What to do with all those honorary degrees?

August 2021
Phyllis Shragge

It’s a bit of a conundrum to value something and hide it away, but I am doing just that.  I have a collection of honorary degrees, framed and ready to hang, yet they are gathering dust in a box in the storage area under my basement stairs.  These degrees aren’t mine, per se, at least I wasn’t awarded them.  They were presented to my father for his major contributions to the law.  

My father received 14 honorary degrees from various universities.  I have seven of these degrees, my brother and sister have the rest.  My collection includes degrees from McGill, Queens, McMaster, and the University of Manitoba.  

My father, Samuel Freedman, was appointed a judge of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench in 1952.  In 1960, he was elevated to the Manitoba Court of Appeal, and in 1971, he was appointed Chief Justice of Manitoba, a position he held until his retirement in 1983.  He was also chancellor of the University of Manitoba, a renowned public speaker and at his core, a humble man.  

He was the son of a junk peddler who sold his wares from a horse and wagon.  My father never forgot his roots.  During his prestigious career, he prioritized social justice issues and the rights of the individual.

The honorary degrees reflect his accomplishments and I feel bad that they are hidden away, but do I really want my entire townhouse to be a shrine honouring my father?  If I hung the degrees, they would take up a good part of a wall.  

I do have some of my father’s memorabilia on display.  On a bookshelf in my basement TV room, I have the Ben Gurion Centennial Award, an engraved bust of the former Israeli prime minister, given to my father by the State of Israel Bonds in 1986.  Next to it is a framed photograph of my father receiving an honorary degree from the University of Western Ontario in 1973. And on another shelf, there’s a statue of the Manitoba bison, presented to my father from the Rotary Club of Winnipeg.

In my office on the bedroom level of my townhouse, I have a poster advertising my father’s life and career in a 2006/2007 exhibit held by the Jewish Heritage Society of Western Canada. Beside it is a large collage of Winnipeg Free Press stories honouring my father after his death in 1993.  On another wall, there’s a picture of my father with Prince Charles as he officially welcomes the prince to Manitoba.

This memorabilia is on view just for me, not for casual visitors.  When most people visit my home they see none of this.  The walls in my front hall, living room and dining room are filled with art.  There is no reference to family history.

When I consider hanging the honorary degrees, I decide: Enough already.  But I wonder what will become of the degrees buried in no man’s land under my basement stairs, hardly visible between boxes of scrapbooks and photographs. When I moved from my house in Hamilton to my townhouse in Ancaster seven years ago, I tried to purge whatever I could.  It took months to sort and prioritize a lifetime’s worth of possessions. Not everything I kept sparked joy, as in the Marie Kondo philosophy, and not everything was useful, but I have few regrets about what I disposed of.  I certainly do not regret throwing out my late husband’s undergraduate notes that he had saved since his days at the University of Manitoba.  Why on earth had he stored them for years then moved them to our house?

When I’m no longer in the picture, I doubt that my children will want my mini shoe collection, or my many, many dishes, or the sterling silver flatware that sits idle in a drawer.  But I can’t see my children tossing the honorary degrees into the garbage. I imagine one of them (likely my youngest son who’s interested in genealogy) will become the curator of his grandfather’s honorary degrees.  Undoubtedly, the degrees once again will be deposited in a box in the corner of a basement.  They will stay there for years, unattended, waiting to be handed down to the next generation. And so it goes.

Phyllis Shragge is a local writer, mother of five, and grandmother of four.