Vol. II No. 4 Saturday 25 January - 31 January 2003
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Weekly Local Biography

 Dr. Ronald Renard Ph.D.

 

Ron Renard is a historian with writing ambitions, or maybe a writer with a historian’s background, and is a most interesting academic. He just incidentally exudes enthusiasm for his subjects and will speak upon them with authority, and at length, but is not boring in any way.

He is the only son of a banker in California in the US and was a “not bad” student, in his own words. By the time his secondary schooling was over he knew that he should enter university, but like so many was unsure of his career path at that early stage, so went to Santa Clara University as an undeclared major. “I was confident that it would (end up) something,” he said wryly. However, after 6 months there he knew what he wanted and majored in history.

Being in the US, his first thoughts were to the history of the USA, but a turning point in his life came from his professor who told him to avoid American history, as every student thought of that, but do Asian history instead. So after four years he emerged, a major in Asian history.

During those undergraduate years, America was also interested in Asia - particularly Vietnam and Laos, and university students were forced to join the Reserve Officer Training Corps. I asked Ron about his thoughts on the US involvement in those days and he replied, “I was mixed up - it seemed a big mess. I was certainly not a gung ho soldier.” Fortunately for him, when he had his Army medical, Uncle Sam decided he didn’t need someone with a history of back complaints and Ron never joined the war effort.

So where does a history major go? Ron went to a small Catholic school where he was the soccer coach! Having got a toe (or football boot) in the door, he then began teaching as well as becoming the track and field coach, since he was a better than average athlete, “But I never worked hard enough at it to be famous!”

However, after a year of teaching, he felt the need for further self education and began moving towards a Masters degree in history. He gradually dropped teaching and ended up full-time at San Jose State University where he wrote his Masters thesis on Americans in China in World War II.

At this point in the interview I began to probe Ron about the study of history itself, a subject that many consider dreadfully dull. This produced an immediate surge of enthusiasm, with words to the dozen and waving hands for emphasis. “If history seems dull and uninteresting, then the teacher’s no good. You have to get the sequence of things right in your mind. History should be the technique of looking at the past and identifying the incidents that led to something (major). For example, why Kennedy got in and Nixon lost. History is an art and a science. Sherlock Holmes used history looking for clues.” 35 years later, the study of history is, for Ron, something which is ‘now’ and not dead and buried.

He felt that with his qualifications he should go to Asia - somewhere - and even studied Japanese for 12 months, but a classmate was teaching in Bangkok and Ron went there to teach at the Assumption School of Business (ASB). During that time, the ASB changed its name to the Assumption Business Administration College (ABAC) and Ron educated me on the reasons and the precipitating factors to produce the change. It was indeed a lesson in living history!

Two years at ABAC were enough for Ron to feel the need to study for a doctorate and he decided to study Thai history at the University of Hawaii. I wondered at going to an American state to study Thailand’s history. Surely he could have done it here? But no, there was no Ph.D. course here and the principal Thai history teacher was in Hawaii.

That Ph.D. took six years - two years of lectures and then four years research for his thesis, in which he wrote a book on the history of the Karens in Thailand before 1923.

During that time he gained a scholarship to study Burmese, and also gained a Thai wife who came from Chiang Mai. This would have to have be a practical history example of looking at the past, identifying a major incident and seeing the end result - that of course being his residency in Northern Thailand!

He described his leaving the cloistered halls of academia with his Ph.D. in his pocket, “I got out of school without any debts. I didn’t have any money, but I didn’t have any debts!”

He came here in 1980 “for a couple of years - and here I am,” he said with that wry smile again. The first 16 years were spent teaching at what is now Payup University, but then he was offered the post as manager of the Highland People’s Programme, working for the UN. “It was an intellectually interesting program and I’d been teaching for 16 years.”

Following full time work with the UN, he then began to expand his ambit, becoming a consultant to the UN and many NGO’s, some from overseas, his knowledge of the ethnic hill tribe people probably now being second to none in this region.

His hobbies revolve around history and books. He dabbles as the Northern representative for the American Library of Congress, picking up books from around the region which are then sent to America to be catalogued. “I hire a car and drive around - it covers my costs.”

He also wants to write a book on the history of Chiang Mai, another on the history of the Karens and is keeping a bibliography of SE Asian novels.

His advice to the youth of today is: “Find out what your talents are and create a situation where you can take advantage of it.” Dr. Ron Renard has certainly done that!


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