Stuart McLean was once my boss. He was the Producer of the CBC radio show, Sunday Morning, from 1981 to 1983, and I was the programme’s weekly movie reviewer from ‘81 to ‘84.
It was a whirlwind environment, a little like a student newspaper, with excited, bright, young people dashing out on to Jarvis Street from the old red-brick building to record street noises for the final section of a profile that was already 95% “in the can”. Stuart was right at home in the middle of the whirlwind, chatting, and laughing, and losing things, and encouraging the troops. He was, as everyone who saw him on-stage knows, a resolutely “aw-shucks” guy. Word filtered out that his cheerfully unrehearsed acceptance speeches, when his show won international awards, caused scowls at “The Kremlin”, the CBC headquarters.
Yet I know that he could be an inspiring leader. My contact with the show was through the superb Suanne Kelman (who fiercely taught me “how to breathe” on the air) and after 10 rigorous takes and re-takes of my 3-minute piece, I would go home before noon on Saturday. Once, my restful afternoon was marked by a phone call from Stuart.
“Doug, I’ve just heard your review for tomorrow’s show, and I wanted to tell you how great it is to have you doing your movie reviews for us.” Other compliments followed. And I swelled with pride and pleasure, and remembered the incident fondly, as you can see.
Some years later, I almost became his boss, or at least his Publisher. I had just started my own imprint at M&S and had lunch with Stuart to discuss his future, since at the time he was selling traffic barrier equipment, which was not the ideal road to success. Stuart had some interesting ideas for heading into the book world. I warmly encouraged him to develop his plans for a book. But I explained that I was busy bringing major authors who had already published with me to my new Douglas Gibson Books imprint. To be loyal to Avie Bennett, who had arranged my new home at M&S, I suggested that I would be glad to promote his new book idea to Adrienne Clarkson and her team at M&S. I did so, with enthusiasm…..and was astonished when later they turned him down. Fourteen Penguin titles, and more than a million book sales later……
The only figure I can compare Stuart with – as an author who became a beloved performer across the country… is W.O.Mitchell. Stuart and he met through their mutual friend Peter Gzowski, and I know they hit it off right away. I like to think that W.O. spotted Stuart as a blood brother, another guy who loved travelling around and meeting ordinary Canadians in places large and small. I believe that W.O. knew by instinct that he would turn into a major storyteller. Certainly Stuart loved spending time with W.O., and was a good friend to him.
For instance, when we issued tapes of W.O.’s stage performances, it took me no time at all to persuade Stuart to contribute a fond Introduction to “An Evening With W.O. Mitchell”. He said “Hello, I’m Stuart McLean, and I’ve been a fan of W.O. Mitchell ever since I heard him read when I was in University. So I’m delighted to be part of this Tribute to W.O. Mitchell, the Writer and the Performer…”
After W.O. died, a fund-raiser for the Writers’ Trust featured an auction for one of his snuff-boxes. Stuart was a determined bidder until almost the end, when a very rich rival won. When the Mitchell family learned of Stuart’s disappointment, they sent him another of W.O.’s snuff-boxes. Orme Mitchell still remembers the touchingly grateful letter he received.
As for me, I stayed in touch with my old friend. I remember disappointing him at The Royal York at a Bookseller’s Awards Ceremony where he was the MC. When I stepped up to the platform to accept an award won by Alice Munro, he said “Aww, it’s Doug”, in sinking tones. Once I was the MC at A Different Drummer Books event in Burlington, where by contrast I had fun at his expense.
The fun stopped when he fell ill with melanoma, although in our phone chat early in 2016 he was very upbeat, confident about the odds. When I called ten days ago, I spoke to Stuart’s son, Robbie, who told me that his father was sleeping. Two days before he died I left a fond message on his answering machine, a message into limbo from an old friend, who now knows that it’s always later than you think.