A fond farewell to Stuart McLean
Canada says goodbye to its consummate storyteller and modern day bard
By Wanda Potrykus
The February 15, 2107 death of Stuart McLean hit me hard. For most Sundays at noon for over the last 20 plus years if I wasn’t otherwise engaged with duties connected to being a working mother with a sport-playing son who had a lot of friends, I had a steady radio date with my long-term friend Stuart. He made me laugh, he made me cry, he made me think, and he taught me much about myself and my fellow Canadians across this large country of ours. He shared their stories, their music, and he also introduced me to a cast of make-believe characters that over those years also became part of my fictional family history.
The fact that I never met him in person didn’t change a thing. On hearing of his death (on the radio naturally) I felt a sharp stab of disbelief as though someone I had really known well had just left me unexpectedly. I had been aware, of course, of his battle with melanoma for he himself had told us, his faithful radio listeners that he had to undergo treatment, but he had been so upbeat that I, and probably a great many other of his listeners, had believed him when he said he was just taking a break and would be back as soon as he had vanquished his cancer. Alas as we learnt this week it was not a battle he was destined to win.
I don’t want you to worry about me. A year ago I told you that I expected this to be just a bump in the road, not the end of the road. I still believe that to be true. I hope we will meet up again – on the radio or in theatres.
Stuart McLean, November 2015
Listen with mother
The radio is, and has remained, an integral part of my life, for I am someone who grew up listening to the radio, and especially to stories on the radio. In fact they are some of my earliest memories, first on the BBC and later, after emigrating to Canada, on the CBC and on National Public Radio (NPR) from the USA.
One of my memories from childhood includes a regular 1.45 pm afternoon date at our house in the UK that was devoted to listening to a children’s story time show called Listen with Mother. Then at 6.45 pm we were again gathered around the radio as a family to listen to the (still running) radio soap opera entitled The Archers – tales of a fictional farming family. At the time of writing there have been 18, 221 episodes of that 15 minute radio show, which has been broadcast continually nation-wide since January 1, 1951. It is, in fact, the longest running radio drama in history having been on the airwaves for over sixty-six years.
I left The Archers behind some time in my ‘tween’ years when TV became the attraction with various popular music series’ such as Top of the Pops and another long running soap opera Coronation Street took precedence over the daily life of the Archers in their fictional farming village of Ambridge; but I have never forgotten those stories as well as the others, including the serialized radio drama adapted from the science fiction classic The Day of the Triffids that terrified my sisters and I as we lay listening each week tucked up safely in our beds…and there have been plenty more stories over the years.
Today, I continue to be a die-hard radio listener and the Vinyl Café rated up there over the years along with Peter Gzowski’s Morningside, Sunday Morning, Ideas, Tapestry, The Current, Quirks and Quarks, Shelagh Rodgers’ Next Chapter, Michael Enright’s Sunday Edition, Writers and Company, As it Happens, Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap, Rosanna Deerchild’s Unreserved, Under the influence with Terry O’Reilly, Saturday Night Blues, Because News with Gavin Crawford, A propos, White Coat, Black Art, My Playlist and Backstage with Ben Heppner, for I am nothing if not eclectic in my radio listening. Nevertheless, if I had to pick just one, Vinyl Cafe would probably be it.
A polarizing figure… perhaps
Since Stuart McLean’s death was first announced, there has been an outpouring of grief over his demise. He was seemingly beloved by so many Canadians, many of whom might be surprised to learn that there was quite possibly an equally large number of Canadians who didn’t like him too much at all and to whom his folksy style as well as the fictitious tales along with the real life tales he told simply didn’t appeal; in fact the truth is he may have even irritated them immensely. One of my close friends is such a person. I would often arrive at her house for a visit chuckling uncontrollably having spent the hour drive from Montreal Island listening to the Vinyl Café. She couldn’t seemingly appreciate the great attraction his stories had for me and the joy and laughter his tales brought. So to say he was a polarizing figure is probably not too wrong.
Some couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe he didn’t make most of his stories up for “how can he meet and interview quite so many people in his travels?” But meet them he did. For he was a talented interviewer who projected a genuine interest in the men, women and children he talked to and they responded in kind. He could make the most mundane of subjects fascinating.
‘…my husband and I had a love/hate relationship with the Vinyl Café. I loved it. He hated it. …He couldn’t believe all of the stories Stuart wrote about meeting garbage men and gardeners and people at the café were true. I would argue they were all true. He thought it was the cheesiest thing he had ever heard in his life. And well, he wasn’t necessarily wrong about that. The Vinyl Café and Stuart McLean could be incredibly cheesy. But it was Canadian cheese. It was heartwarming. And it was wonderful.’
