The Ottawa Sun published a multi-page tribute to Earl McRae in this morning’s paper, and the many tributes in print and online rightly recognize his contributions to the Canadian journalism scene. It might seem a bit over-the-top, insider praise for someone who, by his own admission, had the standard list of human flaws and who, after all, was just trying to make a living like the rest of us in a sometimes unforgiving business.
But it was just that, his knowledge of the ups and downs of the human condition, and a deep empathy for the failings and triumphs of himself and others, that made him so endearing and motivational. It also made him unpretentious and remarkably approachable.
Earl had spoken to many generations of journalism students at Algonquin College and seemed always to enjoy the presence of young minds, and thrived on their willingness to hear him describe the agonizing minutes before filing a column. But one visit to our classroom was particularly memorable to me personally.
Earl was waiting for class to begin, standing in my office and scanning the various pictures on the walls. His eyes settled on a framed photo of the general store my parents used to own in Haliburton, Ontario and wanted to know why an otherwise nondescript photo was hanging there.
“Look closely Earl. See the man in the window? That’s my father.” Earl turned and looked at me, an expression of interest on his face, wanting to know more. Did I grow up there? Do my parents still own the store?
“No,” I answered. “And coincidentally my father died the very next day after that photo was taken.”
The ghost story took him aback for about two seconds, he expressed sympathy and began asking questions about Dad. No one, not a single person, had ever noticed that photo, asked about it, or wanted to know about my deceased father. Earl did.
That moment galvanized my belief that this was not only an accomplished journalist, but he was a caring humanist. Such people are rare these days, people who care beyond the obligatory gestures.
Of course, I’d known Earl’s writings and reputation over the years and had read his work everywhere he’d gone, including when he was at Canadian Magazine. We studied his piece he wrote describing a tortured Bobby Orr taping up his knee prior to a game in his final days in a Chicago Blackhawks uniform. Our instructor Bill Swan used it as an example of oustanding narrative long-form journalism.
Earl was delighted when I told him that, knowing that I had been influenced by a piece he wrote in 1977, just as he was preparing to influence my own students with his talk.
His long body of work and our connection led me to nominate him to the Algonquin College School of Media and Design Hall of Fame, which he won and received at a reception last winter. He told me it meant more to him than any other award he’d ever won, that an educational institution with an excellent journalism program (his words, not mine!) would believe his work was honour-worthy.
That’s the kind of man Earl was. It’s the kind of man we should strive to be.