Stuart McLean helped us understand Canada and ourselves: Shelagh Rogers

Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter, reflects on her colleague and friend, Stuart McLean. The award-winning humorist and host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Café died this week at age 68.

Award-winning humorist and Vinyl Café host lent his name to many causes

Shelagh Rogers recalls how her colleague, CBC Radio host Stuart McLean, loved words, word play and even the awkward situations he put at the heart of stories he shared on The Vinyl Café. (Shelagh Rogers)

Shelagh Rogers, host of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter, reflects on her colleague and friend, Stuart McLean. The award-winning humorist and host of CBC Radio's The Vinyl Café died this week at age 68.

We are on a small plane to a small place in Canada, seated in Row 1. Stuart is dressed nattily in a suit and has stretched out his legs so that the pants don't get too rumpled.

His feet rest on the bulkhead. His pants have crept up and I can see much of the intricate pattern of his argyle socks and I compliment him on them. He tells me he likes them so much he has another 30 pairs at home, one for every day of the month. You know, he says, like panties for each day of the week.

Then he talks about Fred Astaire allegedly sewing nickels into the hem so that his pants would swing when he danced. And I say Ginger Rogers worked twice as hard as Fred, dancing backwards and in high heels. Stuart tells me I'm a dork. And not for the first time.

McLean was humble about the support he offered for a lot of causes. (CBC)

The first time was when we were co-hosting the event we are flying to: a fundraiser for Phoenix House, an organization that helps at-risk and homeless youth.

Let me digress for a moment and tell you this about Stuart. He helped a lot of causes. He was quiet about it. Humble. Lending his name could take a good fundraiser to great. I know this, as I asked him many times to come and perform for Peter Gzowski Invitational golf tournaments for literacy. He never said no.

But back to Phoenix House. Stuart would begin with a comprehensive welcome and then say: "Without further ado, here's Shelagh."

One year, I asked him what an "ado" was. That's when he called me a dork. I have emails from him that begin with Dear Dork. I think he liked the word. He liked the neediness of it, the awkwardness in it.

Of course, he loved words. And word play. And just plain play. And awkward situations. Like a mother (Morley) buying her son (Sam) his first athletic support in the Vinyl Café story "The Jock Strap."

Playing close 'to the big, hot fire'

A few years ago, Stuart spoke at a celebration of the life of another legendary broadcaster, Max Ferguson.

Stuart talked about humour and quoted E.B.White: "Humour plays close to the big, hot fire, which is the truth, and the reader feels the heat."

So true for Stuart. To call him folksy is to diminish the truth in his humour — for which he won the prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour three times — and indeed, how close he played to the big, hot fire.

Stuart got at, as my friend Duncan Cook said, the purity of humour. "Infinite laughter and never a joke at someone's expense."

McLean is presented with the officer of the Order of Canada medal by Gov. Gen. David Johnston during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Sept. 28, 2012. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Tributes have been pouring in from coast to coast to coast. He took his show to the North and Roy Goose from Inuvik recalls how "his stories brought human warmth all the way to the Arctic."

Becky Big Canoe posted: "I'd love to see that circle he'll be joining in the great beyond. Among his peers, among the stars. Chief Dan George, Peter Gzowski, Pierre Berton, William Commanda and so many others."

Much has been made, and rightly so, about Stuart's gifts to observe and listen. You always came away from talking to Stuart feeling as though you'd been truly heard and understood.

He probably let you do most of the talking while he listened and asked: "What was it like?" — maybe one of the best questions ever to try to "get" another person's experience.

Singular abilities

He was a Canadian ganglion, our connective tissue. He was our ear, our stethoscope.

Stuart was recognized for his singular abilities by being named an officer of the Order of Canada.

When I congratulated him, he wrote: "It is for the show not for me, of course, and there are, as you know better than most, others with their hands in the clay of the work. It is nice confirmation that we are on the right road and standing for good things. I wish I could get the others names there, too, but I am delighted to be the guy who gets to wear it."

He wore it well. In the great big moments, in front of the roar of applause from thousands of people who came to The Vinyl Café in the grand necklace of theatres that dot our land, Stuart telling them stories about their community as though he'd been living there forever.

Roars of applause filled theatres as McLean shared his stories across the country. (CBC)

Those extended arms of a preacher, the rolling up to tip-toes, as he read his stories. And then he introduced incredible musicians like Matt Anderson, Dala, Jim Bryson, Joel Plaskett and on and on, often for the first time.

But the smaller moments mattered, too. And here is one. A few years ago, this email popped up from Stuart: "Brad who drives our tour bus just texted me to ask about an event you are having in Peterborough on Friday. A friend of his wants to come but she cannot get a ticket. She wants to attend the afternoon conversation. Just the one ticket."

The event was a talk about depression. Brad's friend had been suffering. She came and sat where I could see her. Her appearance made a huge difference to me. And it was Stuart who made sure she got the ticket, for herself and for Brad.

I am so grateful how much he cared. For the stories he told. For how he made us laugh, for how he made us feel about our country. How he helped us understand it, and ourselves. For the good he saw in us.

We will miss him. We already do. RIP Stuart, with love and gratitude.


Shelagh Rogers

Host of The Next Chapter

Shelagh Rogers is a longtime broadcast journalist and currently the host of CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. She is also the chancellor of the University of Victoria. She first worked with Stuart McLean in the late 1980s on Morningside with Peter Gzowski.