Nfld. & Labrador·Weekend Briefing

Larry Dohey was unforgettable. We can honour him by protecting the archives he loved

You may think of archives as dusty and dull. Put those thoughts away, and act on the passion that the late archivist Larry Dohey brought to local history, writes John Gushue.

Keeping our stories alive for the future is the passion of archivists whose work is not often recognized

Archivist Larry Dohey died on Aug. 28 at the age of 59. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

I'm not sure when exactly I first met Larry Dohey, but I'm pretty sure about where: the archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in St. John's. You'll find them in a building by the Basilica that carries the rather grand title of the Bishop's Palace.

However, the archive where Larry actually worked at the time was certainly not palatial. Modest would be a more appropriate word.

Years later, Larry moved on to a bigger job, but only had to cross the street. He hopped over Bonaventure Avenue to work at the provincial archives in The Rooms.

Through the years, I always found Larry helpful, kind, funny and deeply keen on knowing things — details, the backstory, the legends sometimes — about the people, places, events and objects in Newfoundland and Labrador history.

The Basilica was filled to standing room only on Labour Day for Larry's funeral — proof that he had touched many lives, and had developed similar relationships with so many different people. A hemorrhage in his brain is what killed him; he was only 59 years old.

By all rights, he ought to be here still, spinning a yarn about what he always called Archival Moments. That was the name, after all, of his blog, and an electronic newsletter he frequently circulated. VOCM brought him in on weekends to talk about such things. 

Making the past leap to life

Larry was exceptional in his field because he was also a storyteller.

He inherited a rich oral culture in St. Bride's — his pride in Irish-Newfoundland culture, particularly on the southern Avalon, was second to none — and loved sharing the passion he had for the past with everyone. Only Larry could make a decades-old tidbit of information feel sensational, as if it were a bit of gossip that had just happened. 

Larry Dohey, right, is seen in 2017 working at The Rooms archives with Donald Hawse, who was researching his father's military service records. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

I have a lot of time for archivists and historians. They're remarkable people, and they're definitely unsung heroes of our culture, our history, our past and our present.

I've worked closely with them at various stages of my career, from scanning through countless images and films for CBC documentaries to hunting for facts to flesh out the reporting on a story.

An archivist's impact: Chris O'Neill-Yates reports on the tributes that poured in over Larry Dohey 

Here's one thing I've learned through the years: archives are generally neglected.

Not by the people who look after them — far from it; they're working hard to prevent the loss of our collective sense of our past — but rather by the rest of us.

Often, it's just neglect by way of not knowing what you've got.

I got hooked as a student

My experience with the archives at the archdiocese actually predates Larry by a fair bit. When I was an undergraduate at Memorial in the 1980s, I became deeply interested and I got hooked on working on the personal library of John Thomas Mullock, the Irishman who came here to run the Catholic church in the mid-19th century as its bishop.

He had a voluminous collection of books, and some startling ones, too … among his collection were a number of books that the Vatican had banned. That meant it was heretical for a Catholic to have even one of them, and yet Mullock owned a bunch — perhaps to better know the enemy, perhaps because he was exceptionally well-read and kept his own counsel.  

Archivists aren't the only ones who have inspired John Gushue over the years. In May 2016, he reunited with his academic advisor Bill Barker at the Mullock Library near the Basilica. Barker inspired numerous students to look at Mullock's collection of books, and to study bibliography. (John Gushue/CBC)

All those books can still be found in what's called the Episcopal Library, except now they're properly cared for. [To my delight, Mullock's collection years later became the source of considerable academic research. You can read the work of Agnes Juhasz-Ormsby, Nancy Earle and their colleagues here.] 

Back then, Mullock's books and all sorts of things (everything from old newspapers to board games) had been shoved into the massive, elegant and disused book cases that still line the walls. The archive was run at the time by a kind nun named Sister Clotilde, and she worked out of a nearby room that was just slightly larger than a walk-in closet.

Benign neglect 

The collection in the library had suffered through the years from benign neglect. The room was often used for meetings, and people smoked (a lot, I assume), and you could actually see the deterioration from smoke.

As I moved into journalism, I called on archivists for help many, many times. I still do, as recently this week.

I marvel at the tenacity and dedication of archivists and librarians, for the care they put into making sure our records and curated possessions are maintained for future generations to enjoy and understand. So many of them have been helpful to me over the years, including Linda White, Bert Riggs, Gail Weir, Ann Devlin, Heather Wareham, Joan Ritcey, Anne Hart, Helen Miller ... so many more. My apologies for missing some. Here at the CBC, a whole other list, but especially my colleagues Carolyn Atkinson and Christine Davies. 

The Centre for Newfoundland Studies — and its nearby archive at the QEII Library at Memorial University — is used by students, faculty and other researchers. (John Gushue/CBC)

I also marvel about how they manage with limited resources. At the community archive level, this is especially so, but even our biggest archives have had serious, threatening challenges.

Before The Rooms was dreamed up, the Provincial Archives were based out of the Colonial Building, which was a romantic setting but at the time was ill-suited for protecting things that can decay quickly. In my opinion, staffing levels at the time were very low.

I encourage anyone to discover archives.

Stories. Telling them, keeping them alive, enriching us all. That's what Larry Dohey was always doing.

One of my favourites for many years is the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archive, which is in the Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University. There are others, all over the province, some running with a budget where a shoestring would be quite the expense. 

Professional archive work takes time, and it takes money.

It's great that people make donations to archives, but materials need to be reviewed, assessed and accessioned: a painstaking, detailed process of making sure that saved items can be quickly found and understood later. I am genuinely in the awe of the people who labour away at this. 

It all comes down to storytelling

I love stopping at community museums around the province. You notice things, and you appreciate people for keeping them.

One item that caught my eye in Durrell on this summer's vacation was a woman's form from 1947, for what was called the "blanket contract" — an innovation by legendary Twillingate doctor J.M. Olds, which is considered a precursor of medicare. I had never actually seen it. I'm grateful to those that protected it, and told me the story.

The 'blanket contract' — such as this one signed by a Lewisporte woman in 1947 — helped ensure ordinary people received adequate health care. The contract is on display at the Durrell Museum near Twillingate. (John Gushue/CBC)

And that's what it's about.

Stories. Telling them, keeping them alive, enriching us all.

That's what Larry Dohey was always doing.

At the time of his death, Larry was helping us at CBC prepare a series that we still want to complete, but it won't be the same.

It's wonderful that so many thousands of people were moved by his far, far too early death. I think we can honour him best by protecting — and indeed enriching — the archives he loved so much.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.

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