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
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
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
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
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!