In Memoriam – Del Harnish, 1954-2018

In Memoriam – Del Harnish, 1954-2018

Remembering teh* legacy
of Del Harnish

It is with great sadness that we announce that Del Harnish, assistant dean of the BHSc (Hons) Program from 2000-2015 and vice dean of undergraduate education in the Faculty of Health Sciences, passed away on Monday, November 26, 2018.

Del’s impact on students over the course of his career has been enormous, and tributes and words of remembrance have been arriving from many alumni, students, friends, and colleagues.

Staff in the BHSc office, most of whom worked with Del for many years, recalled his penchant for sweets, his tendency to spill his coffee, and play pranks on everyone – replacing the locks on Teresa’s desk, changing all the adjustments on Penny’s desk chair – and he would often come out of his office to announce “the rest of the day is cancelled due to lack of interest.”

Del was a well-recognized expert and award winner, inducted as a 3M National Teaching Fellow in 1998 and receiving numerous other local and national awards. But Del was not especially interested in awards or recognition, just as he was skeptical about grades and rules.

“I once asked him, ‘you OK if I bend the rules?’” remembers Stelios Georgiades, a BHSc instructor. “Del told me, ‘I need you to break them, not just bend them.’”

Patangi Rangachari, professor emeritus and long-time BHSc instructor, remembers co-teaching with Del. “In the first year cell biology course, my chaos and his chaos came together,” he laughs.

“When I was an undergrad at McMaster in the ‘90s, Del was pioneering the use of PBL in undergraduate biology courses and introducing LearnLink,” says Stacey Ritz, current assistant dean of the BHSc (Hons) Program and a former student of Del’s. “He had a creatively critical perspective on education, always provocative and disruptive in the best possible ways. They are large shoes to try to fill – enormous – and I hope I can be even one-tenth the visionary sh*t-disturber he was.”

Many students have been reminiscing about the impact Del had on them. Annie Foreman-Mackey (BHSc ‘14 graduate) recalls Del as “a deeply passionate educator, who believed in the subversive qualities of education. He worked hard to spark a movement of leaders who act courageously and who work hard to support every person they meet. Though often unconventional and at times confusing, Del’s genuine wisdom profoundly shaped my undergraduate experience in ways that I seek to embody for the rest of my life.”

“Del was the kind of person that I assumed would be building new things and disrupting systems forever,” writes Mathura Mahendren (BHSc ‘15 graduate). “And in some ways, my assumption still holds. His legacy – the students that he put his time, energy, and spirit into – will continue to build new things and disrupt systems forever.”

And that is certainly the legacy that Del would want to have. As Margaret Secord, 1st year inquiry coordinator says, “Student, facilitator, or staff, we all belonged to Del’s life-long inquiry class.  Thanks Del – we will carry on your legacy.”  So let’s get out there and disturb something, HealthScis.


* This is not a typo!  Del had a longstanding joke with students of deliberately typing “teh” instead of “the”.

A public visitation will be held on Monday, December 3 from 4-9pm at the Dodsworth & Brown Funeral Home in Ancaster, and a fund has been created to establish a scholarship in his honour. Please feel free to share your memories and thoughts about Del in the comments below.

