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Three things I learned from my father, W.O. Mitchell

W.O. Mitchell was undoubtedly one of Canada's most beloved writers. But he was just as greatly loved as a friend (his great pal Pierre Berton labelled him an "original") and a devoted family man. To celebrate his centenary birthday, we spoke with his oldest son, Orm Mitchell, about some of the lessons W.O. taught him about life.


Always keep your sense of humour 

quote-blue.jpgGrowing up, W.O's office was just outside the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, Huey. I can remember going to sleep at night and hearing him typing away, because he would work at night a lot. I remember one time—I would have been maybe eight, Huey would have been about five—and W.O. would often tell us a story before we went to bed at night. So after telling us the story this one night, he left, and said 'Now, you go to sleep. I've got work to do.' And we started to giggle and to wrestle and stuff. And he yelled 'Cut it out!' from the office. So then we were quiet, and then we would hear the typewriter suddenly start to go. And that would set us off giggling again. 

And at one point, I shoved Huey right out of the bed, and he hit the floor with a thump. And W.O. came in fuming, just really steamed. He said, 'All right, that's it! Drop your pajamas and bend over.' And he pulls out his belt. And we thought we were really going to get it. And the next thing we knew was, we felt his whiskers kissing our little bare rumps, and saying, 'Okay, now you go to sleep, I've got work to do.'"

*****

Let writing change your life

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In Grade 10, I was not doing well in some of my courses at high school. My report card came home, and my English mark was, shall we say, not very good. And W.O. called me into his office and said, 'Look, Orm. What have you been reading?' And I shrugged my shoulders. I was reading comic books maybe, but I wasn't a big reader. And he said, 'Well, you know, I think it's time you started to read some good books.' 

And he reached up on the shelf and he pulled down a few books. One was The Catcher in the Rye. And it was a major sea change in my life. I can remember very clearly reading, in the first section of the book, when Stradlater and Holden and his friends are listening to a harangue from the undertaker who has come in to tell them, 'Make Jesus your buddy, boys.' Stradlater lets go a fart. And I remember reading this scene, and just laughing. It was at night, and my mum and dad were reading in their bedroom, and i came into their bedroom and I sat on the foot of their bed, and I read this whole scene, and all of us were laughing. 

What really strikes me about that moment when he was concerned about my grades is that he didn't say 'you should be a teacher' or something like that. He wanted to make sure that I was alive to a mental life, and an emotional life through books, and it worked."

*****

Behave honourably

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W.O. loved to fish and hunt. He taught me how to fly fish when I was about seven years old. I remember standing on the front lawn with an old split-bamboo rod. And he stuck a beer bottle under my arm and I had to keep the beer bottle held up to the side of my body so that I only used my forearm, and I can remember him clearly showing me how to do this. 

When we went fishing, there was a kind of a fisherman's code. And this was very important to him. I remember telling him once, I said, 'You know Dad, you're an existentialist.' And he said, 'What the hell is that?' And so we talked about that because I'd been taking a philosophy course in Edmonton. I used Conrad to make my point, that if there's no God, and you're here on Earth, and you're now responsible for your own creation. You create your own life through the acts, through what you do. If your acts are betrayals, then you've defined yourself, at the end of your run, as an asshole. And if you behave honourably, you define yourself as an honourable person. Everything that he did, he had a strong sense of honour, and he instilled that certainly in me." 

*****

Top photo: The Mitchell family in their living room, from Maclean's magazine, 1959. Middle photo: W.O. Mitchell receiving an honourary degree from Trent University with his son, Orm Mitchell, 1985. Bottom and homepage photo: W.O. and Orm tying flies, 1958. All photos courtesy of W.O. Mitchell Ltd. 

Orm Mitchell grew up in High River, Alberta. He studied English at the University of Alberta and completed a PhD at King's College, University of London (England). He is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of English at Trent University where he taught Canadian Literature, Romantics, Creative Writing, and film from 1971 to 2009. He is the president of W.O. Mitchell Ltd. and has worked on a number of W.O. Mitchell projects including feature film adaptations of How I Spent My Summer Holidays and Back to Beulah, the Nelvana Global Jake and the Kid television series, two stage adaptations of Jake and the Kid stories, a stage adaptation of Who Has Seen the Wind, and a one-man stage play based on An Evening With W.O. Mitchell. He and his wife, Barbara, co-authored the two-volume biography of W.O. Mitchell, The Life of W.O. Mitchell (McClelland and Stewart). He has just begun a memoir about the Highwood River.



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