Paul Hunter remembers: Lessons from Jack

The CBC's Paul Hunter was once a student of Jack Layton's at Ryerson. He remembers a man who lived by his own teachings.

I first met Jack Layton more than 30 years ago when, as a fresh-out-of-high-school journalism student, I walked into his class on urban politics at what was then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto.

He was like no teacher I had ever seen before: His hair was pushing shoulder length, he wore jeans, a black leather vest and one of those late-70s' bone-white Levi's button-down shirts.

He also knew how to have fun, and he spoke our language — not the stodgy dialect of most instructors.

His mantra: Work hard and be true to yourself.

Jack preached the politics of getting involved, of doing the difficult but valuable street-level politics of going door to door and, to borrow from one of his recent campaign themes, sitting down at the kitchen table with regular people, listening to what they had to say.

Above all, he insisted, don't compromise on your principles. Otherwise, what's the point?

We students listened to Jack because he seemed a cool dude in a sea of less-than-cool teachers. We also listened because he seemed genuine — that he really believed what he was saying.

Jack Layton, in Ottawa in 2002 to announce his candidacy for the NDP leadership. (Canadian Press)

Turns out, he did.

The next time I met Jack Layton was a little more than 20 years later, in June 2004, on the day he came to Parliament Hill to be sworn in as an MP.

By then I was a political reporter for The National and on that day I caught his eye as he approached the Peace Tower.

I wasn't sure he'd remember me but I needn't have worried. His face lit up, he grabbed my hand warmly and we talked about Ryerson and the paths our lives had taken since that time.

I told him then what I repeated in a letter to him last month, which was how, in the many years since Ryerson, I watched as he went on to practise what he had preached and that through all his time in municipal and then federal politics I felt he'd indeed been true to his principles.

I told him what an inspiration his focus and optimism had been to me.

The last time I saw Jack Layton in person was just before the start of the last election campaign when he stopped by the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto to be interviewed. He was brimming with energy as ever, despite his cane and gaunt appearance.

Of course we reminisced again about our Ryerson days and we promised (as we often had) to get together for dinner one of these days.

I wished him well and then watched, one more time, as he went and did what he'd always talked about — politics true to his principles. And this time, with tremendous success on election night.

For one night, that night, it could not have been better for Jack Layton.