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Charles L. Bertrand (1939-2020): ‘He instilled confidence in the entire Concordia community’

As interim rector from 1994 to 1995, Bertrand led the university through a difficult period
September 28, 2020
By Howard Bokser

Older man with grey hair and glasses, in a tan polo shirt. Charles Bertrand, pictured in 2003. Concordia President Graham Carr: “Chuck was extremely supportive and a great mentor to young colleagues, including me.”

Charles L. Bertrand, the professor emeritus of history who served as Concordia’s interim rector from 1994 to 1995, died on September 11. He was 81.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of Charles Bertrand. He was a great teacher, a superb administrator and a wonderful colleague. He was selflessly devoted to Concordia and steered the university through a very difficult time as interim rector in the 1990s,” says Concordia President Graham Carr.

“Chuck was extremely supportive and a great mentor to young colleagues, including me. Chuck was chair of history when I was hired. He took a chance on me and I will always be immensely grateful for that. We will all miss him dearly.”

The American-born Bertrand earned a BA from Western Washington College in Bellingham in 1961 and an MA from the University of Oregon in Eugene in 1962. He joined Sir George Williams University, one of Concordia’s founding institutions, as a history lecturer in 1967 and completed his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1969.

He became a full-time faculty member in the Department of History in 1971. He served as department chair from 1981 to 1985, when he was named the first dean of the university’s unified Faculty of Arts and Science.

Bertrand remained as dean until 1992 and then became Concordia’s vice-rector of services from 1992 to 1997. During his five-year tenure, he oversaw the completion of the J.W. McConnell (LB) Building, the renovation of the PT Building — now the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall — and the establishment of Concordia as a smoke-free institution.

At the request of the Board of Governors in June 1994, Bertrand stepped in as Concordia’s interim rector — now called president — and vice-chancellor. He remained in the position until August 1995, with the arrival of Frederick Lowy. Bertrand retained his responsibilities as vice-rector of services throughout.

Although he retired from Concordia in late 1999, he again lent the university his experience and steady hand by returning as associate vice-rector of student life and interim dean of students from 2003 to 2004.

During his long university career, Bertrand served on numerous committees and Senate and published works on Western and European social history, particularly on modern Italy.

He earned a reputation as an excellent and dedicated teacher at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and was best known for his popular course The Age of the Dictators, Europe 1914-1945. He proved his commitment to students by continuing to teach every year while serving in the university’s senior administration.

Black and white image of a smiling man wearing glasses

Crucial time

Bertrand helmed the university at a critical moment. The fallout from the Fabrikant Affair had led to a shakeup in the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science and the sudden departure of the rector, Patrick Kenniff, and two vice-rectors in 1994.

In an interview with Concordia’s Thursday Report at the end of his interim term in 1995, Bertrand acknowledged that the early days of his new role posed a challenge. “There was a lot of movement at first to put out fires and to try to control the situation. And then, as we progressed a bit into the year, we tried to establish some goals, particularly to establish openness and transparency,” he recalled.

Bertrand reflected on his experience as chief executive. “What surprised me the most was how much influence you can have by setting a tone. My style, I hope, is direct but civil, and always honest. There’s no doubt that it’s lonely at the top,” he said.

“I was lucky, I had a very good Office of the Rector staff, but there are times when, like it or not, there’s only one person who has to bite the bullet. That’s okay, but it’s not always pleasant.”

He also discussed his achievements. “I’m very proud of the open budget process we got into place and made work. We began to put the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science back where it should be, given its strengths. And we’ve got the Code of Ethics in place now, and the document on educational equity, and I’m proud of that.”

Despite the burden of two portfolios, he kept teaching throughout. “I taught the course I’d agreed to teach because it had already filled,” Bertrand recounted. “And I really love teaching. It added an hour and a half of sanity twice a week to my life.”

