Notwithstanding my recent upgrade from Boomer to Zoomer status (you know, 60 is the new 25), things still seem to happen like the olden days. Namely, people my age start to die or get sick, places you know disappear or change and the music just keeps getting worse.
For me, this period of demographic alertness began five or six years ago when Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon died around the same time. I liked those bad boys and they were prescient enough to make music while they were dying, which made it all the more poignant. I had listened to their music for most of my life and it was touching to listen to them make peace with their souls. We all live with the icons of our times. In recent years, I’ve lost Oscar Peterson, Jeff Healey, Miriam Makeba, a chieftain (Derek Bell) and of course Luciano Pavarotti.
Recently, I lost a place and a person.
The person was Derek Wilkinson, a professor of sociology at Laurentian University and the place was the Empire Hotel in Huntsville. This, of course, is not a normal juxtaposition of celebration, but I’m sure Derek would take no offence.
Derek and I weren’t close friends; we were cheerful fellow travellers. I had immense affection for Derek and always admired his civility, curiosity, generosity of spirit, patience, dedication to teaching and his enormous interest in community building.
Derek wanted to make things better, whether that was championing economic development through the Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development, supervising more than his share of graduate students, championing new teaching programs, or sitting on the countless committees both municipal and professional that slowly and labouriously build the consensus and fabric of any civil society.
I liked Derek because he represented the best about northern Ontario, quietly asserting its maturity, investing in the future and believing with a determined innocence that people of goodwill would do the right thing. There aren’t enough Derek Wilkinsons.
Of course, the Empire Hotel is something else again. I learned of its demise from a column of Roy MacGregor’s in the Globe and Mail. Roy and I share a couple of things. We both write — he for the Globe and Mail and me for Northern Life and Northern Ontario Business. He writes award winning books and is one of Canada’s pre-eminent writers and I sell advertising to make ends meet when I’m not writing. We both received an honourary degree from Laurentian University a few years ago — he for being a national figure and me for being local. Most curiously, we are both former tap men at the Empire Hotel in Huntsville.
This is no small accomplishment. We are about the same age, although I was working illegally at the age of 18 and, I assume, he was within the law a few years later. The bar was known as the Snake Pit and, in the traditions of the time, included the men’s side, where various volunteers spent the day with their table of moulting draft beers and the woman’s side, where you gussied up on Friday night and got drunk, had a fight over a woman or some imagined slight, laughed and sang country and western songs.
It was, shall we say, a coming of age for me. And today the place has gone up in flames and a little part of my history with it. Something I didn’t know is that, according to Roy, Joni Mitchell’s classic song Raised on Robbery was about the old Empire.
“He was sitting in the lounge of the Empire Hotel
He was drinking for diversion
He was thinking for himself
A little money riding on the Maple Leafs
Along comes a lady in lacy sleeves
She says let me sit down
You know, drinkin’ alone’s a shame”
Yep. Sounds like the Snake Pit to me.
And so it is not the age of reason — it is the age of all things considered.
I’ll miss Derek as we pick up the reins of the projects he leaves unfinished, but, more importantly, I will carry his enthusiasm, good cheer and passion. He died fully engaged and ready for the next challenge, the next good idea and yes — God bless him — the next committee.
Premature as it was, it is a good way to go. You know, drinkin’ alone’s a shame.
Michael Atkins is president of Northern Life.