When Harri Mürk was a professor of Estonian studies at the University of Toronto, his students could be found working on Estonian verb conjugations while savouring a still-warm apple upside-down cake that he had baked, along with tea and a small glass of cognac. Harri was a man of multiple talents and passions. It is dizzying how much he accomplished in his brief 54 years.
Harri was the son of hard-working immigrant parents Aksel and Alja Mürk, who came to Canada from Estonia via Sweden as refugees in 1951.
Harri and his childhood friends attended Estonian church, school, scouts and summer camp, keeping their language and culture alive in Toronto’s small Estonian community, most of whose members had escaped the Soviet occupation in 1944. Harri was a talented folk dancer and choir member who travelled to Estonian cultural festivals across North America.
Harri wrote, performed in and directed countless plays, poetry recitals and performance-art pieces throughout his life. In his teens and 20s, he was the go-to guy if you needed a young romantic lead for a Toronto-Estonian community theatre production. His acting gifts were innate, his Estonian was impeccable and he cut a dashing figure on stage.
Fluent in nine languages, Harri had a doctorate in linguistics from Indiana State University. He taught Finnish at the University of Toronto, and as chair of the university’s Estonian studies he taught Estonian language, literature and folklore during his 16 years there. He translated many important Estonian works into English – plays, an anthology of folk music and music scores, including the work of eminent composer Veljo Tormis. Harri recently completed a translation in verse of the Estonian national epic poem Kalevipoeg by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald.
For the past nine years, Harri was a geography teacher and librarian at Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute. Here he sparked many young minds, entertaining students with tales of travel, his pride in being Estonian and his impish sense of fashion. Last Halloween he dressed up as a globe, wearing a sweater decorated with a map of the world. The school was closed in mourning the day he died.
Harri lived the past 16 years with his partner Tony Souza. They had a diverse and eccentric group of family and friends who came together at their famous parties. Their annual summer solstice garden party featured tables of lovingly prepared Estonian and Indian food. There was music, Estonian dance and fire rituals – a summer solstice rite – and Harri’s humorous reminders to be yourself, but fabulously.
Christina Prozes, Alan Teder and Tony Souza
The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Jun. 01, 2009
Christina Prozes and Alan Teder are Harri’s friends, and Tony Souza is Harri’s partner.