McLean started touring his live shows in 1998. He freely admitted in interviews this was partly to help him gather new material for his live shows and to fine tune his stories before recording them for broadcast and partly because he really enjoyed it. Since 2008 he had been doing 100 plus live shows a year in Canada and the United States, playing towns across the North American continent from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Whitehorse in the Yukon; and from Bangor, Maine to Seattle, Washington.
Over the years the Vinyl Cafe was also broadcast around the world on ABC in Australia, BBC7 in the UK and NPR and Sirius Satellite Radio 169 in the USA. It also had audience members in many other countries who listened via podcasts or an ever growing audience who watched on YouTube if only to see the man behind the quintessential Canadian voice. In 2012, Apple named Vinyl Cafe Stories the best audio podcast in their Best of the Year awards.
A man of multiple talents
No matter which side of the divide (continental or otherwise) you are on, there is no doubt that Stuart McLean was a talented and gifted human being who reinvented himself over the years in a whole series of roles: as a fondly remembered YMCA camp counsellor and then assistant summer camp director for five summers at Camp Kanawana in Saint-Sauveur, Quebec; as a student services coordinator at Dawson College in Westmount; as a municipal politics campaign director, a freelance journalist, researcher, writer, essayist, monologist, and as noted documentary maker and producer, radio show host, and later as a published author, a university professor, followed by a stint as director of the broadcast division of the Ryerson University School of Journalism; but most of all, as a storyteller, humorist and humanist. McLean spent his last 40 years in the broadcasting industry, but also found the time for other pursuits that included ongoing fundraising work with YMCA and serving as Honorary Colonel of the 8th Air Maintenance Squadron at 8 Wing, Trenton from 2005 to 2008.
Along the way he received honorary degrees from many Canadian universities across Canada as well as being appointed in 1993 as the first Rooke Fellow for Teaching, Writing and Research by Trent University. In 1979, the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) had awarded him the best radio documentary prize for the Operation White Knight broadcast, part of the Sunday Morning coverage of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana. In addition he had received the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour three times for his Vinyl Cafe books. The Vinyl Café Diaries (2003) was chosen best short story collection of the year by the Canadian Author’s Association (CAA). His books sold over a million copies around the world from Canada and the US to Europe and Australia. In December 2011 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada. And through it all he remained the same down-to-earth, hard-working friend, father, colleague, and veritable “man of the people”.
Modern Day Bard
Nevertheless, for me he was always the consummate storyteller, a latter day itinerant bard travelling with his live radio show across our land, connecting with the people, telling their stories, celebrating their achievements and at times their sorrows, and I loved him for it. He could conjure up the lives of the ordinary people he met simply by using his voice over the airwaves and by altering the timbre of his voice, sprinkled with a judicious use of pauses that meant I could almost always see in my mind’s eye the images, the people and the scenes he was describing.
‘In a time when people are concentrating on our differences he did the opposite – he shone the light on our similarities and the things we have in common.’
He was also a musician, and a music lover who helped promote Canadian artists by working hard to introduce fresh Canadian musical talents to other Canadians and the world, by featuring them in his show. The list included (and is by no means complete) : Joel Plaskett, The Good Lovelies, Whitehorse, The Weakerthans, Jill Barber, Dan Hill, Great Lake Swimmers, Matt Anderson, the Dala Girls, Cuff the Duke, Luke Doucet, Lisa Lindo, Jim Bryson, Jenn Grant, Donovan Woods, Owen Pallet, Suzie Vinnick, Harry Manx, Patrick Watson, Randy Bachman (who played jazz), Cory Tetford, Murray McLauchlan, Jenny Whiteley, Reid Jamieson, John Sheard, Carolyn Mark, David Myles, Danny Michel (apologies to all those I have omitted).
Roses in December
In 2013, Reid Jamieson even wrote a song for and about McLean entitled Hey Big Kid, which he presented to him on the occasion of his 65th birthday. And in so many ways McLean was a big kid, a modern day Peter Pan. He never forgot what seeing the world through the eyes of a child was about. Through his stories he helped us remember our childhood and it was in them that we saw and remembered some lost parts of ourselves. J.M. Barrie author of Peter Pan once said: “God gave us memories so that we might have roses in December.” Stuart McLean gave some of us those roses all year long and in my world, and in that of many others, he will be sorely missed.
