of when, even though Cormier was a political sociologist who seemed to me to be apolitical, I saw him unexpectedly one day at a very political event. It was not long after I came back from my fieldwork in Israel and I was still all fired up. There was a major downtown rally in support of Israel and there was a small counter-rally organized by those who wanted to stick up for the Palestinians. I went to check this out because this was what I was studying. I was most surprised, part way through the action, to hear my name being called, and to look beyond a fence separating the two sides to see Cormier. “Why was he here?,” I asked myself. That question quickly became irrelevant. What is really important here is that, after I made my way to him and after we exchanged a few thoughts on what we were in the midst of, Cormier told me something that was so great. No one ever knew what Cormier was doing, what projects he was involved with, even though he did a lot. I could not have predicted what he was about to say, but he told me, right in the middle of Israel versus Palestine in downtown Montreal, that he got a tenure-track job at King’s University College at Western. The racket of the demo faded to me. He looked so proud. He looked so pleased. I was so happy for him. I was so happy that he looked so clearly happy with what he had accomplished. The demonstration was just the same old same old. Cormier’s news made it a really wonderful day.
I told you at the beginning that I would present to you my memories about Cormier, the guy with whom I originally never expected to be friends. As with many memories, I cannot be certain that I got the timelines, or even all the details, 100% right. What I am certain of is that the final two memories I shared with you—about Cormier’s beautiful propensity to laugh and about the quiet pride and pure joy he expressed when he told me he landed the job—revealed the qualities that Cormier displayed in abundance. Those are the qualities that enticed me, and so many others, to spend time with him. Those are the qualities that will always come to mind when I think about my dear departed friend.