Memorial Tribute to Clara McCandless Thomas
What follows are transcriptions of the tributes read during the event.
A copy of the memorial programme can be downloaded here.
Remarks by Dr. Mamdouh Shoukri, President of York University
Good afternoon, and thank you all for being here. I am glad to see so many of you here to remember and pay tribute to one of York’s, and indeed, one of Canada’s, greats.
First, I’d like to extend a special welcome to the family members, friends and former colleagues of Dr. Clara Thomas, including our esteemed guests from the University of Ottawa, Trent University, and our own York professors emeriti. Thank you for being here with us today.
We have a wonderful group of speakers this afternoon, who will share their tributes, reflections, and readings with you, so I will keep my remarks brief.
This service is an occasion to honour and remember Clara Thomas, who, by all accounts, was an amazing human being. And, to York’s great fortune, she was an amazing human being who devoted herself to this University. Clara Thomas was one of York’s founding faculty members and a longtime member of the York community; she was a supporter and friend of York’s Libraries, Archives & Special Collections; and, she was an ally and advocate of Canadian writers and Canadian writing. She was, as Margaret Laurence put it so well in her retirement ode, “a true pioneer.”
Clara Thomas was appointed to the English department in 1961. In her memoirs, she recalls her gratitude when Murray Ross, York’s founding president, offered her a job: “It never occurred to me to have any requests, let alone demands, of my own, and when Ross told me my pay would be $5000, I was delighted.” With Clara’s help, the teaching and research of Canadian literature at York in the 1960s and 70s was unlike anywhere else—it was interdisciplinary, groundbreaking, ahead of its time.
She taught York’s first graduate course in Canadian literature. It was a seminar with just 3 students. In the 1970s, she developed a course on Canadian women writers, many of whom had been forgotten or neglected in the field. She also collaborated with the French department to ensure that Canadian francophone literature was taught in translation in Canadian literature courses.
Indeed, Clara’s own open-minded approach to teaching perfectly reflects York’s proud history of interdisciplinarity and inclusivity. If she was a champion of Canadian literature, she was also a champion of York. Clara retired in 1984, and in 2005 York’s Archives and Special Collections were renamed The Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections. She received numerous honours in her lifetime, including an honorary degree from York, but I think she would agree that this recognition of her contributions to the University, to the archives, and to her field of studies, was the best possible way to honour and remember her.
Her good name and her legacy of leadership at the University will remain with us. I know I speak for everyone at the University when I say that we are saddened by the loss of this cherished member of the York community. We extend our condolences to her family and friends and colleagues, who join us in remembering the amazing Clara Thomas and a life lived fully and joyfully.
We are all better for having known her, and York is a better University for having had her among us.
Statement by Lorna Marsden, President Emerita, York University
read by Marie-Louise Craven
Clara Thomas, a York Treasure
She sat up very straight, her red hair in a perfect coif and listened intently.
It was a meeting of the York-UofT seminar series in women’s studies and it was many years ago. Rusty Shteir was giving her never-to-be-forgotten paper on the Victorian custom of covering the legs of pianos because they were too provocative for men’s eyes. (There were more substantive parts of the paper, of course, but that bit stuck with me.) While most of us were collapsing with laughter, Clara was serious. She really wanted to examine the issues. So, as I recall, we did.
Then there were about fifteen years when I didn’t see Clara until I came to York and there she was almost unchanged: still an important and serious scholar, and still interested in issues of equality. Then I began to see the importance of Clara to York University, as a founding faculty member, as a much loved professor, as a respected and valued colleague and as a citizen of the University. To Clara it mattered a great deal that York University got things right: that affairs were managed well, that students were treated with respect and fairness, that high standards were maintained and that first-rate scholars were added to the faculty. She cared and spoke out for what she cared about. I valued her advice greatly, regretted her retirement, was delighted to find her in the Senior Common Room at Glendon for a few years and have thought about her and Morley nearly every day since she moved back to Strathroy and eventually could no longer manage e-mail.
It was a brilliant idea to name the archives for Clara Thomas so that her influence and her important roles at York will be remembered forever as they will be. I join with everyone in thanking and saluting her.
Tribute by Naomi Black, Professor Emerita, York University
read by Marie-Louise Craven
I must have met Clara when I was at Glendon, I think, when we were both among the very small early cohort of women faculty there. But I’ve no memory of it. What I do remember is when we were developing the Women’s Studies programme for the Faculty of Arts, it must have been about 1980 or 1981. At our meetings, she was a gracious but emphatic voice for the inclusion of men – believe it or not, we then had some aggressive women’s studies instructors who were prepared to exclude half of our students and faculty from the excitement that was Women’s Studies Clara, by contrast, co-taught for many years with John Lennox.