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29 entries.
Kourosh Sabri Kourosh Sabri from Oakville wrote on March 25, 2019 at 3:17 pm:
I had the great fortune and privilege of working with Del regarding a community vision screening project whereby McMaster University undergraduate students are trained and sent into schools to perform vision screening on elementary school children. Del was a constant source of support and inspiration for me and the project. He always gave his time and advice freely and willingly. He attended public hall meetings about the project and did whatever he could to see this project become a reality. Thank you Del. You are missed but not forgotten. I often think of you and have you in my mind and my heart as I push to develop more community engagement projects in Hamilton. It was a privilege knowing you and McMaster is a poorer place for having lost you. Rest in peace.
Amy Liu Amy Liu from Hamilton wrote on February 7, 2019 at 4:36 pm:
I've only met Del twice: once during Welcome Week where he did his famous paper-tearing exercise, and once more, the summer of my first year, where a group of my friends from first year Inquiry proposed a project to him. The first time I was already wowed by the crisp, clear message he transmitted to all of us in the matter of just five minutes through one exercise. And the second time, when I was actually able to sit down and chat with him and hear his thoughts, I was only more astounded. Here was a man who really and truly listened to you, and couldn't care less about frivolities like convention. In the span of that one hour conversation, we jumped from topics of our project to international education to the current high-tech devices in the world and their impacts. I made a grave mistake in assuming that after I stepped out of that office, with many book recommendations and more thoughts on my mind than in months, that I could easily meet with this extraordinary educator and learn more from him just later. My sincerest condolences to Del's family and their loss of such an amazing person - I wish I'd put in the effort to spend more time learning from him; in fact, I wish we'd all had more time with him.
Jason Uttamsingh Jason Uttamsingh from Oakville wrote on January 1, 2019 at 6:41 pm:
Del was a big part of my inspiration to bring PBL into my own teaching practice. I am glad to have had Del as a professor and mentor during my undergraduate years at McMaster. Del - your legacy lives on in us!
Stephen J Polyak Stephen J Polyak from Seattle wrote on December 4, 2018 at 10:49 pm:
I was Del's first PhD student, and after graduating in 1993, I left McMaster to do a post-doc in Seattle, where I still reside and have been on faculty at the University of Washington since 2000. Today, I am in Ottawa reviewing grants for CIHR and I just learned of Del's passing. I am shocked and saddened to hear this. My heartfelt condolences to Liz, Shaundra, Lauren, and Del's extended family. Both being of strong will, Del and I often "locked horns" as mentor and graduate student, and I am forever grateful to Del for teaching me to think outside of the box and to be my own person. He had a huge, beneficial impact on me during a pivotal time in my life. My life has been immeasurably enhanced by knowing you, Del. You will be missed and not forgotten. With love, Steve
Teresa Basilio Teresa Basilio from Ancaster, Ontario wrote on December 3, 2018 at 11:22 am:
Del would often be heard around the office saying - “What kind of trouble can I cause today.” Those of us who knew Del well would say that he didn’t take the easy road, he took the bumpy road – the road less travelled. Del did this because he knew that the more challenging decisions and out of the box thinking gave the most rewarding outcomes, even if it meant bending or breaking the rules. Del made the tough decisions because he knew it would benefit the students. And it did! Reading through the memories shared by our students and alumni is evidence that Del did things right, particularly when it disrupted the status quo. Del coined the phrase “educating for capability” which encapsulates his education mission and purpose as an education leader. On a more personal level, Del and I worked together very closely for 15 years (2000-2015) and less frequently the past few years when his three – five year terms in BHSc (Hons) ended. It was truly a sad day for many of us when Del stepped down as BHSc (Hons) Assistant Dean, but I knew that Del’s education mission would carry on. Although, I missed our connection and interaction during those last few years when he didn’t come around as frequently, I knew that I would always reflect fondly on the years we worked together side-by-side, butted heads, played hard, and teased one another. Knowing that Del is no longer with us here on earth causes much sadness – but I am truly blessed that I am able to reflect so dearly on my time shared with Del. Del was a force to be reckoned with and admired by so many. I’m still struggling, as with many, to understand – why? I suspect that Del would hate all of this attention, but he would be humbled to hear all of the kind words and heartfelt messages from everyone – I hope he hears our words of praise and love. Miss you, Teresa Basilio, BHSc (Hons) Program Manager and Friend.
