Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Adieu to some fascinating characters

This is my debut column for Boulevard, a lifestyle magazine distributed in Victoria, B.C. The column, titled, simply, Hawthorn, will appear in each of the six annual issues.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
September/October, 2009

Older children stepped off the curb onto the street to gather candy. They returned with cupped hands offering cellophane-wrapped prizes to younger parade watchers.

It was this sight, while attending the Oak Bay Tea Party Parade on a weekend visit, that convinced us to abandon the Big Smoke for a new life across the pond in Victoria. Heck, where I grew up back east, the tossing of candies would have sparked a riot.

In time, both of my children appeared in the parade, the girl as a Girl Guide and the boy as a drummer in a high school marching band. He later won a contest to develop a website for the Tea Party. That is how I think of our city — a polite place of opportunity in which public events, even political protests, are conducted in a spirit of neighbourliness.
Many of us come to this city by birth, some by circumstance, others by choice.

Victoria produces homegrown talent such as the singer Nelly Furtado and the basketball star Steve Nash, while also luring here people accomplished in many fields. Some come here only in retirement, and we barely get to know them before they’re gone.

It sometimes falls to me to write their farewell, their swan song, their obituary.

To write a newspaper obit is to have an intimate encounter with a stranger. It is an awesome responsibility, not in the least ghoulish or maudlin. Many lived here in near-anonymity, yet achieved global fame in their circle.

I’d like to tell you now about some of the most fascinating people I never had the chance to meet.

In formal circumstances, the scientist was introduced as William E. Ricker, O.C., Ph.D., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S.C., an entire alphabet of accomplishment. By all accounts, Bill Ricker was not one to stand on formality. He was a fisheries biologist whose great achievement was a formula for predicting future fish stocks, which was known as the Ricker Curve. He was also a noted limnologist and entomologist who wrote Sherlockian pastiches as a hobby. A stern trawler that conducts research carries his name, while the waterfront Pacific Biological Research station in Nanaimo, where he long had an office, is reached by a gently winding road named Ricker’s Curve.

Jack Winter was a sitcom writer who penned funny lines for Dick Van Dyke and Jack Klugman as Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” (“I like ketchup. It’s like tomato wine”). He once published a celebrated comic essay for The New Yorker titled, “How I Met My Wife.” “I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner,” he wrote. “She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it since I was travelling cognito.”

How he really met his wife was credible, but just barely. He was at an airport in Kathmandu when he struck up a conversation with a young Sudanese woman. She had studied at the University of Victoria, so they settled here after marrying in 2001. They bought a leafy property in Saanich that included a pond, which the writer had stocked with frogs, one of his boyhood obsessions. He had dated the actress Diane Keaton, played a weekly tennis match against retired basketball star Earl (The Pearl) Monroe, and had been the second youngest graduate in his Harvard class. The youngest later earned infamy — and a life sentence — as the Unabomber.

Experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, an avant-gardist regarded as a genius by cineastes and who influenced Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, died here, as did J. Lee Thompson, the director of muscular action pictures such as “The Guns of Navarone.”

Streetcar operator Lyle Wicks needed to get a small bank loan to afford a stay at the Empress Hotel after being elected a Social Credit MLA. The NDP’s Dave Stupich pleaded guilty to the misuse of charity funds in a scandal known as Bingogate that led to the resignation of NDP Premier Mike Harcourt, who later called his nemesis “an embezzler and a liar.”

I have chronicled the death of Bob Bierman, the editorial cartoonist sued for depicting Premier Bill Vander Zalm plucking the wings from flies, and the sad life of Frank Williams, given up for adoption at birth, who became a major-league baseball pitcher before winding up an alcoholic on the streets of Victoria.

We all have our losses. Since this magazine came into being, I have buried a father and helped move my mother to our city. I have mourned the untimely passing of two friends. The death of David Grierson, the host of CBC Radio’s “On the Island,” brought a touching display of public support. The station was inundated by well wishers, many bringing food, as though they knew personally a man whose voice they woke up with each morning. A quieter but no less painful loss was Dana O’Dowd, a neighbour on our street in a friendly nook of Gonzales, whose careening monologues sounded to my ears like improvisational jazz.

Of course, we all mourn Reena Virk, a teenager so cruelly killed. In their grief, her parents taught us much about grace.

And then there is the continuing puzzle of poor Michael Dunahee. The three syllables of his family name express loss, tragedy, mystery. He is missing now 18 years, plucked from our midst at age four. He is unforgotten. A Facebook page administered by his younger sister has 5,968 members. It is called “We will never forget Michael Dunahee.” I think about him often.

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