So of course we met often as Women’s Studies grew. There are many stories. I remember Clara proposing to the York Women’s Centre that they hold fund-raising lectures, I think in support of the collection of True Davidson papers in the university archives ( now the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections). Doyenne of Canadian Studies in Canada, she lined up for us the two Margarets – Atwood and Laurence. The student members brought melon slices and Ukrainian pastry up by public transport, and fell in love with Clara’s friend Margaret Laurence when she confided that, in spite of all her fame, she was still nervous before public speaking.
But my most personal memories of Clara are from when I retired, moved to Halifax, and hovered on the edge of depression. Supportive emails told me she had been there too. I was reacting, she told me, to the end of action and responsibility. And there was a place beyond that. I would never have guessed she had been through what I was experiencing; it was a great comfort. As was the email conversation we then continued for many years.
I miss her.
Anecdote by Marie-Louise Craven
Today as we gather to celebrate Clara’s life and achievements, I remember back almost 30 years ago, to Clara’s retirement party at Glendon. It was a glorious affair (its success due in large part to the efforts of John Lennox): tout le monde was there: Chinua Achebe, Northrop Frye and of course Margaret Laurence. I gave a brief address as a former student of Clara’s who had become her friend.
I remember one anecdote I told which I’ll repeat today:
In that first graduate English class in Canadian literature there were only two of us. We met in Clara’s office; the class was very informal. We came to start each class chatting about what we’d each done on the weekend. Half way through the year, a visiting East Asian scholar sat in on the class. That day, we began as usual: Clara told us about the lovely bracelet that Morley had given her, and how they’d managed to slip away to Strathroy for the weekend. At the break, the scholar took me aside, and asked me, “Professor Thomas is a married woman, isn’t she?” “Yes,” I said.
“Do you think her husband knows about her affair with Morley Callaghan?”
Tribute by Susan Warwick, York University
It is truly an honour and a privilege to be here today with all of you to share memories of Clara.
As you know, Clara titled her memoir Chapters in A Lucky Life. It was my own enormous good luck to arrive at York University in 1975 as a young, very nervous, and very naïve graduate student and be assigned to Clara as her research assistant. Over the course of my studies I took several classes with Clara, later taught with her and John Lennox, and eventually she became my dissertation supervisor.
She was a remarkable mentor to me in so many ways; wonderfully supportive and yet always challenging me in my academic work. And it was so delightful that after I graduated she came to be a friend and a guide as my own career unfolded.
I remember with much happiness the annual summer visits to Strathroy with Linda Lamont, Michele, Heliane and others. We would spend hours and hours around the pool talking about books, academic politics, families, and more. And I was so glad when these visits came to include my daughter, Flannery Clare, and that Flann had the opportunity to know Clara. Flann and I were reminiscing about Clara over Thanksgiving, and she reminded me that Clara only had two rules that could not be broken during those summer visits. No splashing in the pool when Clara was in for her swim, and no harm could come to the resident bees and their home in the pool house. And Flann still remembers with affection Clara setting her up in what came to be called, during those visits, the grand-daughter’s room.
I also remember with great fondness my last visit to the house at Strathroy a few years ago. I took the train down, and Morley picked me up at the station and took me back to the house where Clara was waiting, surrounded as usual by piles of books and magazines, and ready to begin recommending who and what I should be reading now. We had a lovely dinner out at their favourite restaurant, and Clara, despite her fragility, was her usual spirited self.
When I’m asked by my own graduate students now how I learned to be, immodest as this may sound, such a good supervisor, I tell them stories about Clara. About how in the long years of dissertation writing, she listened with care and concern to my explanations of delayed progress, but never let me off the hook about accomplishing the work I had promised. She possessed a remarkable blend of warm understanding and gentle authority. And I will certainly never forget the day I arrived at Clara’s class for my first seminar presentation as a graduate student, more anxious than I have words, even today, to describe, and told her that I would not be able to deliver the presentation. Clara looked carefully at me, then simply took the pages from my hands, and, no questions asked, presented on my behalf. I still think of this as the kindest moment anyone offered me in my many years as a student, and always try to remember its wisdom in my own teaching and with my own students.
I often wonder how my life might have turned out had Clara not been so intuitively understanding and empathetic in that moment. She was my godsend that day, my wonderful stroke of luck.
I will remember her always with enormous respect and much love.