Eleni Hapidou Eleni Hapidou from Ancaster wrote on December 3, 2018 at 11:15 am:
Del was an exceptional and charismatic individual and leader. He had a vision of a new program at McMaster which he was part of creating, and carrying out impeccably for many years. He was very supportive and encouraging to his students, staff, and faculty alike but no one came before the students! He had a sense of humor, and did not take himself too seriously in spite of who he was in status and stature. He was open to ideas and he generously shared his time discussing them. He will be greatly missed. SADLY, his life was cut too short but I'm sure it was FULLY lived. My deepest condolences to his family. The sadness is very deeply felt.
Deanna Wu Deanna Wu from Toronto wrote on December 2, 2018 at 6:44 pm:
'Three students walk into a lab on the first day of the job. The PI starts to explain the project.  The psych student is asleep, the bio student is frantically writing everything down, and the health sci is asking question after question after question.' 11 years after graduating, every time I start a new job, someone always says, " ask a lot of questions." Del influenced me more than I could ever have imagined. Thinking of him now I'm reminded of just how powerful educators can be. I'm so grateful for having had the privilege of being his student. He will be so missed.
Alex Kilian Alex Kilian from Toronto wrote on December 2, 2018 at 4:16 pm:
My first memory of Del: I was 13 years old, and sitting at my brothers’ BHSc graduation breakfast. Del led the whole audience through his famous paper tearing exercise. I was awe-struck. It’s okay to be unique? Pretty revolutionary for a 13 year old. 4 years later, I felt immense gratitude (and a little bit of imposter syndrome) in that first year cell-bio lecture hall. My years in health sci were defined by gratitude, confusion because nothing was traditional, and learning that I carry with me to this day. Both my confidence and humility come from Del and Health Sci. I know who I am and am not afraid to acknowledge my strengths and constantly strive to improve on my weakness. Likewise, I am humbly aware that I have so much more to learn, that I will never know it all, and that learning comes best from others, rather than from textbooks. Through Del’s teachings, I learned to think critically about the things we just accept as true, and that kindness and integrity will never fail you. When I heard the news, it felt like all of the breath was sucked out of me. I don’t think I’ve taken a full breath since. As others have said, finding the words to express Del’s profound and widespread impact is almost impossible. Del gave so much of himself to the program and his students. Del, "Thank you", will never be enough, but I hope we make you proud.
Xixi G Xixi G from Gander wrote on December 1, 2018 at 12:55 am:
Del was the initiating point for so many of us, as we entered the world of innovation, health sciences, and for many of us, medicine. His paper ripping session remains one of the most salient memories of BHSc. Del embodied the innovation, humour, and incredible support that myself and and many privileged students experienced. Del's 'teh' remained a favourite in-joke. So many of us wouldn't be who we are and where we are without Del's influence. Thank you, Del.
Phil Deacon Phil Deacon from Palmerston, ON wrote on November 30, 2018 at 7:15 pm:
Impressed but certainly not surprised by the amazing words here. In keeping with many of the posts here - Del had a major impact on my education, career and continued passion for Scientific/Medical inquiry, learning and education. He literally broke the rules to allow me to access the Health Sci program and I'm forever grateful. It's amazing to reflect upon the number of Health Sci students and graduates who continue to expand the reach of his philosophies.
Claudia Claudia wrote on November 30, 2018 at 3:43 pm:
An inspiration of life lived by true example.
Gurmit Singh Gurmit Singh from St. George, Ontario wrote on November 30, 2018 at 2:47 pm:
Del was a student’s Advocate and a champion for their innovative education! I had the privilege of knowing Del as a friend and a scientific colleague for over 30 years. He was my go to person for advice and sanity when I had to deal with difficult life and academic decisions. I had the good fortune of being able to walk into his office and get his trusted opinion on a wide variety of issues including personal stuff. Del was a true visionary and a dedicated family man. He always had Liz and his daughters as his guiding lights. I will miss a dear friend and he leaves a vacuum in my life. Del was truly a down to earth nice human being. RIP my friend!!
Jaisy Yang Jaisy Yang from Burlington wrote on November 30, 2018 at 9:00 am:
If I were to list my top ten biggest influences in shaping my career and myself as a person, Del would be one of them. He taught me - directly and indirectly - some of the most memorable lessons of my academic career. I remember the way he challenged us to question obvious theories (by giving us a common pattern 5, 10, 15, 20 and having us find the common denominator), to expand our questions and test our hypotheses. I remember having him as facilitator for my first year Inquiry class, and one day, he simply didn't show up. On purpose. I remember cutting snowflakes at graduation. I remember the way Del knew all of us by our first names, who asked, with a twinkle in his eye, "what do YOU think about that?" to almost every question we asked. I remember that he told me once, to give up my understanding for bewilderment. Sometimes, it felt like Del was playing mind games with us, but looking back, he was simply teaching that life is a great big wonderful experiment. I learned that it was okay not to know, and it was okay to be wrong. I learned the tools to find answers, and the curiosity to keep asking questions. I will always be proud to be a Health Sci, and privileged to have known Del as a mentor. Del, you will be greatly missed.
Daina nestick Daina nestick from Mississauga wrote on November 30, 2018 at 7:57 am:
Losing Del is an enormous loss to the education community. He has had such a huge impact on my decision making so much so that it changed my entire way of looking at the world. He encouraged me to look toward places I never knew existed and take a road less travelled. I remember sitting down in his office frantic not knowing where I should go next with my education. He encouraged me to accept who I am and how I learn and labeled my unconventional ways as part of the fabric of education. He recommended that I take time off to travel overseas for a year to explore and go learn about myself and then come back and decide. I followed his advice and came back a stronger woman with more clear intentions. This type of advice and mentorship is what's desperately needed at all levels of education. I now mentor senior level students in a clinical practice and I see his influence in my daily work. I like to think of him when I disturb the norm in my medical community 😉 His passion also lead me to homeschool my own give them the inquiry spark to life and learning that I didn't recieve until I was in university. My prayers and thoughts go out to everyone and especially for the huge loss his family must feel. He will be greatly missed.
Megan Schlorff Megan Schlorff wrote on November 29, 2018 at 7:54 pm:
Del frequently responded to all sorts of questions and queries in the "Rumours" folder on LearnLink. It showed his dedication to the program and, especially, to the students in it. He aimed to be transparent and honest and showed respect for us as young adults filling our days with inquiry and learning. Quite often, lengthy threads accumulated in the folder as various students and faculty replied with their thoughts. I can't quite remember the original topic of this particular thread, but it eventually led to Del sharing four pieces of advice. The points struck me; they were so clear, so pragmatic, so Del. These words lived on a sticky note on my computer desktop for several years and then eventually transitioned over to my Evernote (in my note title "Life" nested within the folder titled "Words") grounding me in their sound advice: 1. You can't plan everything 2. It is always a good time to have children 3. If you think you will be less busy are wrong. Life gets more complicated. 4. You can always make time for what is important to you. Live in teh moment, not teh future. Thank you, Del, for sharing these words; we'll continue to treasure them.
Elyse Watkins Elyse Watkins from Toronto wrote on November 29, 2018 at 12:01 pm:
It has been hard to find the words to articulate the profound impact that Del Harnish had on my life. I have found comfort in the beautifully composed tributes from my peers, as it is clear that Del had a resounding effect on a generation of learners and educators. He was a teacher, a mentor, a friend and a leader. He challenged the status quo and revolutionized education. I know that if it were not for his inimitable influence, I would not be in the education field today. Del had the rare ability to make a person feel seen, heard and, most of all, understood. When I would talk about him to my friends and colleagues, I would say he was like our Dumbledore (for those Harry Potter fans) – brave, brilliant and good. He believed in us and we trusted in him. It was truly an honour to know him and to have learned from and with him as a student and BHSc staff member. We miss you, Del. Thank you for everything.
Andrea Phair Andrea Phair from Hamilton wrote on November 29, 2018 at 9:53 am:
