A person who played a very important role in the life of my family when we lived at the Manse back when I was a kid was Art Gough – a gifted and much-loved teacher and principal, a marathon-runner, and a man with a boundless sense of how much fun life could be.
Art and his family moved to a nice old brick house in Queensborough in 1970, when he was named principal of Coe Hill Public School further north in Hastings County, and the Goughs and the Sedgwicks quickly became fast friends. Art went on to be the principal at nearby Madoc Township Public School – which my sister and brothers and I all attended, though before his time there. He made a very important mark on that already-fine school, bringing teachers and students together as one big enthusiastic team and leading the charge for the Township School to be a place known for its academics, sports and special activities, such as debating. (His impact was such that when the board of education tried to shift him to a larger school a few years after his arrival, the teachers and local parents rose up in protest. The board backed down, and Art stayed at the Township School until his retirement.)
Anyway: I am sad to report that Art died a week ago tonight. Today his family and many of his friends gathered for a celebration of his life. In the days between I have, as you might imagine, been thinking a lot about Art, a truly remarkable man whose approach to life had a large impact on my own.
I was extremely honoured (and more than a little bit nervous) that Art’s sons asked me to speak at the service today, and I’ll put the text, more or less as I said it, at the end of this post. My focus was primarily on Art as our Queensborough neighbour and good friend of my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick. That is how I knew him best. But I was a bit worried about not going into all the other important things that Art was – teacher and principal, as already noted; and exceptional athlete, also as noted; but also world traveller, participant in theatrical productions, Christian Science member, animal-lover, and on and on the list goes.
I needn’t have worried, though. Wanda Burnside, a former Madoc Township Public School teacher, painted a wonderful picture for us of the exciting and memorable times the school went through under Art’s leadership; and Bill Gough, Art’s youngest son, spoke eloquently and movingly about many parts of Art’s life – including, of course, Art as father and grandfather. The pride and affection in Bill’s voice as he spoke were lovely to hear. As was the fact that a major focus of his talk was how much Art liked to laugh, and how good he was at getting others to laugh. That is one of the things I will remember most about Art. He had an incredibly quick mind, and he used it in the best possible way: to enjoy life, and to help others do the same.
Bill also mentioned a couple of things I found absolutely remarkable: one, that Art never took a sick day in all of his long career as a teacher and principal; and the other, that he ran every single day from 1964 until 2010, when his health began to fail. One time, Bill told us, he ran on the tarmac in between flights at Los Angeles Airport. Another time he ran on the deck of a ship in the stormy North Sea. But he never once missed a day. Can you imagine? (This would of course explain why he was able to run more than a dozen marathons.)
And speaking of the running, I well remember how, when Art and his family moved to Queensborough in 1970, running was seen by the people of Queensborough as an extremely peculiar thing to do. (I think this was a bit before Participaction had kicked in.) That said, it wasn’t long before they got used to seeing him out on the road, and began not to be so surprised by it. However: I can tell you from first-hand experience that there was some pretty major head-shaking and eye-rolling down at the general stores when Art was spotted running on icy roads that were well-nigh impassable to vehicles during the worst winter days.
But that was Art. Indomitable, unstoppable – and full of life and laughter.
Now that I think of it, the image of him out running on the icy winter roads around Queensborough is – well, it’s classic Art. It was something nobody else would have done – and there was Art, doing it. It was a perfect example – though there are many examples – of how he stood out from everyone else. The father, grandfather and friend whose life we celebrated today was an extraordinary person. I hope all who knew him who might be reading this will stop and think about something he did or said that made them laugh. I think Art would like that a lot.
Here’s what I said today:
Since Art Gough was an educator, you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that he taught me something – well, me and a whole lot of other people. Probably many of you here. Given the number of students he interacted with through his career, probably hundreds and hundreds of people.
As I’ve been thinking about it over the past several days, though, I’ve had trouble finding just the right word or words to describe what that very important lesson was. Then this morning I happened to be on a long, quiet drive, and about halfway though, the words “vibrant spirit” came to me. “Man!” I thought. “That is the perfect way to describe Art.” And maybe that is also the best way to describe what he taught us through his example: to have and to be a vibrant spirit.
My family and Art’s became friends when the Goughs moved to our little hamlet, Queensborough, in 1970. My father Wendell, the United Church minister, was always quick to welcome strangers, and so he invited Art and Claude for dinner to the Manse one Sunday evening. (The rest of the family hadn’t yet arrived from their previous home in the Newmarket area.) This turned out to be the first of what would be many get-togethers over the years; Claude, Graham and Bill were not much different in age from my three siblings and myself, and our parents hit it off immediately. In particular, the friendship between Art and Wendell was something that I think I am safe in saying had a deep and lasting impact on their lives – and on ours.
