When you’re starting out in a new field, the pressure mounts, and deadlines approach, moments of crisis can be softened with a helping hand and an encouraging word.
That’s what happened to me in the winter of 1980 when I had just joined the production team at CBC radio’s Sunday Morning prior to the Quebec referendum.
That helping hand and encouraging word came from Stuart McLean, the talented storyteller and beloved host of CBC Radio’s Vinyl Café, who died at 68 last month of melanoma.
Amid all the accolades and expressions of love from adoring fans, the political scientist and U of T professor emeritus, Gad Horowitz, paid tribute to McLean as “the last Canadian.”
McLean’s death reminded me of our time together in the winter of 1980, working at Sunday Morning. Much like McLean when he started out, coming from print journalism, I had little prior training or experience in radio.
Most of the items broadcast on the show were put together Friday and Saturday, and the production and recording process continued late into the night and early hours of Sunday.
I got tangled up in tape, was confused about how to proceed with my editing, becoming stressed out and frustrated, getting nowhere fast.
There was one person in that crew of perhaps a dozen talented and ambitious producers who responded to my distress – Stuart McLean.
With his friendly smile, calm demeanour, and journalistic skill, Stuart gave me 10 or 15 minutes of his time to help sort out the mess and set me on track so I could finish the editing and record my segment.
That’s the kind of guy Stuart was – generous, sensitive, so aware of his surroundings and the people therein, kind, and so talented, but not so ego-driven that he would not lend a hand to a colleague, even as the clock was ticking to
zero hour. McLean already stood out from the pack — he won an ACTRA Award for best radio documentary in 1979 for his report on the infamous Jonestown Massacre in Guyana in November 1978, which he covered with Terence McKenna.
The Senior Times interviewed McLean prior to his Christmas show here in December 2011, and he was as I remembered him — gracious, sincere, and sensitive.
As we observed then: “With his curiosity, journalistic skill, eye for detail and sense of timing, McLean has succeeded in touching Canadian and American listeners with stories that take the small things in life we ignore, or take for granted, and unearthing from them profound thoughts and eternal truths, delivered with a delicious sense of humour.
“With the show attracting about one million listeners weekly, McLean’s career puts him in the same class as such CBC broadcasting icons as Peter Gzowski and Barbara Frum.”
His death sparked an outpouring of tribute and regret online from loyal and enthusiastic fans.
“On paper, the Stuart Mclean story looks and sounds idyllic. The son of an Australian insurance broker, the senior McLean chose to settle in Montreal for the skiing. Weekends and summers were spent at the family cottage in the Ste. Anne des Lacs area of the Laurentians, where young Stuart’s love of the land became ingrained.
“But life is not always as it appears. McLean was at a school (Lower Canada College) where students who excelled in athletics or academics were prized. “He excelled at neither, and, strangely for a writer/communicator of such uncommon skill, had to repeat Grade 11.”
His journalistic breakthrough came after he graduated from Sir George Williams, now Concordia University, and while working in student services at Dawson College in 1974 was asked by a teacher who was running for city council to manage the campaign of journalist Nick Auf der Maur, making his first foray into politics.
McLean agreed, Auf der Maur defeated John Lynch Staunton in Côte des Neiges, and McLean shared in the credit for this “giant killing” exploit.
With the many contacts he had in CBC, Auf der Maur opened doors, vouched for McLean’s talents, and he was given a chance to prove himself. With a combination of trial and error and osmosis, McLean rapidly showed he had the right stuff.
By 1981, he succeeded Mark Starowicz as the Sunday Morning show’s executive producer, and stayed at the helm until 1984 – a testament to his judgment, leadership ability and talent as a broadcaster/writer. All this with no formal training or prior experience in journalism!
Fast forward to his crowning achievement – for 22 years, he travelled the country as host of The Vinyl Café, introducing live music, weaving wonderful stories about the highways and byways and nooks and crannies of our country, and inventing marvelous, often hilarious stories about Dave and Morley, and their kids. And as he told us
in that interview, underneath it all is his love and appreciation of the small and wondrous things that makes this country what it is. It all comes back to his growing up in Montreal, and spending summers in the Laurentians, he mused then.
“I have a visceral memory of autumn afternoons in the mountains, in Montreal, of a winter night walking west from Guy to Atwater, what Montreal looks like after a snowstorm at 5 in the afternoon, the glitter, and crunching through the snow, with snowbanks beside the road. “Then spring in Montreal, the weather and geography. All that has provided the lens through which I look at Canada.”
Montreal is “the cauldron in which French and English came together. I have a profound understanding of what the Canadian experiment is because of where I was raised.
“Montreal is where the idea of Canada began, the heartbeat of Canada began in the coming together of the English and French in Montreal. “I am very grateful for that upbringing because it has let me speak from the heart when I speak about Canada, because I came from the heart.”
The last Canadian indeed.
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