Del was an amazing human being, he had an openness about him, a way of making you feel like it was okay to be, say, do anything, that was true to you. A way of making you feel heard, respected. I may not have been a student of Del's in the classroom, but I was a student of his in life. He was as authentic as they come, had a quirky sense of humour, an endearing clumsiness, and a propensity for trouble making that was both hilarious and annoying at the same time. I am grateful to have worked with and known him for the past 17 years, it truly was an honour and I will miss him dearly. Quite frankly, there would be no BHSc without Del, his vision and essence are embedded in everything we do, what the program was built upon, and that legacy will endure. We are forever in his debt and he is forever in our hearts. You will always be a part of our BHSc family Del, may you rest well, and know that you are well loved.
Amanda Jerome Amanda Jerome from BURLINGTON wrote on November 29, 2018 at 12:56 am:
As a student in the very first year of Del's BHSc program I remember clearly his passion for education and willingness to shake things up. I just love the Problem-Based learning environment and thank him for providing such a supportive, innovative and caring "BHSc family" where learning was #1 and having fun a very close tie. I still remember how you looked at me at graduation when presenting my degree ... you truly loved everyone of us like your children. You are missed and will forever be remembered smiling.
Kayi Li Kayi Li from Vancouver wrote on November 29, 2018 at 12:23 am:
Thank you to your vision, commitment to education and energy - and to the countless opportunities you have made happened for the countless number of students whom had the privilege to cross paths with you. You have allowed dreams to come true and careers to flourish. We will miss you dearly.
Harneet Harneet wrote on November 28, 2018 at 11:22 pm:
In my first year, I had the privilege of having Del as my inquiry facilitator. Del has been by far one of my favourite instructors. At the end of each semester when we had our checkins, I walked out of the conversation having a better perspective on many things because Del was incredibly encouraging, hopeful and especially helpful. During our classes, it was evident he was genuinely interested in unlocking our potential and getting us to think outside the box and his sense of humour made class even more enjoyable. I didn't talk much the first semester but I knew he never judged me for that and he was the one who would encourage me to share my opinion during our check ins and for that I am incredibly grateful because it only enhanced my inquiry experience and boosted my confidence. He kept things real and I really look up to him for that. Above all else, Del is arguably one of the most modest, "unshowy" people many of us have probably met and this is yet another thing that many of us are inspired by. Del, you touched our hearts and your teachings will forever be with us. Thank you. Thank you for everything you have taught us, all the amazing initiatives you have started, and most importantly, for being someone who has inspired so many of us. We hope to keep inquiring and building off your teachings because as you had said, (or at least something along the lines of this) inquiry is not just a course, its a lifelong process. You will continue to be a role model for me and I hope to make you proud. #inquiryforever
Kelly Mollon (Emms) Kelly Mollon (Emms) from Orillia wrote on November 28, 2018 at 9:22 pm:
Such sad news. Del was an inspiring educator and mentor to so many. He challenged us to think critically, ask big questions and think outside the box. I am so very grateful for my entire Health Sci experience and his influence was a tremendous part of that. I vividly remember sitting in the auditorium during an open house while touring universities as a Gr 12 student and hearing him speak about the program, PBL and inquiry. I was hooked. I was even more inspired and challenged in the best possible way with him as my inquiry facilitator in first year and all the influence in the years the years that followed. He will be greatly missed, but the legacy he created in education and beyond will have an everlasting ripple effect. Thank you Del, may you Rest In Peace. (Kelly, Class of 2007)
Yousif Yousif wrote on November 28, 2018 at 9:11 pm:
I am one of the numerous people who were touched by Del's enthusiasm, humility, and kindness. We all had great memories with Del - he will always be a part of our lives and careers. He gave endlessly, which is why he is never gone. In these tough times, I wish his family and friends all the strength in facing this storm.
Faith Faith wrote on November 28, 2018 at 8:29 pm:
Del was the definition of a free thinker. He acknowledged that "rules" and norms existed, but charted his own course. I had the privilege of getting to know Del when he facilitated my first year Inquiry class for a period. I have memories of him suddenly getting up and leaving the class and then returning and asking how we used our time; or bringing in stacks of virology publications, just from 2014 alone, to convey the idea that so much knowledge exists, but how do we decide what's important? One time he also showed up a good half hour late and asked us why we were all there (to which one student replied "because it's on our schedule," and Del responded, "so you came because we told you to?"). Del challenged us to think critically, to ask questions, and to be different. And for that, I am so grateful. Del's passing is a deep loss to the BHSc community, but really also to students in general, because he saw our potential and cultivated it by investing his own passion and creativity. Del, you are greatly missed, but will not be forgotten.
