Kindness as a Signpost: Professor Stephen Brown’s Recollections of Stuart McLean at Trent

Stuart McLean sitting on a couch.

Photo by Natelie Herault.

For the spring edition of TRENT Magazine, we asked beloved Trent University English Professor (and former Master of Champlain College) Stephen Brown for his memories of Stuart McLean visiting the University. We are honoured to share his writing here.

Stuart McLean joined our community during the autumn term in 1994. That November, he spent a couple of weeks in residence at Champlain College as Rooke Fellow, an award he valued because it acknowledged him for his reputation as a teacher. If you look Stuart up on Wikipedia, the Rooke’s mentioned; his many honorary doctorates—including one from Trent—aren’t.

He finished work on the first collection of Vinyl Café stories in the guest suite in KL Staircase. There was an agreement not to announce his stay for a week, so that he could work without distractions. Incognito McLean didn’t outlast his first day. No one recognized the lanky middle-aged guy loping across the campus. After all, the Vinyl Café wasn’t a road show yet. But Stuart couldn’t resist chatting with a few students sitting down by the river, and one of them exclaimed, “Hey, are you the guy from the radio, the guy who tells the stories? I listen to you every week with my mom.” The gig was up. The world’s full of awkward, lanky guys, but that voice … America had Jimmy Stewart, and Canada, Stuart McLean.

Trent first attracted Stuart’s attention as a secondary student considering universities. Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford the residential fees, so he stayed at home in Montreal and enrolled at Sir George Williams. Still, Trent continued to beckon, and Stuart applied and was accepted two years later as a transfer student. But his job at a summer camp just didn’t pay enough to support the move to Peterborough.

It would take another three decades for Stuart to finally get here, when he was nominated for the Rooke by one of our distinguished alumni, Jennifer Dettman, who studied with Stuart at Ryerson before going on to her own remarkable career with the CBC. Peter Gzowski supported the nomination and encouraged Stuart (always shy of even the least celebrity) to accept the award. During that first stay in 1994, Stuart conducted a masterclass on teaching, led a seminar on creative writing, and visited Trent Radio. He read “The Pig” from its proof sheets to a group of students gathered around the fireplace in the Senior Common Room and kept a Wenjack overflow crowd enthralled. Every night he’d slip out alone to soak up the scene in various Peterborough bars. And the next morning, over breakfast, Stuart’s enthusiasm for whatever band or acoustic soloist he’d heard was uncontainable.

Stuart loved music, especially in unpretentious local settings. The Red Dog pleased him, and he never failed to visit it for a beer, some tunes, and the sort of intimate conversation that only an authentic bar can provide. Once The Night Kitchen opened, a slice from “that pizza joint down the street” always rounded out his evenings.

Trent invited Stuart back often after that first visit. And Stuart often came back quietly of his own accord. The campus appealed to him with its ready access to nature and easeful solitude. And the University’s unrelenting pursuit of social justice, honour for Indigenous culture, respect for the environment, and progressive Canadian values reflected Stuart’s own civil passions. For Stuart, those issues were best explored quietly in each new encounter with each new friend he made, and he made many friends at Trent.

When we gathered to celebrate the life and memory of perhaps Trent’s greatest friend, Peter Gzowski, Stuart hosted an evening in the Wenjack with Molly Johnson, Stephen Lewis, Tom Jackson, Bruce Kidd, and Andrew Pyper. Stuart also had the distinction of receiving an honorary doctorate at the first convocation in Trent’s history to be rained out. We discovered that day that the University didn’t really have much of a backup plan in case of rain; we’d never needed one. We were fortunate that Stuart was there. The graduating students filled the Wenjack, with Stuart onstage, but their guests were seated in the Otonabee cafeteria listening to a remote broadcast of the ceremony. Stuart McLean live and on-air, intimate and reassuring, and somehow making it all seem planned. The guy from the radio was telling a story and it would be all right.

Stuart wanted his sons to study at Trent. He brought one for a campus tour and introduced him to the much-loved and now much-missed English professor, David Glassco, hoping that David’s pedagogic charm might convince him to enroll. That didn’t happen. Still, Stuart had many reasons to return, including the Vinyl Café’s regular stops in Peterborough. Stuart always set aside complimentary tickets for students to attend the show, and he’d take a break from the tech rehearsals to slip up to the campus, incognito.

Being on the road mattered to Stuart. I recall a phone call one autumn: “Guess what? Where do you think I am?” I had no idea, and Stuart quickly filled my silence: “I’m on the road with my band in our own bus!” Stuart had grown up listening to every radio broadcast he could tune into, particularly late at night when obscure American stations reached deep into Canada. Being part of that scene, first on radio and then on the road, fulfilled boyhood dreams and dismissed the ghosts of adolescent angst, without dissipating the eternally youthful curiosity and sense of humour that defined Stuart’s comic spirit: laughter that proposed wisdom, and wisdom that never deserted its consort, humour. Perhaps that is Stuart’s legacy at Trent, the fundamental insight that sharing laughter (and laughing at ourselves) builds the strongest communities. Values expressed without self-deprecation become unfortunate ideologies.

As he told the 40th graduating class, “education can sneak up on you, often unbidden … let kindness and understanding be your signposts.” He was not a man to judge or to pontificate. He smiled and laughed.

The next time that you visit the Vinyl Café pay attention to the “framed motto hanging by the cash register:”

We may not be big,
But we’re small.

To turn Canada’s vastness into intimacy, make a lecture a conversation, recognize that the small stories are the authentic ones. That was Stuart’s mission. He could walk into The Red Dog, look around the bar, spot the one person in the room no one else had noticed, take a seat beside them and say, “hello, I’m Stuart McLean, tell me something about yourself.” And they would. That’s what great teaching is all about. Stuart was a great teacher. He belonged at Trent. And he knew it.

 

Dr. Stephen Brown is an active member of Trent’s faculty. He is a professor of English Literature and a well known expert on Shakespeare. He has served as senior don at Traill College, a convener for visiting speakers for the Department of English and was the Traill College fellows' representative on Senate. One of his special projects was the creation of the Trent University Honors English Essay Prize (T.H.E. Prize), a nationwide annual essay-writing competition for graduating students. Prof. Brown`s primary research interest is Scottish Literature.

Prof. Brown's love of teaching is most evident in his Shakespeare class. "I can't talk about teaching apart from my teaching of Shakespeare. Emotions and the human condition are at the centre of Shakespeare. You can't talk about Shakespeare without talking about your own emotional identity,” said Prof. Brown. "I try to let my students experience how literature moves and affects me spontaneously at the very moment that I am reading a text and thinking about it with them; and then, I hope, they too can come to the point of letting their own feelings become public… For me tears and laughter are essential, cathartic experiences of the theatre of the classroom,” he said.

Prof. Brown has a B.A. in Greek and Hebrew from Queen's University, a B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Windsor and a Ph.D. from Queen's.

He has won both the Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 3M Teaching Fellowship.

 

      

 

 

 

 

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