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Renauds savor all things French

by Judy Woodward

Armand and Madeleine Renaud

Armand and Madeleine Renaud
Photo by Diana Watters

For longtime faculty members, loyalty to the University of Minnesota can be a lifelong affair of both heart and mind. That's especially true for emeritus professor of French Armand Renaud and his wife, Madeleine. For the Renauds, retirement has offered an opportunity to connect with the U, and to French language and culture, in a whole new way.

For several years, the Renauds have given generously to University programs in French language studies and in Minnesota Studies in International Development [MSID] at the U. They're also active in the Alliance Fran├žaise, the international organization for the diffusion of French culture; and they've given substantial support to A Vous La Parole, a competition that promotes French language mastery among Minnesota high school students.

The Renauds speak with affection of their long attachment to the University and the pleasures of a lifetime spent in service of la civilisation fran├žaise. Says Professor Renaud, “The University means a lot to us. The students have meant a lot." Madeleine adds, in heavily French-inflected English, “We gave so much of our time [to the U], especially when my husband became chair. They were good years.”

The first-person plural is very much to the point. After nearly 54 years of marriage, the Renauds tend to speak as a team, and that's the way they've approached their working life as well. When Armand was named chair in 1963, he presided over the language department at a time of enormous change and restructuring. Change came not just to the Romance languages—which added a Portuguese major and greatly expanded the Italian program—but to the University as a whole.

Madeleine Renaud remembers those days as “the heroic years.” “I was teaching French at the Northrop Collegiate School [a private school that eventually merged with Blake],” she recalls. “Every day I would come to Armand's department after the secretaries left for the day. Then we’d stay until midnight working.” Adds her husband, “Change was being demanded in those days. Everything—the teaching, the curriculum—was being reevaluated.”

The Renauds are proud of the changes Armand ushered in, especially the enhancements to the curriculum. Armand introduced courses on Existentialism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and Francophone African writers, paving the way for later study of such French intellectual movements as the deconstructionist teachings of postmodern philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. While acknowledging the obscurity of their writings, Armand continues to welcome new ideas, insisting that “you can't dismiss any intellectual movement out of hand. If deconstructionism is what's in the wind, that's what you have to try to understand.”

Unexpected dividends

Madeleine's career as a French teacher has also provided unexpected dividends to the University. Judith Preckshot, associate professor of French, first encountered “Madame Renaud" at Northrop Collegiate. “Madeleine Renaud is perhaps the reason why I am a professor of French today,” she says. “I was absolutely enthralled by the lovely, soft-spoken teacher who unlocked the secret code of the French language for us…. That whole year, I always sat in the front row to catch every musical syllable that tripped so effortlessly off Madame's tongue, hoping that one day I would be able to speak as she did.”

When Preckshot came to the University as a junior professor in the mid-70s, she says, “Armand was the most senior faculty member, and the repository of departmental lore. He also taught courses on Francophone African literature in the early 70's, well before most people in our profession were even aware that Africans were writing literature in French. Now that I am the resident specialist in Francophone literature, I marvel at his prescience.”

Another former Northrop student, Kathryn Reyerson, now a professor of medieval history, remembers Mme. Renaud as “a wonderfully gracious teacher. She was one of the reasons I can do research in French. Her main influence on me was in making me into a Francophile. The Renauds are a good team of scholars. They have made a tremendous contribution to the French department.”

Yet neither Renaud could have foreseen as a young person how much the two would one day contribute.

French, absolument

In 1939, when the Germans occupied France, Madeleine—a 14-year-old Parisian school girl—was stranded in London, where she continued her studies until she could be reunited with her family. Several years later, after serving as a French officer in post-war Berlin, she returned to Paris, where she met a French-speaking U.S. reserve officer named Armand Renaud.

Armand, brought up in a French-speaking family near Detroit, had intended to go to medical school. But in Paris, taking classes in both medicine and literature, he was increasingly drawn to literary studies. Meanwhile, Madeleine left for New York, and the two began a correspondence. They met again and in 1948 decided to marry. By then, he was committed to French literature and art as a career. He got a Ph.D. at Yale, taught briefly at Northwestern, and in 1957 was offered a post at the University of Minnesota.

The Renauds have lived in Minnesota for almost 45 years, but in some ways their sensibility remains resolutely French. What Armand says about the French people seems to apply equally to the Renauds themselves: “What they want is to savor life. To understand life in all its subtlety, and to appreciate it.”

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