James Khan James Khan from Toronto wrote on November 28, 2018 at 4:23 pm:
Very sorry to hear about Del's passing. Del fundamentally shaped the lives so many, including my own.
Dr. Jayant Ramakrishna Dr. Jayant Ramakrishna from Kitchener-Waterloo wrote on November 28, 2018 at 2:30 pm:
I was part of the Bachelor of Health Sciences program at McMaster from 2002-2006, and worked with Del from 2006-2007. I remember the first week of classes, Del gave a lecture to our incoming class. He talked about the importance of thinking for ourselves and learning valuable skills, like group work and communication, instead of just memorizing textbooks. His passion for creating thinkers, was something that resonated with me. Over my 4 years in the program, I remember having many great talks with Del, and he also allowed me to continue on as part of the BHSc family as a staff, for an additional year after I graduated. Del was a mentor to me, and I feel that without his influence and guidance in my life, I wouldn't be where I am today. His passing is a very big loss for the BHSc and McMaster community. Thank you Del for the passion you gave to your students, and for teaching us how to think for ourselves and work alongside others to achieve greater outcomes.
Katie Fitzgerald Katie Fitzgerald wrote on November 28, 2018 at 2:20 pm:
When I first began working for Del, I'd send emails to mass distribution lists and I'd be flooded with emails in return - all saying how lucky I was to be Del's new assistant and that there isn't a better person to work for. That's just the sort of impact and reputation he had at McMaster. And they couldn't have been more right. I consider myself so lucky to have known him and will miss him immensely.
Nisha Kansal Nisha Kansal from Hamilton wrote on November 28, 2018 at 2:09 pm:
I am deeply shocked and saddened by this news. Though I never had the privilege to work closely with Del throughout my undergrad, his boundary-pushing, innovative, and disruptive way of thinking formed the basis of my transformative BHSc education, permeated all levels of @MacHealthSci, and redefined education worldwide. Del dared to bring real life and the real world into the classroom, like no other education I had ever experienced before, and had a true understanding of what a valuable education is. He was driven by a desire to provide a safe space in which we could all make mistakes, grow, and learn, and for this experience I am forever thankful. Del has deeply impacted thousands of learners not only at McMaster but across the world, and no matter how far I get from my BHSc education, I will never forget the opportunity I was given to dive deep into learning about myself and the world around me, and that is thanks to the incredible educators in BHSc, driven by Del. Del is gone too soon, and he will be sorely missed.
Yipeng Ge Yipeng Ge from Ottawa wrote on November 28, 2018 at 8:16 am:
Del, I feel like I've been holding my breath for the past couple of days. I was left without words to describe the impact you had on your students, including myself. To say that you were instrumental in my own pedagogical growth, would be an understatement at best. I still haven't found the right words, but I cannot agree more with what others have shared about you. Your passion for the process of learning, disruptive thinking, passion for students and others, and excitement to stretch the boundaries and status quo, uplift me and inspire me. I am truly humbled to have been educated by you. Rest now, and your legacy and lessons, without any doubt in this world, will live on through all those you've impacted.
Hugh Boyd Hugh Boyd from Hamilton wrote on November 27, 2018 at 11:03 pm:
I dont have a better compliment than Stacey's "visionary sh*t-disturber." Looking back I am impressed by how patient he was when it was needed and how hard he got me to push myself when it wasn't. There was so much brilliance in his teaching strategies. I particularly remember hating group work my first year in the BHSc program. When discussing this he let me vent, made some suggestions and lent me a book on team dynamics and how to fix them. Of course now I know PBL can help you learn almost anything, but back then I was still skeptical. Of course, he was right. Now I love working in teams and am still continuously trying to improve how we work together. I am thankful for the risk he and the rest of the BHSc faculty took on us that first year. I am also thankful to Teresa, Penny and the BHSc staff who gave us a chance to say thanks to him a few years ago. I am so thankful for Del.