Residents of Caroline Place Retirement Home share memories of 'Linc'

Residents as the retirement home where Alexander lived had countless stories about the man who their home and their lives.
Staff and residents at the Caroline Place Retirement Residence set up a shrine to Lincoln Alexander on Friday. (Flannery Dean/CBC)

The celebration of Lincoln Alexander's life and legacy wasn't confined to Hamilton Place Friday.

Alexander had lived with his wife Marni at the Caroline Place Retirement Home in downtown Hamilton since 2011.

His presence in the Market Street complex is evident. The dining room was renamed the Lincoln Alexander dining room last November.  In the foyer, staff have set up a shrine to their most distinguished resident's memory.

On the table, which is draped in black cloth, sits a book of condolences in which many of Caroline Place's 78 residents have left their own private thoughts and recollections of Canada's first black lieutenant-governor and Cabinet Minister — the man they call "Linc." 

There are also flowers and photos of Alexander. One photo in particular stands out among the rest.

It's a picture of Alexander with Caroline Place nurse Katie Frankum and her husband on their wedding day this year. 

Alexander's presence at her wedding was entirely unexpected, she said. One day she was discussing her upcoming wedding when Alexander piped up.

"He asked where it was, I said it was Burlington and he asked if he could come and watch," she said.

Come and watch he did. The 90-year-old also stuck around for photos and to mingle with guests.

"It was amazing," she said. "It turns out some of my family had known him before. Everybody knows Linc somehow."

One moment on that memorable day stands out in particular for Frankum. 

"He grabbed a hold of my husband's suit jacket and said 'You're looking sharp today. Congratulations, you're marrying a great girl.'"

"My husband was in awe because he'd never met him before."

Remembered as down to earth

For resident Bob Millar, there are many moments with Alexander to think about today — moments that add up to a lifetime.

Millar is the brother of John Millar, Alexander's former law partner at Millar, Alexander, Tokiwa and Isaacs.

Of all those at Caroline Place, Millar's memory of Alexander stretches back the furthest.

Millar has known Alexander since he graduated from Osgoode Hall with his brother John and as such, he considers him family.

When he thinks of his friend he can't help but recall the former MP's mischievous sense of humour, which became clear during a vacation many years ago in the Caribbean.

They were at the hotel when Millar heard Alexander calling for his brother John, who he called Jack.

"Linc was calling out 'Jackie! Get your binoculars and get in here.' Jack got his binoculars and went in," explained Millar.

"For about 20 minutes they were in there, passing the binoculars back and forth, and laughing and giggling."

"Finally, Yvonne [Alexander's late wife] said 'What's going on with those guys? What are they looking at?'

"She went in and it was a topless bather," laughs Millar.

Millar is attending the funeral along with his brother Colin Millar, the former chief of Police in Hamilton, who will speak during the ceremony.

Millar chokes up when asked to reflect on his friend's life.

"He accomplished everything he set out to do."

A drive to remember

Anne Jones has known Alexander since the late 1960s. (Jones is no slouch herself when it comes to her legacy in the city. A former city councilor, she helped create the DARTS program, the first in Ontario.)

Campaigning for Alexander wasn't that difficult, she said.

Former city councilor Anne Jones campaigned for Alexander in the early years of his career.

"You introduced him at the door and everybody knew who he has. He had that powerful dominant personality that people almost bowed down before him sometimes," she said, laughing.

She remarked on his "tremendous memory" and authentic engagement with the public.

Jones said a friend of hers once approached Alexander and told him they'd met many years earlier. 

"He said, you gave me my degree when you were a Chancellor at Guelph and I remember what you said to me at that time," she shared.

"And Linc looked at him and said 'I remember you' and he remembered his name."

Jones will never forget one auspicious Saturday night many years ago when she was driving Alexander home after an event.

"Halfway home he said that the prime minister wanted to see him on Monday."

Jones fully understood the implications of that remark. "Diefenbaker was establishing his Cabinet at that point," she shared.

She was instantly "scared stiff," she admitted, suddenly terrified that she might get into a car accident and injure Canada's first black cabinet minister. 

The ride was uneventful, fortunately. But her relief was evident in her parting remark to Alexander.

"When I said goodnight to him I said 'Well, I never thought I'd say it but I'm glad to see the back of you,'" she offered with a smile.

"He never, ever said no to me"

Resident Ruth Van Horne first encountered Alexander in the 1980s when she was an elected trustee for what was then the Hamilton Board of Education.

Alexander was then the lieutenant governor of Ontario, but even so she said he never failed to show up when she invited him to Board of Ed functions — big or small.

"He never ever said no to me," she said.

"And when he did come out to things he was like a child magnet," she offered.

"He loved kids and kids loved him ... I remember once at a kindergarten function, the function was over, but all of the kids were around, he literally pulled up one of the little chairs and sat with the kids and talked to them."

She said she was flattered that she didn't have to reintroduce herself when they met again at Caroline Place years later.

"When he moved in here I was going to introduce myself and he looked up at me and said 'I know who you are!'" 

Madelaine Stellar, Caroline Place's executive director, said Alexander's presence in the home was remarkable for its lack of pomp.

"He didn't steal anybody's thunder, he was always just quietly there going on with his life," she said.

Though she'll never forget the day Alexander married Marni at the home in July of 2011, or his 90th birthday party in January of this year.

"Peter George, the former president of McMaster brought the Vanier Cup to the birthday party," she said. "They'd just won it after years of not winning it. He put it in Lincoln's lap and they just roared."

Stellar marveled at Alexander's stamina.

"He was constantly going out to events," she said.

But she also got a kick out of his "sharp" sense of humour,

She mentions an exchange between Alexander and a new female resident, Pearl.

"She walked up to him and said, 'Lincoln, I'm moving in with you.' And he looked at her and he goes 'Well, don't tell my wife!'"

To those who never got a chance to meet Lincoln Alexander, Millar wants people to know his death represents "a great loss."

"We loved him in life. We'll love him in death," he said, tearing up.

Jones is philosophical about his passing.

"You can't really feel sad. You can feel grateful that such a tremendous person lived in this city and represented not just the city but people everywhere: the downtrodden, the poor, the sick at heart," she said.

"He related to people and that made people feel better within themselves when they met him or read about him."

Ruth, who is going to the procession at Hamilton Place with her husband, agrees that sadness isn't appropriate when looking back on Alexander's life — up to a point, anyway.

"You also get the feeling that someone like that shouldn't go," she said. "They should just go forever."