By Nathan Rudyk
I first met Shaun McLaughlin in the cubicle farms of a fast-growing Ottawa software company called Cognos. I was 22 and in Shaun found an invaluable mentor and lifelong friend.
Among other responsibilities in the technical writing department, Shaun rode herd over a green-as-grass group of University of Waterloo job coop students in 1984. He was swarthy, smart, intense, athletic, and carried himself with the counterculture cool of his California surfer youth and past life as a big-city reporter. His rep was that his teams never missed a deadline or underachieved on a goal he set. Ever.
This was an era when bringing software technology to life was a messy affair. “Leading edge” meant creating code for what by today’s standards were wildly unreliable machines. So when a programming team inevitably ran late on deliverables for a new release, it fell on tech writers to help reverse the clock as the company prepared for a major marketing launch at an international trade show with an immovable date. High stakes stuff.
In one of those episodes of mildly controlled tech company chaos, Shaun pulled a bunch of coop students together and announced he was setting up a Blitz (German word for “lightning”) Room. To avoid distractions, he covered the hallway windows into our Blitz Room, a seconded company boardroom, with computer printer paper. He had company-sponsored lunches brought in and handed out cards for 4-per-day, 10-minutes-max washroom breaks.
One group would run the freshly minted software through its paces building on the contents of a previous technical manual, and another group would edit and index their work, with Shaun reporting bugs back to the programming department as we went. Our CEO Mike Potter, who became one of Canada’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, a venture capitalist and philanthropist after Cognos later sold to IBM for $4.9 billion, even stopped in a couple of times to get status reports from our cloistered crew. I suspect Shaun stage-managed those high-profile visits to spur us on.
A few weeks later, utterly blitzed out, we made the company-critical deadline. Our bulky paper technical manuals shipped out worldwide with new Cognos software copied onto floppy discs.
That blitz buddy and I crossed professional paths many times over the next few decades. The lightning ethos frequently informed us, extending from “work stuff” to friendly games of squash in Ottawa and Toronto to more competitive ski runs at Whistler BC and Tremblant QC. Shaun, clicking off how many metres of vertical we did in a day. Me, trying to keep up with him and survive without doing a Sonny Bono.
In 1990 I found myself in The Big Smoke heading up editorial teams for a Yorkville publishing company. I needed an Associate Editor to help create and launch a new national magazine in an absurdly short timeframe. One who never missed a deadline, ever, and always achieved any goal he set. That would be Shaun.
“New Environment” shipped to the printer in 60 days flat featuring a Green Report Card on Mikhail Gorbachev, Brian Mulroney, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. Contributors to our first issue included Global News broadcaster and writer Peter Trueman, management guru Peter Drucker, Environics pollster Michael Adams, federal politician Sheila Copps and Canadian journalism vets including Gwynne Dyer, Warner Troyer and Bob English.
Shaun co-wrote the magazine’s editorial mandate, which was to show “tomorrow’s most successful business and political organizations will be based on effective management of the world’s resources” and “organizations that fail to grasp their role as global citizens will either diminish in stature or cease to exist”. Looking back, it was a bit of “Liar, liar your country’s on fire!” foreshadowing. It was also a helluva lot of fun to be working with and learning from Shaun again.
Meanwhile, an amazing woman had entered into my friend’s life. Amelia Ah You was a mystical, stoic, captivating presence from the Ottawa arts scene, by way of Mozambique. They moved into a townhouse in Nepean and I’ll never forget my first visit. There were hay bales and composters in the postage-stamp backyard. They’d turned their little patch of suburbia into a full-blown, high production vegetable garden the CBC’s Ed Lawrence (who later became their great friend) would have marvelled at. To the consternation of neighbouring weed-and-feed civil servants, Dylan-esque tall grass and wildflowers were blowin’ in the wind of Shaun and Amelia’s front yard.
The couple’s farming experience in the burbs led to their first rural farm in Ramsay Township, where Shaun wrote environmental articles for national magazines like Chatelaine and Harrowsmith, continued his tech writing career, earned a master’s degree, and Amelia kept painting and built her own respected career in heritage building conservation and design. Meanwhile, with some serious acreage to play with, gardening, composting and trailblazing took on a whole new dimension with an eclectic cast of domesticated animals including a donkey who believed he ran the place, and sort of did.
