News of a death does not always bring only dark sadness. Sometimes it brings illumination.
That was the case last week when we learned that Stuart McLean, an unpretentious Canadian icon, had passed away. He died at 68 of cancer.
McLean’s death came at a time when we needed illumination. Our prime minister had just returned from Washington where his visit was considered of so little importance that they forgot his first name. Sean Spicer, Trump’s vacuous press secretary, called him Joe Trudeau.
That, along with the avalanche roar of attention paid to Trump’s megalomania, fed our Canadian inferiority complex. Once again overshadowed by the loud and hugely important cousin to the south, our Canadian littleness diminished to the size of a crumb fallen from a table.
However, the sorrowful news of McLean’s passing reminded us that small and unassuming always trumps egotism and braggadocio. It reminded us that we are a humble people, willing to listen, willing to help and not afraid to laugh at ourselves.
It was indeed an illumination. The kind of illumination that McLean transmitted across the nation through his Vinyl Café variety radio show.
McLean was a CBC radio and TV reporter who moved away from covering the so-called big and important issues concerning Canadians. He began reporting stories that might be considered less newsworthy. They were stories about everyday folks and provided insights into ordinary Canadians and their communities.
He started the Vinyl Café show in 1994. It was presented before live audiences in smaller communities across the country, and from time to time on the BBC and dozens of public radio stations in the United States. It toured 100 days each year, broadcasting roughly a quarter of those on Saturdays.
The Vinyl Café was a fictional second-hand record store owned by Dave – he never had a last name – a bumbler who too often found himself in a pickle. His wife Morley was the sensible partner, usually extracting Dave from his predicaments.
The show also featured musical entertainment performed by lesser known musicians and McLean reading essays about communities and letters from the ordinary people who lived in them. People who worked with him said he regarded his essays as journalism and did extensive research before writing them.
“He reminded us that everything is important, even little things, and that means we’re all important,” Jess Milton, his producer for the last 13 years, was quoted in the New York Times’ story on McLean’s death.
The Vinyl Café told us about and helped us to understand parts of our country that are seldom reported on.
I recall first meeting Stuart McLean in the hallway at a broadcast industry meeting in the early 1980s, long before he invented the Vinyl Café. He reminded me of an Ichabod Crane character, long-limbed and angular in brown corduroy pants and a tweed jacket hanging off his frame. Hanging from one shoulder was a leather-cased tape recorder - a Sony TC-110 if my memory is correct – on which he captured his interviews.
Stuart McLean moved into fictional storytelling on the Vinyl Café, but he remained a reporter.
He was like thousands of journalists in Canada and the U.S. who work at (in many cases for small money) honestly and fairly reporting the theatre of our lives. They vigorously seek out facts and balanced opinions to get as close to the truth as is possible.
Sometimes parts of society do not like to hear the truth and reporters are given the blame for telling it. But that’s just part of the job.
That’s why it was an insult to Stuart’s memory when Donald Trump this week called journalists the enemies of the American people. And most assuredly he meant that for journalists everywhere, including Canada.
Stuart McLean, through his reporting and his trademark storytelling, illuminated our lives and made us feel proud to be Canadians. He did that in a folksy, positive and humorous way.
Donald Trump, evidently suffering the advanced stages of malignant narcissism, makes the entire world feel afraid. Some worry that someday he will have us feeling like radioactive ash.
And he says journalists are the enemy?