The Goughs and the Sedgwicks spent wonderful times pre-screening films that Art had ordered for use in his schools (with long discussions and dissections of them afterward); and around the dinner table, with great big pots of tea to finish off the meal; and on long hikes through the woods and wilderness around Queensborough.
And always during these happy times there was a great deal of talk – mostly between Art and Wendell, though we were all welcomed and encouraged to join in. There was talk about religion, about science, about education, about history, about running. About the mysteries of the universe. It was good talk, often scholarly talk. Friendly but pointed debate. There were challenges and responses. Agreement, sometimes. Agreement to disagree, other times. I think I speak for Art’s sons, and I know I speak for my sister and brothers, when I say that we loved listening to Art and Wendell talk.
Art knew the secret to good and lively conversation. It’s a very simple tactic, but oddly, many people don’t seem to be aware of it. It is just this: ask people questions. And if you want it to be a really lively conversation, ask them questions about themselves.
Actually, there’s one other thing you have to do to make this tactic work: be genuinely interested in the answers you get. That was something Art was a master of.
He would ask you something about yourself: your work, or where you came from, or what you thought about such-and-such a thing, or maybe (if you were a young person) what you hoped to do with your life. He would listen carefully to the answer; and he would use it to formulate a followup question. And another. And another. And so he would end up finding out an enormous amount about you as a person. But perhaps more importantly, he often helped you learn something about yourself. Because his questions were not the kind that you gave yes-and-no answers to. Without being the least bit invasive, they were – searching. Which meant that the answers they elicited were often illuminating. I have heard people say, during a night of conversation with Art, “I’ve never told that story before” or “I’ve never thought of it like that before.” And they would say it with kind of a sense of wonderment. He had drawn something special out from somewhere deep inside them.
That, my friends, is a gift.
And while I never had Art as a teacher or principal, I can easily imagine what a gift it was to his students to have this adult in a position of authority pay so much attention to them, to be so interested in who they were and what they could do and what they hoped to do.
Art knew that everybody has stories to tell. And that sometimes they don’t even know what those stories are until they start telling them – because somebody thoughtful, kind and wise has encouraged them to. That was Art.
His brilliance at conversation was something to watch. Until I got used to it by spending enough time in his company, I used to be amazed at how, under his seemingly effortless direction, a theme would emerge from an afternoon or evening of conversation, and how he could tie together the various threads that the talk had taken, bringing us back to that theme – generally with great joviality and much laughter.
Laughter was a very important ingredient in the mix when you spent time with Art. As I’ve been thinking about him over these past days, it has struck me that I absolutely cannot picture him without a huge smile on his face. He would grin when he first saw you, exclaim, “Great to see you!” – and you could tell he absolutely meant it. He loved stories (his own and others’) that made him – and you – laugh. He was a keen observer of quirks and eccentricities – including those of daily life in Queensborough – and when he talked about them they seemed even funnier.
For instance – and this is a story I know the Gough family knows well: there was The Night of the Olives at the United Church Manse. [Readers, I will interpolate here and say that I’ve already done a separate post about that incident here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. You can, if you wish to read it twice, go here.]
One Sunday evening back in the early 1970s, when the Sedgwicks were hosting the Goughs for dinner, my dad happened to make mention of a little foible my mother Lorna had. Which was: that she liked to serve a small bowl of olives whenever we had company (which was often), but that every time she would buy a new jar of olives, leaving the many previously opened and still half-full jars taking up valuable space in our little fridge. (And with the olives turning interesting colours after they’d spent enough time there.)
Well! Art seemed to think that that was at once the most incredible and the funniest thing he had ever heard. “Really? No, that can’t be true.” And so on. He wasn’t going to let the subject drop, because it was just too much fun. After much banter, he finally decided that he would need to verify this amazing phenomenon for himself. He demanded the evidence! And so we kids happily obliged by rooting through the fridge and bringing out the olives, jar after jar after jar. Since you all knew Art you can probably well imagine his expressions of ever-increasing astonishment and hilarity as we got into the double digits. Everyone around the table was laughing their heads off – including my mother. It was a wonderful, convivial, uproarious evening, one none of us ever forgot – and it was Art who made it happen, who directed the play, so to speak. And who was having at least as much fun as everybody else. And who made us laugh for years afterward when he would drop a reference to “the Olive Incident” into other conversations.
The thing about Art was that with him you never knew how a day, or an evening, or a conversation, would end up. The only thing you could be sure of was that it would take many interesting directions, very possibly some detours – and that you would enjoy being along for the ride.
So, yes – the lesson he taught me and so many others, through his example. I guess really it was a lot of things wrapped into one:
To be curious.
To be genuinely, genuinely interested in other people.
To appreciate and celebrate the world around us, and the possibilities of life, including and perhaps most especially the simple ones close at hand.
To laugh, readily and often and unreservedly.
And most importantly – to share those gifts with others.
Art – thank you for all of that. May the lesson of your vibrant spirit live on in all of us.