‘We are going to miss his characters and the future that they could have had.’
Ode to Andrew Stuart McLean, OC
Stuart without a doubt gave me roses in December
He made me remember our Canadian humanity
You see, he made me laugh, he made me cry
I am not sure now just how I’ll spend my Sunday noons,
Canadian tunes and songs showed me where I belonged
His Arthur Award for little random acts of kindness
Made us think of all the unsung local heroes, while
Child-centred stories, essays, zeroed in on collective strengths and frailties,
He made some sense, through little bits of complete nonsense.
He gave us entrance to a world at times crazy-mad with Dave’s late-night escapades
His mistakes, his raves, his forgetfulness, his laziness, his mix-ups that won’t fade
With scenes set in Dave’s second hand music store that “was not big because it was small”
All the tall tales of dog rescues, Big Narrows’ cast of characters, train trips with Sam
The gang of friends concocting pranks in Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies cafe,
My sighs, my tears, my guffaws all through Dave’s wild and wacky road trips
His slipups, my annual hiccups at his Christmas Grade B turkey woes
With gravy on the lamps, and hotel guard brandishing the knife,
Strife and life in Dave’s garden, street or family home
His groans and moans when faced with all his fictional family upsets.
The guests on Stuart’s show, his professed love for Canadians and the common man
Means life without his voice on air will never be the same, although I’ll not forget
The games and tricks he had Dave play, the inept sabotaging of his arch-nemesis
Mary Turlington, as well as all his parental tests and jests… and angst and pranks,
Here’s hoping the memories that Stuart gave us won’t ever fade
I’m sure the CBC will mine the gold he left us with a series of replays
Myself I’ll never tire of Morley, Dave, Stefanie, Sam and the snake on the lam,
Along with all the other assorted, at times distorted characters he introduced us to,
Dave’s dog Arthur who loved ice cream and stealing socks
The shocks, the graveside tales, the toilet training of Galway the cat,
Neighbouring Eugene’s fig tree and his daily sips of homemade vino,
The family groups and singleton friends always somehow on the go,
Sam and best friend Murphy and their upstairs’ window water slide
At Dave and Stephanie’s yoga spa retreat, I laughed until I cried
While Stefanie and her ‘uni’ woes, kept Dave and Morley on their toes
And although I, and others, are without a doubt bereft,
That Andrew Stuart McLean has left us far too soon
I’m also grateful that his broadcasts crossed my path
I heart you Stuart and your merry band of Vinyl Café regulars,
For the message he underscored to us is… be kind,
Life’s made up of lots of little moments and we’ll
Never know which is the most important one
Till everything is said and done; for Stuart’s creed and message was…
We need to treat everyone the same, life’s not always a fun game;
Stuart’s belief was that the world is overall a real good place,
Chock full of kind, good people with good souls and tales to tell,
Well, we’ll simply have to give them all a chance to prove it to us
As Andrew Stuart McLean’s bright wit did it for so many of us
His listeners and his audience; it’s true you led us on a merry dance,
So, we’ll miss you Stuart… you’re our own home-grown Canadian son
Thanks for all the laughter and the fun,
I’m sad your life was done too soon.
And my personal afterword to you is… if
You’ve gone to that eternal playground in the sky
Or wherever the afterlife is indeed located (if at all)
All I can think is…you’ll keep the denizens of heaven
Entertained and laughing with their sides splitting
For I am sure without a doubt you make a fitting occupant.
© Wanda Potrykus, February 20, 2017
Note: There is a small Westmount connection to Stuart McLean, who although he grew up in Montreal West, also lived for a few years in an apartment on Dorchester after university while he was working at Dawson College and crafting his career in radio. When he moved to Toronto in the late1970s, he sublet it to a friend and colleague from Camp Kanawana along with the proviso he babysit his piano as he wanted to return to it should life in Toronto not suit him. Once a Montrealer, always a Montrealer at heart it seems, but as it turned out, and without any doubt at all, also the consummate Canadian.
In memory of Stuart McLean, his family has set up a special fund administered by the Y for donations to Camp Kanawana. The fund will help children and teens without the financial means to attend Camp YMCA Kanawana, a community where they learn to care for themselves, each other and the environment. Stuart McLean worked there for five summers, stayed connected to the Y throughout his career and often said his time at the camp changed his life.
Images: courtesy of the CBC
Wanda Potrykus is a writer, editor, translator and poet. A graduate of McGill, she has spent most of her career in marketing communications, PR, event and media relations specializing in international aviation, telecommunications, education and the marketing of the arts.