In Memoriam: Renate Usmiani

The following was written by Dr. Peter Schwenger, Professor Emeritus in the Mount’s English department:

REMEMBERING RENATE

Renate Usmiani, Professor Emerita of the Mount’s English department, was a lifelong advocate of dying with dignity; and it was with dignity and grace that she chose to die on August 13 with the help of the MAID (Medical Assistance in Dying) program. At 87, she had for a long time suffered from exhausting and painful ailments, with no prospect of change. So she arranged a small ceremony; and with her family and a close friend at her bedside she courageously concluded a life that was by any standard remarkable.

Born in Vienna in 1931, Renate lived through the tumultuous times following Hitler’s annexation of Austria. In 1950 her family emigrated to the United States, where she obtained her Master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Radcliffe, the women’s college at Harvard. It was there that she met and married Mirko Usmiani, moving to Halifax when he was appointed to teach Classics at Dalhousie. Renate taught in Mount Saint Vincent’s English department until her retirement in 1996, while at the same time making her mark as a scholar with numerous books and articles. As a comparatist, her awareness of European experimental and avant-garde drama allowed her to recognize and promote similar trends in Canadian theatre, with books such as Second Stage: The Alternative Theatre Movement in Canada, The Theatre of Frustration, and more than one study of the Montreal playwright Michel Tremblay, as well as a seminal monograph on Gratien Gelinas.

Renate’s passion for the stage impelled her to found the Mount Playhouse, the first dinner theatre in Halifax. This took place every summer in the Rosaria Pub, in a repertory format of three differently themed evenings. Each evening presented a short play before dinner and a longer one after, as well as cabaret-style musical entertainment. Her choices for the plays reflected her sophistication: they combined literary significance with audience appeal.

Hardly one to settle into a sedentary retirement, Renate mentored a friend in reading German and taught ESL lessons to recent immigrants. Still fit well into her 60s and 70s, she signed up at the YMCA to take a course in instructing elderobics fitness classes. During her last years living at Parkland at the Gardens she gave many helpful hints to the young fitness instructors there, attending their classes regularly well into her 80s.

Renate introduced her students to many figures in European and Canadian cultural history that she declared to be—in an expression typical of her—“enooormously important.” But it was she herself who was enormously important to all who knew her. Renate lived her life with intensity and fierce independence and she did it her way—right to the end.

 

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