Boys, I Tell You Something

There’s a big, multi-level parking garage there now, but many years ago a group of idealistic young men spent many evenings one summer sitting around a table at an outdoor café in Toronto’s old village district north of Gerrard Street, between Bay and University. We solved the problems of the world every night that summer, and in the process befriended another regular, a mysterious, older man-of-the-world. 

He was sitting by himself at an adjacent table one night. He spoke English with a peculiar European accent. (We eventually learned he was originally from Luxembourg, a tiny, independent country bordered by France, Germany and Belgium.) He was a short, stocky man with dark hair and intense eyes that saw right through you. When we asked him what he did for a living he just brushed off the question with slight shrug and said he was in the travel business.

Mostly, Dan listened with interest and no doubt more than a little amusement to our pseudo-philosophical discussions. But every once in a while he would lift up the index finger of his right hand to get our attention and then say, very seriously, “boys, I tell you something.” Dan obviously knew more about life and the wider world than all of us put together, and anybody else any of us had ever met to that point, so as he paused for a moment we fell silent and waited.

He was a man of few words. He spoke in aphorisms, brief statements of truth or principles; there was little if any preamble or reasoned argument; you either got it or you didn’t, agreed or not. The central core of Dan’s thinking was that one person with great ideas and the mental discipline, energy and resources to put them into action could change the world and the course of history.

But it’s taken me way too long to understand finally what Dan meant when he raised his finger one evening and said, “boys, I tell you something,” and then, after the usual brief pause for dramatic effect, added, “the man who invented time was a fool.”

I’m reminded of the priest, the New York City Fire Department chaplain, who died in the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre five years ago. People who knew him recalled later he was fond of saying, “Want to make God laugh? Tell him about your plans for tomorrow.”

There is no tomorrow. There is only now. And the quality of each of our lives is determined by what we chose to do with now. Now is the time (for want of a better word), the only time, to think about what’s really important and do something about it. The man who invented time put a damper on the human spirit.

These thoughts come to mind because the deaths of Barney McKillop last month and, more recently, Dr. Norma Hopkinson took me by surprise. As soon as I say that it sounds like a flimsy, no-account excuse. I knew both of them well enough that I should have phoned, written a letter, visited them long ago. But, sad to say, I can’t remember the last time I made contact with Barney or Dr. Norma. I thought about it from time to time, but invariably procrastinated. There was always tomorrow, or another day. I regret that. So I’m going to take the opportunity here and now to try and make up for it a little. But “better late than never” is a poor substitute for the real thing.

I think it’s fair to say Dr. Norma was already a living legend when I came to the Bruce Peninsula in the summer of 1979. She and her late husband Dr. Mervyn Hopkinson moved to Lion’s Head and set up medical practices in 1951, as Sun Times reporter Jim Algie wrote in an obituary. For several years afterwards they were the only doctors on the peninsula. They were also instrumental in the construction of the Lion’s Head Red Cross Outpost hospital, the virtual community health-care centre, in the late 1950s.

I first saw Dr. Norma at a public meeting in the Lion’s Head arena auditorium about the proposed amalgamation of the Wiarton and District Hospital, the Lion’s Head hospital, and the Tobermory Medical Clinic. One person after another got up to speak. Then Dr. Norma quietly put up her hand to be heard. I don’t recall what she said. But I have a clear recollection of the spontaneous applause she received from the crowd of local people when she finished her few minutes of reasonable, typically soft-spoken comments. No one else got that reaction. It was a measure of the level of respect, and affection, the community had for her.

Years later I rented a small house from Dr. Norma for a year or so and got to know her better. She was a kind and generous person who carried herself with patient dignity. We shared a very high regard for her father-in-law, the late Keith Hopkinson. He had built and for many years lived in the house I rented. The man Dr. Norma called “Gramps” was a Canadian Army veteran of both world wars, one of the finest people I have ever had the pleasure and privilege of knowing and writing about, and a true Canadian hero.

Would that every municipal politician had Barney McKillop’s sense of humour. I covered Wiarton council for the Sun Times during his first term on council, when the town’s municipal government was under provincial supervision because of financial problems. The year he was elected mayor I left the newspaper for a while to, of all things, open a delicatessen in Lion’s Head. Barney was amused. He called to express astonishment that I had given up journalism to become, as he put it in his good-natured, jovial way, “the sausage king of Lion’s Head.”

But nothing delighted Barney more than to see bumbling municipal feet held to the fire in print. He was a firm believer in open government, in the public’s right to know. However, seriously he took the mayor’s job – and I’m sure he did – he had the good sense to balance things with humour. Unlike some other municipal politicians he never became self-important.

Barney took an avid interest in what was going on in other area municipalities, including Grey and Bruce county council meetings, which I regularly covered through most of the 1990s. He often phoned to share his interest and amused reaction to articles that appeared in the Sun Times exposing questionable decisions and odd comments out of one area council or another, at the county or local level. My favourite Barney call was about a story that never actually got written or published. I had been nosing around at the Grey County Administration building, trying to find out what I could about the plentiful beer and liquor supplies in the councillor’s lounge, and who was paying for them. Word got down to a group of Grey County councillors attending a big convention at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. When he got back to town the former Mayor of Wiarton could hardly stop laughing when he called to tell me how preoccupied and worried the members of the Grey “old boys’ club” at the convention had been about the possibility their private bar was going to be the subject of a news story back home.

I’m gonna miss you Barney.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2006.

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