by Brent Eades
Though he wasn’t from here, the CBC’s remarkable storyteller Stuart McLean left a big imprint on our town when he presented two impressive shows at the Almonte Old Town Hall back in 2013.
I wrote this review of Stuart’s show, which I enjoyed immensely.
Nathan Rudyk has sent us the following recollection of his encounters with Stuart.
Stuart McLean – A journalist who helped define what’s great about being Canadian
My Facebook feed lit up with melancholy news this Wednesday evening. At 5:09 pm, my old friend, fellow musician and CBC Senior Media Librarian Greg Hobbs posted that, “Sadly. We at CBC have just learned that Stuart McLean has passed away.” A few minutes later, a local journalist, The Millstone’s Editor Brent Eades, posted: “Damn. We’ve lost Stuart McLean.”
We did, and a mighty loss it is. McLean, who was diagnosed with what he seemed to believe was an uncomplicated bout of melanoma in 2015, left the planet at 68, and at the peak of his storytelling powers.
My path crossed with McLean during what I refer to as my “seven lost years in Canadian journalism”. An editor in Toronto for most of those joyfully lost years, I had a generous freelance budget at one of my magazines that allowed me to hire the idols of my trade – June Callwood, Peter Trueman, Robert Fulford, and the journalist I admired most at the time, Peter Gzowski.
Like McLean before his illness took him, Gzowski was at the peak of his powers in the 80s with his three-hour weekday radio masterpiece, Morningside. I often scheduled and at times rescheduled my life to be near a radio speaker when Morningside was on.
The many extraordinary Canadians on Gzowski’s program were joined one morning by a relatively unknown, but already distinguished and award-winning Ryerson University journalism professor named Stuart McLean. He was soon referred to as Morningside’s “resident storyteller”, and if you want to hear the unabashedly brotherly camaraderie between Gzowski and McLean, check out a 13-minute Morningside segment titled “A ‘sleeping’ cricket”. Listeners who heard the show in their cars that day admitted that the uncontrolled giggling and snorting between McLean and Gzowski – which they unsuccessfully attempted to control with a musical break – nearly made them drive off the road with laughter.
An incurable devotee to the irksome game of golf, Gzowski was convinced to leverage his national celebrity to host an annual tournament with proceeds going to adult literacy, an issue he cared deeply about. (The event has outlived Gzowski with $13.9 million raised so far.). He invited news and entertainment scribblers along with musicians, poets, actors, novelists, news anchors and publishers to alternately distinguish (them) or embarrass themselves (me) on the green.
A classically shy word-nerd, as was my custom at social events with my peers, I felt woefully unworthy to be in the company of luminaries with names like Atwood (Margaret), Cochrane (Tom), Mansbridge (Peter) and Dale (Cynthia). After the tourney concluded, feeling too awkward to join the pre-dinner crowd that was regaling itself with tales of the afternoon, I wandered off to join a quiet picnic table where a fellow loner was seated. It was Stuart McLean.
We exchanged pleasantries. I told him how much I admired his work on Morningside, but quickly understood that he really did want to be alone, so I left for the bar where I knew Gzowski would be cussing, drinking and entertaining everyone. Looking back across the lawn, I saw McLean whip out his notebook. No doubt, I had interrupted him at work – poised to pen another extraordinary bit of storytelling from ordinary circumstance.
While he contributed to many works of literature and journalism that he will be remembered for, McLean will likely be most associated with his work as host of The Vinyl Café. There, he made the everyday lives of a Canadian couple named Dave and Morley sing in our imaginations. One story he wrote and was then compelled to replay year after year for his loyal national audience was “Dave Cooks the Turkey”. As the story about Dave’s desperate, kitchen-challenged quest to cook a Christmas bird unfolds, McLean displayed his trademark ability to build a lasting tale from the confessional foibles of a small-town everyman who ends up in a hilariously slapstick Turk-apocalypse.
As well as his revered stories about the lives and deceptively quirky fellow townsfolk of Dave and Morley, McLean deserves equal respect for his willingness to showcase the talents of up-and-coming musicians from across our country. He clearly loved music, and it showed in his on-air interactions, and occasional participation in the musical segments of his show.
Not since Peter Gzowski has a CBC host so well contributed to, and communicated his love of our culture. In so doing, he help define what’s great about being a Canadian. In my books that makes Stuart McLean a great Canadian. Now he’ll only exist as a story, but one of our finest.