By Melissa Wang | Image by Alyson Rozells
In March this year, Yale-NUS College lost a remarkable man who was a friend, mentor, colleague and teacher deeply loved by the community. Last Friday, a crowd filled the Performance Hall, to mourn this great loss, to celebrate his life, and most importantly, to remember him – Professor Bernard Bate, or more affectionately known to many of us as Barney.
His sudden passing while on sabbatical in California, had come as a shock to the Yale-NUS College community. At the memorial service, our heavy sadness was often broken with light-hearted moments and tears punctuated with laughter, something we know he would have loved. This stood as a testament to his effervescence, big personality and cheer that he would always bring to a room.
“Barney was such a joyful person that even on this sad occasion, there was a lot of laughter as his old friends remembered his antics and enthusiasm for life,” Professor Pericles Lewis, President of Yale-NUS College, shared during his opening address at the memorial service.
Beyond the enthusiastic and warm charisma, Professor Bate was a man who loved deeply. His love for the Tamil language and the Indian culture was one that was widely known. Professor Bate was well versed in the language and often communicated effortlessly in Tamil. When he passed away, multiple Tamil press outlets reported on the loss of the renowned Tamil scholar.
Dr Maunaguru Sidharthan, Assistant Professor with the South Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore and a personal friend, spoke of Professor Bate’s love for the language fondly. Speaking about dinner parties Professor Bate hosted, where he would play Tamil songs, Dr Sidharthan shared:
“At times I would tell him, ‘Barney, there are people who do not know Tamil and may not understand Tamil songs so we should play something else’. But he would insist and play the songs. (…) Later I understood by being with him and through our conversations, that he believed the language could be learned and loved through songs, music and oratory. For him, language through these forms could be accessible to anyone.”
It was therefore apt and particularly poignant when Professor Jane Jacobs, Division Head of Social Sciences, recited a Tamil poem The Paradigm by Nammalvar, on behalf of the Division. Later, Abhinav Natarajan (Class of 2018) also performed a Tamil song, Naan Oru Vilayaatu, in memory of Professor Bate’s love for the Tamil language.
Above all, Professor Bate loved his family deeply. The memorial service was attended by two of Professor Bate’s children, Noah and Clio, and many eulogies spoke directly to them, telling them how their father had on numerous occasions demonstrated his deep love for his partner and children.
Though Professor Bate’s work took him far from home, he did however, find a new family in the Yale-NUS community, which he loved wholeheartedly as well. A close friend of Professor Bate for decades and Visiting Professor at Yale-NUS College, Professor John Kelly revealed that it was at Yale-NUS that Professor Bate found a renewed passion and became eager to publish again, for he thoroughly enjoyed his debates and discussions with students as well as teaching at Yale-NUS.
“His work was utterly unlocked,” Professor Kelly remarked, marveling in the way Professor Bate had started publishing. He shared that the Stanford Humanities Center Fellowship that Professor Bate had been awarded in 2015 was “only a fragment of it”.
As Professor Kelly puts it, “Things were strangely excellent in Barney’s life at the very moment of his death.” He attributed Professor Bate’s rekindled passion to the students of Yale-NUS.
“Barney Bate died in one of the very best years of his long and successful life, when he had finally found his truest place. (…) The explosion of his writing and charisma of his lecturing was in relationship to you. (…) Here, he found the audiences that called forth his very best work. He loved teaching, and working with, and writing for you all,” Professor Kelly said in his eulogy, directly addressing students of Yale-NUS.
It is little wonder that the sense of loss over Professor Bate’s passing is perhaps, felt most deeply by the inaugural Class of 2017.
Soh Wee Yang (Class of 2017), for whom Professor Bate had been a personal adviser, took the words out of the mouths of many of his classmates, particularly those majoring in Anthropology. Calling Professor Bate’s absence the “white elephant in the room” that everyone thought about, but no one spoke of. Wee Yang reminisced how Professor Bate was one of the first few faculty they had interacted with.
“I remember the lecture he delivered to the Class of 2017 on family during our first academic school year three years ago,” Wee Yang recalled.
“His aspirations for the college were infectious,” he added.
Professor Bate also forged deep bonds with his colleagues, and was the best man at Assistant Professor of Humanities, Dr Andrew Hui’s wedding.
Dr Hui shared: “With the passing of Barney, what this young college is witnessing is the making of our first ancestor, our own founding father, and the creation of our own myths and histories.”
The College has lost a precious member of the family. While we will miss him, his contributions to Yale-NUS will continue to be felt by and benefit generations of Yale-NUS students to come.
If you wish to make a contribution, please consider the Bernard Bate Prize, which has been established with gifts from the Yale-NUS College community, in loving memory of our teacher, our colleague, and our friend.
View the memorial service here: