Remembering Jerry Durlak

Many people will have been deeply saddened to learn of the death last week of teacher, scholar, advocate and mentor Jerry Durlak. After the notice below, I’ve added some words of my own about the exemplary guidance and support he provided me and everyone else in his working orbit.

“For over 50 years, Jerry worked on applied research and development projects internationally, introducing innovations ranging from hybrid corn (Costa Rica), agricultural television programs (Guatemala), connected intelligence in education (Madeira) and symmetrical broadband networks (Canada).

“Jerry created and taught over 20 courses at York University in the faculties of Education, Environmental Studies, Urban Studies, Communication Studies and the Graduate Program in Communication and Culture. He was a faculty member of the Interactive Art and Entertainment Group at the Media Lab (Canadian Film Centre) as well as the Director of the Digital Media Lab (York University).

“Jerry taught and mentored generations of students. He lived life large and strove with his last ounce of strength to reach the unreachable stars; and the world is a better place for this.”

I first met Jerry back in the 1990s, during the halcyon days of a pioneering interactive testbed called Intercom Ontario. This high-bandwidth residential experiment reflected two of Jerry’s finest qualities: his visionary sense of what communications could become with the right effort; and his unfailing desire to see technology serve the public interest and the needs of mainstream users.

I began working closely with Jerry in 2005, when he was instrumental in steering me to a teaching job at York. We were teamed up to handle the lecture course he had created 25 years earlier – Communications for Tomorrow. Far from showing its age, Jerry’s syllabus was fresh, topical and compelling. And far from letting this be a difficult transition, Jerry made the whole experience enjoyable. He was always there to catch me when I tripped over myself, yet deferred to me whenever I thought I had a point worth making.

Jerry had other lessons to impart besides what it takes to prepare and deliver a good lecture. He used a very light touch in the classroom, wasting no time trying to be boss or impose his ideas on students. He gave them his best and expected their best in return; yet for those who fell short, his instinct was to err on the side of generosity.

Jerry’s dealings outside the classroom reflected the same spirit. He always had his sights set on someone else’s needs, or on some worthy cause, be it a project in the developing world or a better way to handle administrative issues. Jerry was simply incapable of being self-absorbed or small-minded, about anything. And what was outstanding about Jerry in good health was even more so as his health declined.

Indeed, I was stunned when I first learned Jerry was seriously ill. There was nothing about his demeanor that gave a hint he was in anything but fine form. He had the same infectious energy and enthusiasm; and he never, ever complained. It was the work that counted, along with the welfare of those who looked to him for inspiration.

Jerry shall be greatly missed. I am grateful I had the opportunity to know him, and to get a sense of what it means to strive for a better life.