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In Memoriam: David Reese Counts (2 May 1934—11 November 2020)

Submitted by Naomi M. McPherson, Assoc Prof Emerita, Anthropology, UBC

(Header photo: David Reese Counts, 2002, courtesy of Rebecca Counts)

Renowned for his kind and warm smile, it is in character that David would die peacefully in his sleep with a smile on his face. David lived a life full of love, laughter, optimism, adventure and search for knowledge. It is impossible to reflect on David’s life without including Dorothy Ayers Counts (1937-2018), his beloved wife, mother of their four children, fellow adventurer and partner in life for sixty-two years. Together they made their way through graduate studies at Southern Illinois University. In 1967, accompanied by their two children, age seven and four, they conducted their dissertation field research in the village of Kandoka, on the northwest coast of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. This research earned them their PhDs in 1968: Dorothy in Political Science, David in Anthropology. In 1968, they moved to Ontario, where David took up a position in the Department of Anthropology at McMaster University and Dorothy at the Department of Anthropology, University of Waterloo, positions they each held for twenty-eight years until retiring in 1996. They also served their universities and their professional associations. At McMaster, David was department chairperson for a total of nine years and Associate Dean of Graduate Studies for one year. At Waterloo, Dorothy was department chairperson for 8 years. They contributed time and energy to the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (ASAO), as members of the Board of Directors or as Association Officers. They were both inducted into the ASAO roster of Honorary Fellows in 2012. As one ASAO member phrased it, they were “the very heart of ASAO for many years.” They served our discipline as peer reviewers of manuscripts, monographs and funding applications. Even in retirement they continued their love of teaching and learning as members and frequent lecturers in the Society for Learning in Retirement (in Kelowna and later Ganges, BC), where David also sat on the Board of Directors as co-president.

David and Dorothy Counts toast McPherson’s successful dissertation defence, 1985 (Photo credit: William Rodman)

David and Dorothy were long term field researchers, returning seven times to Kandoka village between 1967 and 2003. This resulted in seven co-edited books, many co-authored journal articles, plus lectures and papers delivered at professional conferences. Their work—published either as co-authors or in collaboration with other researchers— focussed on relatively new topics for anthropological research such as gender relations, domestic abuse and suicide (Sanctions and Sanctuaries 2/e, 1992); aging and gender (Transformations of Aging 1992); dying, death and grieving (Coping with the Final Tragedy 2006); language (A Grammar of Kaliai-Kove 1969); Kaliai oral literature (Children of Kilibob 1994; The Tales of Laupu 2004); socio-economic change and local governance; concepts of value and exchange; and ritual and clowning.  In 1990, David and Dorothy surprised us all with a research project on “Full-time RVing: A Retirement Alternative for the Active Elderly,” funded by small grants from their universities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. For three summers they loaded up their hired RV and hit the road to live and learn among nomadic retirees. This work was a direct offshoot of their long experience as field researchers in Kaliai, their longstanding interest in aging and dying cross-culturally, and their love of outdoor life, travel and camping. Using participant observation methods of data collection and analysis, their book Over the Next Hill: an ethnography of RVing seniors in North America captured the popular imagination with two editions (1996, 2001) and a reprint (2004). Written for a non-academic audience, it remains relatively unknown among anthropologists.

Dorothy and David Counts, Skyline Hikers Camp, 2005 (Photo credit: Rebecca Counts)

Many, but not all, of David’s doctoral candidates conducted field research in various sites around West New Britain Province. We were doubly fortunate to also have Dorothy as an informal member of our graduate training and experiences. David was always willing for his students to take their own paths rather than to become “little versions of himself.” He trusted us, encouraged independence, and was always supportive His inherent feminism and encouragement of feminist approaches in our work was important to 1980s women graduate students. When I turned up at McMaster in 1979, David and Dorothy had just returned from fieldwork in West New Britain, where they had already placed several doctoral candidates. I had yet to meet David, but I heard he mentioned to a colleague that another language and culture group in WNB wanted their own anthropologist. I went to his office and announced, “I volunteer.” “To do what?” he asked. “To go to West New Britain.” He looked at me, smiled his warm smile and said: “Well alright then.”  And just like that, it was done. My life changed forever in that moment. In 1980 I was with them in Kaliai, where they loaded up a canoe with supplies (including a cat) and, in care of their Kandokan friends, sent me off to find my place in Bariai. Laughing and waving their arms high in farewell as the canoe carried me away, they shouted “See you a few weeks.” This was the beginning of my ethnographic journey with and on-going commitment to the Bariai. David was a great teacher, mentor, and true friend. He had a quiet strength, a huge sense of humour and joie de vivre that never seemed careworn. He was the best of leaders, never pushy or demanding, always willing to help but never taking over. He and Dorothy took me in as a member of their extended family and then to West New Britain and set me loose. No hovering, no demanding, no lectures about being a lone female in the field, just a quiet confidence that I could do it. And so, I did it. I miss David and Dorothy too much to say. In closing, I quote from another of David’s WNB students who wrote: “There was a certain plenitude to David, a richness to his person and to his life that spilled over to the people he knew. We were encompassed in his plenitude.”


The McMaster Department of Anthropology invites donations to the Anthropology Student Bursary Fund in memory of Dr. David Counts. The Anthropology Student Bursary was established in 1996 by faculty, alumni and friends of the Department  of Anthropology.  To be granted to students who have completed Level 2 of  a programme in Anthropology and who demonstrate financial need. 

Donations to the fund can be made here: David Counts Memorial – Anthropology Bursary Fund.

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