Tribute by Michèle Lacombe, Trent University
A Generous Spirit
Clara Thomas was one of those rare individuals whose voice can be called upon for support and advice long after they have passed on. When she was still with us I often would ask myself what Clara would do, or advise me to do, in certain personal or professional situations requiring careful consideration. Whether or not I heeded her advice, her words of wisdom, like her presence, were comforting. So was her laughter, helping to put things into perspective.
Clara will be remembered as a very distinguished scholar who served York superbly, but she was first and foremost mentor and friend to countless graduate students. She placed her supervisees in academic jobs and locales best suited to their particular combination of abilities, interests and idiosyncrasies. For me, she was a surrogate mother as well as a big sister, affirming me at a time when I especially needed it. As a dissertation supervisor, she actively advised, alternately held hands and cracked the whip as the occasion required, recommended hard work as the best remedy for the lovelorn, and liberally dispensed fashion hints for job interviews. I will never forget how Clara encouraged me, a novice and fairly opinionated teaching assistant, to listen and try to engage my students in non-judgmental ways. As a teacher Clara took us all in. Her teaching assistants enjoyed weekly lunches wither her at Marky’s deli in Winters’ College, where we were often joined by writers such as Margaret Atwood. Students in her graduate classes were invited to potluck dinners and beer with Margaret Laurence at her Lewes Crescent home. Her supervisees learned to avoid purple prose by the pool in Strathroy. As would-be campus radicals, we came to appreciate her professionalism without entirely abandoning our counter-cultural outlook; Clara taught us the ethics of survival, and the importance of a room of one’s own. She helped me understand the complexities of office politics and academic publishing. She coached me about applying for scholarships I did not know existed, and suggested I attend conferences that were a revelation to me. I will never forget one memorable banquet at the Canadian Embassy in Brussels, where Mavis Gallant entertained us with her table talk. Clara would have revelled in Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize, and I wish she had lived long enough to savour it.
Fully at home in Toronto and in her own southwestern Ontario small town, Clara clearly knew who she was, having found her voice early on in life, at the same time that she waited until her children were in school to complete her PhD. She insisted that we acknowledge and honour our own place, whatever our background, and fought hard for the recognition of women as mothers, writers, scholars and university teachers. She was also vocal in her objection to racism in any context, and was deeply committed to cultural diversity in the academy. Clara advocated for so-called visible minority students and colleagues long before multiculturalism and postcolonialism were accepted in academia, and also included more than the token Quebec novelist in translation in her Canadian literature courses. She encouraged me to explore my own French-Acadian roots, to write a comparative Quebec and Canadian literature dissertation in the English department at York, and to publish my very first article, based on a guest lecture in her class, about Gabrielle Roy. Many years later, when I began paying more attention to my Métis roots and to the study of Indigenous literature – a body of writing that remained invisible in most English departments when I first met Clara in the late 1970s – she encouraged me to pursue that path as well. Working with Clara Thomas was immensely rewarding on so many levels. Hers was a labour of love, and in keeping with the title of her biography of the nineteenth-century literary critic and feminist Anna Jameson, for Clara there always was “love and work enough” to go round.
Tribute by Suzanne Dubeau, York University
I am Suzanne Dubeau, Assistant Head of the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, and I am here today to pay tribute to Clara on behalf of library and archives staff.
Others have spoken about Clara as a founder of York University and she certainly was that. She was also a true friend of the libraries, and particularly Archives & Special Collections.
Clara Thomas was one of the first people I met when I started working at York University Libraries’ Archives & Special Collections in 1997 and I quickly realized that she was someone special. She attracted admirers from across the university and outside it, and the reasons why soon became clear. And it wasn’t just because she was always stylishly attired and coiffed!
Since her post-retirement office was in ASC, I would see her several times a week. Before a month had passed I knew to expect a friendly greeting and an invitation to chat about what was new in the archives. Clara took delight in hearing about new acquisitions and new donors, and used her legendary networking skills to stay in the loop.
Clara was definitely a people person. There was a steady stream of visitors to see her, often her former student and close friend John Lennox, but also others including many from outside the university, especially if those others wanted to learn more about the Canadian literary scene. I would love to hear what Clara would have to say about David Gilmour’s approach to teaching literature.
In 1975-76 one of Clara’s students was someone she herself had long viewed as a role model – the colourful former mayor of East York, True Davidson. These two strong-willed feminists recognized each other as kindred spirits and became close friends.
