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A tribute to Robert Monahan (1928-2020)

September 14, 2020

“Bob always thought Canada had something important to teach the United States and for that matter the world”—Don Alper

Bob Monahan was a splendid man and a giant in the field of Canadian Studies. Bob, one of the early Canadian Studies pioneers, dedicated much of his career to building Canadian Studies in the United States. A native of Washington State who earned his Ph.D. in geography at McGill University, Bob quickly learned first-hand how woefully uninformed Americans were about Canada. For him, this was a fact of life; but a fact that could and should be changed. He was appointed to the geography faculty at Western Washington State College (not yet a university) in 1955. By the early 1960s, Bob was discussing with colleagues the need for a Canadian Studies program at Western. His passion and persuasiveness prompted one of his students—a local ophthalmologist with family and business ties in Canada—to mount an effort to persuade business leaders and members of the Washington State congressional delegation to provide funds to help the college build a program. Bob was one of the founders of the Canadian-American Studies Program at Western, launched in 1971. That same year, Bob attended the founding meeting of the American Association of Canadian Studies. In 1976, Bob was appointed director of Western’s program, succeeding Gerard Rutan.

Bob’s list of successes during his 16 years as director are legendary. He quickly converted the small, fledgling program into a multifaceted Center offering a major and minor, a research fund for Canadian Studies faculty, a teacher outreach program that quickly became a national leader, and a variety of faculty and student exchanges. He persuaded the president of Western to give the Center a building of its own—the old President’s House which was renamed Canada House, the new headquarters for Canadian-American Studies. Bob led the effort to secure federal funding for a Title VI National Research Center that partnered Western with the University of Washington. Bob came up with the idea and did the heavy lifting that resulted in the establishment of two endowed chairs at Western, the Ross Distinguished Professorship of Canada-U.S. Business and Economic Relations and the Distinguished Professorship of Canadian Culture. Many scoffed at the notion that a small liberal arts college in the top corner of the country could muster the funding, administrative and community commitment to successfully create these endowed chairs. Bob, as always, proved the doubters wrong.

For Bob, Canadian Studies was a labor of love. Bob, with almost no staff and very little dedicated college funding, worked tirelessly to build the program. To call it “bootstrapping” (as many in the college administration did) would be to miss the mark. For Bob, building Canadian studies in the United States was vital to ensure that the myriad human, business and political relationships between the two countries would occur in an atmosphere of respect and trust. Bob always thought Canada had something important to teach the United States and for that matter the world. He believed that the spirit of the longest undefended border in the world was more than a cliché, but a special condition that needed to be nurtured for the good of the people of our two countries, and to serve as a model for the world. He was dismayed, even sickened, by the way the border was treated after 9/11.

There is too much good that Bob accomplished to even scratch the surface in this tribute. He taught his students and colleagues a great deal and was an example of how to be a loving farther, an honorable and successful faculty member and a valued member of the community. Bob was not interested in taking credit for his good work. His motto was it is not important who gets the recognition; results are the only thing that matters. Nobody would work harder in pursuit of ends that would benefit the program or so many other causes he championed (most having to do with social justice). And, as so befits this honorable man, Bob would never have anything to do with fundraising or other activities that could be seen as benefitting him.

Bob’s professional legacy speaks for itself. I am so lucky to have known him, learned from him and had the high privilege of calling Bob and his beautiful wife Marilyn very special friends.

Bob Monahan died peacefully of natural causes on August 8th, 2020.

Don Alper
Bellingham Washington
September 4, 2020

Don Alper served as the director of the Center for Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University for over 20 years (1993-2014) and as founder and director of the Border Policy Research Institute from 2005-2014. A professor of political science, Don dedicated over 40 years to teaching and conducting research in political science and Canadian Studies. Don is a talented scholar and professional who is passionately interested in Canadian-U.S. cross border issues and who, himself, built the Canadian studies program at Western into a national leader in the field. Don is currently writing a book on the history of Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University tentatively titled, Bridging the Longest Border: A History of Canadian-American Studies at Western Washington University. Now Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Don continues to advise on Canadian studies and write articles on environmental issues in Canada-U.S. relations.