Shaun and Amelia also took some time in the early 90s to ferry my young family around Lanark County. Glenna and I were looking to put down roots, and it was a toss-up between Carleton Place and Almonte. Shaun and Amelia recommended that Almonte’s artsier edge would suit us better. In doing so they became admired and loved by my wife and our three children, providing encouragement, advice and inspiration through thick and thin.
Sparked by his concern for the environment globally and his land locally, Shaun embraced local politics. Political reality bumped up against green philosophy when during his first electoral run to become a Ramsay Councillor he refused to use wasteful campaign signs. Oops.
Finding himself on the outside looking into Council, he took it upon himself to devote some of his writing talent to the “County Curmudgeon” local politics column, first for the Almonte Gazette newspaper, then theHumm, and also as an Internet blog. While there were feathers regularly ruffled in his barnyard, there were sometimes both feathers and fur flying when he zoned in on the foibles of local politicians who were used to being left alone to broker their decisions outside of the media’s glare.
Shaun’s second attempt at electioneering in 2010, recyclable campaign signs in tow, gained him a seat at the Council table of the Municipality of Mississippi Mills, where the one-time political critic became a keen and respected practitioner. His third attempt earned him the Mayor’s chair.
Following her Feb. 17th announcement of his shockingly untimely death while swimming with family in Cozumel, Mexico, our current Mayor Christa Lowry accurately summarized Shaun’s political legacy. She noted he was “a strong supporter of the arts, of culture, of our libraries [who] drove towards fiscal responsibility as a committed proponent of Long Term Financial Planning” and “a champion of the Lanark County Food Bank [who] believed neighbour helping neighbour to be a pillar of local food security.” She graciously skipped over the controversy that grew during his time in her job.
By today’s Trumpian standards, the political to and fro that developed during Shaun’s time as Mayor was mildly impolite child’s play, yet his political adversaries did manage to turn him off the idea of serving beyond his eight years on Council. Amelia, prophetically, believed he should enjoy more time with friends and family, walking and skiing their trails with her, or undertaking his quixotic building projects using reclaimed wood from their property. Shaun being Shaun, there was inevitably a new turn-on for his boundless energy and intellect. A new goal.
As owners of ageing bones and ligaments, over the last few years Shaun and I graduated from squash and downhill skiing to lower impact sports like paddling and cycling. After a few hours outside, we developed an occasional but treasured end-of-day tradition. We’d savour a few beers watching the sunset from a magnificent “tree deck” overlooking a pond on the largely forested farm he and Amelia have been stewarding just outside Pakenham.
One day last Spring with an orange end-of-day glow in front of us and brews in hand, Shaun proudly told me he’d signed a publishing agreement with an established US outfit, Beacon Publishing Group. He’d summoned the lightning once more. While he’d already produced well-regarded works of historical research, historical fiction and even science fiction, the US company agreed to publish his biography of “Pirate” Bill Johnston, with the working title “Chieftain of the Thousand Islands: The Life and Legend of Bill Johnston”. He’d started working on the project in 1973 as a young journalism student, then decided to pick it up again in earnest and finish it. Of course, he once again met his goal.
I found a selection of Shaun’s author profile at Beacon Publishing Group to close out this modest tribute to my dearly departed friend, but not before saying: We’ll miss you man – you made an admirable, inspiring life your own way and made it well. Keep on.
“Shaun J. McLaughlin began writing at 13 when his father, John, gave him an old typewriter to dabble in fiction. Again, his father nudged him along the writer’s path by convincing Shaun that journalism was a great way “to learn writing from the ground up.” He graduated with honors from the journalism program at Humber College in Toronto in 1975. Over the following 33 years, Shaun worked as a journalist and a technical writer. Ottawa’s Carleton University awarded him a Masters degree in journalism in 1994. He earned a third Dan black belt in Taekwon-do in 2005 at the age of 53 just to prove old guys can kick ass.”