Determination, generosity and spaghetti sauce: Meet Canada's new GG

Julie Payette, Canada's next governor general, is an avid hockey fan, generous and fun to be around, according to her friends, colleagues, and former teachers and mentors.

Generous, attentive, she invited prof to her choir concert, took crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour to Habs game

Governor General designate Julie Payette stands with outgoing Governor General David Johnston in this photo taken in 2011. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Graeme Hirst couldn't figure out why Julie Payette, a computer engineering graduate student sitting in the front row of his computational linguistics class, was always frowning at him during his lectures. 

"I found that very disconcerting," said Hirst, the University of Toronto computer science professor who co-supervised Payette's master's thesis in 1990. 

Hirst was so unsettled he asked a colleague about Payette's facial expression.

The response was, "it's because she's thinking so hard. It's nothing to do with you. She's really, really concentrating."

That keen focus helped Payette reach heights few do, and now she can add yet another achievement to her packed curriculum vitae: the former astronaut was named Canada's next governor general on Thursday. 

"It's how she managed to do it all," Hirst said.

Payette's skills, dedication and attention to detail were touted by friends and former colleagues in interviews with CBC News — not to mention her generosity, her linguistic dexterity (she speaks six languages) and her love of hockey.

Payette is the fourth woman to be named Canada's governor general, a role that has alternated between an anglophone and a francophone Canadian since Vincent Massey was appointed in 1952.

Grew up in Montreal

Julie Payette changes equipment that regulates the charging and discharging of batteries in the Russian-built Zarya control module of the international space station in this image made from television Monday, May 31, 1999. (AP Photo/NASA TV)

Julie Payette was born in 1963 and grew up in Montreal's Ahuntsic neighbourhood. 

She went to Collège Mont-Saint-Louis and Collège Régina-Assumpta, both private schools, and was selected to attend the prestigious United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, where she earned an International Baccalaureate in 1982.

At Mont-Saint-Louis, Payette was involved in a wide array of activities and seemed to commit to excelling in each one. 

She was a "perfectionist in everything she did," said Benoît Girardin, her Grade 10 boyfriend. 

"She was an athlete and a musician in the making ... as far as the astronaut in her, I'm not sure she was there just yet."

But by the time Payette applied to UWC Atlantic College, at 17, she knew that's what she wanted to be.

Benoît Charlebois, who served with Payette on the board of directors of Canada's UWC school, Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, in 2011 and 2012, recounts a story Payette shared with UWC alumni about her interview by the Quebec selection committee to attend Atlantic College.

At some point in that interview, Charlebois said, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

He said Payette had been mesmerized by images of the Apollo mission when she was still in elementary school, and she said she wanted to be an astronaut.

"The interviewer said, 'Well, you know, that that's quite unlikely,' and she said, 'Well, it would be even more unlikely if I wasn't trying,'" said Charlebois.

She won over the interviewer.

Twelve years later, in 1992, Payette was selected to be an astronaut by the Canadian Space Agency.

Doesn't take no for an answer

Payette's father was an engineer, and she followed in his footsteps, graduating from McGill University with an electrical engineering degree in 1986 and earning her master's of applied science in computer engineering from the University of Toronto in 1990.

Payette didn't take no for an answer, according to U of T's Hirst, who says he figured it out "more or less the first day I met her."

Astronaut Julie Payette carries the Olympic torch in Montreal, on Sunday, June 20, 2004 to celebrate the 2004 Games in Athens. (Francois Roy/Canadian Press)

She attended Hirst's computer science class, although he pointed out that she didn't know the programming languages that she needed for the course. 

"Her answer to that was simply, well, she'll do the necessary background work and learn those languages and take the course, thank you very much," Hirst says. "And she did."

Payette's master's thesis focused on computational linguistics, and she built a program that critiques texts in English, her second language. 

"She put in her own thesis as inputs into the program she developed with Professor Hirst, and then it output all of the criticism of how she wrote her thesis," said Michael Stumm, Payette's thesis co-supervisor.  

"It was wonderful."

Payette later invited Stumm to one of her rocket launches.

"It was one of the delights of my life," said Stumm, who still teaches computer engineering at U of T. "She's a stupendous person."

"She's a very gracious, kind of people-oriented person. And I guess that's what a governor general has to be, apart from anything else," said Hirst.

She also plays piano and is a gifted singer.

Hirst remembers when Payette was singing with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir in Toronto and invited Hirst and his wife to a concert. 

The seats weren't great, and Payette noticed that from the stage.  At the intermission, she arranged for them to be re-seated.  

A hockey fan

Julie Payette waves before boarding the astronaut van for a trip to launch pad for the space shuttle Endeavour at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/Associated Press)

Mark Polansky, a former U.S. astronaut and the one-time commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, worked with Payette on her second mission to the International Space Station.

Polanksy said that he grew up in New Jersey and was a huge hockey fan, cheering for the New York Rangers while Payette was passionate about the Montreal Canadiens.

"She got to fly a jersey of Rocket Richard's, and during one our post-flights, when we did get the crew to come to Canada, she had made arrangements [for us] to go to the Bell Centre and see a game," Polansky told CBC News.

"For me, it was like going to Mecca."

Polanksy said that the Canadiens didn't win that night, but fans at the Bell Centre were "going crazy, anyway."

"It was truly an out-of-this-world experience to get to go see the Canadiens and return Rocket Richard's Jersey," he said.

Polansky said he was "really thrilled and ecstatic" about her appointment.

"She's just an awesome person."

'A Renaissance woman'

Julie Payette, left, leads a group of six astronauts as they train under austere conditions at CFB Valcartier Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2004. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau is a former astronaut himself, and he was on the committee that selected Payette to become an astronaut in 1992.

"We recognized at that time that this was somebody with tremendous talent," he said, calling her a "Renaissance woman ... who radiated confidence."

Garneau worked with her in Houston and said they hung out socially, too, because she's "someone who is a lot of fun to be with." 

In 2008, Payette told the French-language edition of Chatelaine magazine that she makes her own spaghetti sauce, and despite the time Garneau spent with Payette in Houston, he said he never got a chance to sample it.

"It's going to be a little bit difficult for me to go knocking on the door at Rideau Hall and say, 'Hi Julie, can I taste some of that tomato sauce?'" he quipped.

"Now it will be, 'Your Excellency.'"

With files from CBC's Loreen Pindera, Salim Valji and Radio-Canada