That love showed in the classroom, where he enjoyed a great reputation. Among Bertrand’s former students was Donald Meehan (BA 72), who went on to found one of the top sports agencies in the world, Newport Sports Management Inc. “I really had a great experience at Concordia and really wonderful teachers,” Meehan told Concordia University Magazine in 2017. “I still remember a history professor, Charles Bertrand. I would love to see him again.”

Praise from colleagues and friends

In his three and half decades at Concordia, Bertrand worked with and befriended countless fellow faculty, staff, students and others.

Hal Proppe, professor in Concordia’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics, served alongside Bertrand as interim vice-rector of institutional relations and finance from 1994 to 1996.

“While he was interim rector, Chuck showed tremendous leadership in navigating the university through an extremely difficult period to a point of financial and structural stability. He instilled confidence in the entire Concordia community, the Board of Governors, government officials and the media,” Proppe says.

“During this period, there were several serious problems with the government and external agencies that he resolved through skillful diplomacy and his experience as an academic administrator.”

Bertrand impressed Proppe in other ways, too. “We were already friends at the time but I was surprised to discover that he was bilingual. After all, in spite of his name, he came to Concordia as an American. I still recall being impressed by his fluency the first time I heard him give an interview on a French radio station as rector,” he says.

“Chuck was an excellent historian and I learned a number of historical perspectives and ideologies from him. As a mathematician, I wanted to reciprocate but, unfortunately, he was not very interested — I tried once but after a few minutes he said he had leave for an important meeting,” Proppe adds.

“People admired him for being fair, honest and straightforward.”

Catherine Mackenzie, professor emeritus of art history, is another colleague who remembers Bertrand fondly.

“I worked with Dr. Bertrand while he was dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and, briefly, while he was vice-rector of services. I was always invigorated by his sparkling intelligence, his honesty — even when it stung — and his fearlessness in taking up difficult issues,” she says.

“He was passionately committed to Concordia. I think, or better put, know, that we were fortunate indeed he took on the role of interim rector during an extremely difficult time in the history of the institution. I feel privileged to have known him.”

During his days at the university, Bertrand struck many personal friendships as well. “He was a very down-to-earth man and he treated everyone equally,” says former Concordia staff member Julie Blumer, who retired in 2017 after 40 years at the university.

Blumer and her husband became close friends with Bertrand and his spouse, Kathleen O’Connell (BA 89), department administrator in Concordia’s Department of Psychology. She reports that Bertrand was also a great supporter of the Concordia Stingers football and basketball teams.

Deborah MacFadden (BA 78) was another long-time Concordia staff person and wife of the late Dennis Murphy (BA 67), who had been a professor in the university’s Department of Communication Studies.

“Chuck Bertrand was a good friend and colleague of Dennis. As lovers of history, they had many lively discussions on Stalinism, dictatorships and propaganda over the years,” she says. “Concordia played a big role in Chuck’s life, and he never ceased to be engaged in the politics, people and future of the university.”

Longtime Concordia administrator Garry Milton, who retired in 2009 after 37 years at the university, was executive assistant to Bertrand when he was interim rector. “Being a very close observer, I truly believe that the work and personal sacrifices Chuck made while interim rector paved the way for Concordia’s successes that followed,” Milton says.

“I remember well Chuck’s last day as rector. After saying fond farewells to his staff and receiving a call from the chair of the Board, Chuck picked up his coffee cup, packed up a few things he had been working on, left the office and headed back to the GM Building, where he continued his responsibilities as vice-rector,” Milton recalls. “That was Chuck: no fanfare, getting on with what had to be done, always committed to Concordia.”

Milton also recounts talking to a neighbour who was a former Concordia staff member and student. “She mentioned that one of her fondest memories as a Concordia student was of a history professor named Charles Bertrand,” he says.

“After commenting on how much his teaching had inspired her, she told me that Chuck helped her through a difficult time in her life after losing her husband while in his class. She was very clear that it was Chuck’s encouragement that had inspired her to not only finish his class but also complete her degree.”

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