On her passing in 1978 Davidson left her library, papers and $5,000 to York University. Clara, along with Edith Fowke, decided to have a drive for “The True Davidson Collection of Canadian Literature.” With their literary connections, the drive was so successful that the university had to ask them to stop — so as not to interfere with another planned university fund raising effort that was about to begin. President Macdonald and the university librarian were persuaded to name one of our rooms the True Davidson Reading Room.
A few years after that, Clara’s close friendship with Margaret Laurence led to the acquisition of Laurence’s archives and then Adele Wiseman’s papers to the university archives – a very fitting base on which to build the literary holdings which we now hold here at York. Our collections have become the envy of many of our sister institutions and our reputation has long gone international in reach.
She was so very thrilled when the archives was named in her honour in 2005 and she remained tickled about it until the end. I know Clara would find it most amusing that sometimes we even receive research requests directed specifically to her for an answer.
Clara was fond of a saying from her student True Davidson – “twenty years a warrior, twenty years a chief, twenty years an elder of the tribe.” This certainly applies to her as well. Clara was tenacious and feisty – going around obstacles if she couldn’t go through them. She was supportive and generous in every way she could be, whether morally, with goodwill and advice, or with her chequebook. She was an inspirational role model to generations of students and colleagues alike.
It was a privilege to know this trail-blazing leader in Canadian academia, a person instrumental in laying the foundations of an internationally recognized academic institution. Our challenge is to continue building on her legacy and we invite you to join us.
Tribute by John Moss
Where to begin, where to end: Jorge Luis Borges once described life as a labyrinth consisting of one invisible line with no beginning and no end, no directions and no markers, where it’s impossible to get lost because you are always right where you are. Clara was always right where she was. She was unerringly right, and she was always there, wholly there. When you were with Clara, you really were with Clara, a lovely, intelligent, generous, indefatigable colleague and friend. You had her full attention. It is only right, now, that she has ours as we gather to share with Morley the joy of having been part of her life.
There is no end for those of us who find ourselves within language and live among words. After we are gone, the words remain. Not as echoes or souvenirs but as curiously palpable and oddly intangible aspects of ourselves. During lives in the groves of academe and the orchards of literature, we become what we have written and read and studied and taught, and the words become us. I knew Clara as a women of words. People gathered here know from her public writing how strong and forthright, clever, and insightful she was. Her literary commentary and criticism are matters of public record. Her importance to Canadian letters cannot be overstated. She was a giant among us, not only for her writings on Jameson, Deacon, Laurence, among many others, but for her work with students, many of whom went on to shape Canadian literature profoundly, and for her work with colleagues at York, across Canada, and around the world.
Clara’s words flooded over me when I heard of her death from John Lennnox, and I sat down, feeling quite crushed, to read her side of our correspondence that extended through five decades. I was quickly moved to a kind of awkward elation. Clara never simply dropped me a note, she sent letters. There was something wonderfully nineteenth century about them; the unhurried elegance, the trusting candour, the capacity to express emotion and ideas in the same sentence, praise and advice in the same paragraph. These utterly honest, ingenuously beguiling words of a woman who came to mean so much to me, they were never meant to be public, these were the words written from one friend to another, they evoked, invoked, a special relationship. I think Clara had a genius for special relationships, making each of her friends and colleagues, students and readers, feel extraordinary. Many of us have our own portion of her words to treasure, where Clara is as much there as when they were first written and shared.
I met Clara on the telephone. Another graduate student and I had taken it into our heads to start a Canadian literature journal that would bring critics and creative writers together in a single publication. This was, at the time, a radical notion and we were encouraged by faculty at the University of New Brunswick, where we were studying with Fred Cogswell and Desmond Pacey. I had already taken courses from Carl Klink at Western. We needed credibility beyond the Maritimes and that summer of 1971, I recruited Dave Godfrey and Rudy Wiebe to the editorial board. From a phone booth in Toronto, at Dave Godfrey’s suggestion, I called Clara and made my pitch. We needed someone with critical acuity, high visibility, and a national reputation. “Well, of course, you do,” said Clara. “You need women. Sign me on.” Then she added, “‘I have a friend who might be interested, as well. She’s here now, I’ll let you speak to her.” Without saying anything further, she handed the phone over and Margaret Laurence came on the line. Margaret listened, she said yes, of course she’d like to help. In one fell swoop, we were legit! Margaret and Clara were on board. Next to be recruited was Northrop Frye.
Clara took us seriously. I think that was the key to the early success of the Journal of Canadian Fiction. Dave Arnason and I were grad students in Fredericton; the Journal was Canada-wide, global, in fact, and published the best writers and critics of the day. Clara was a wonderfully important part of all that. George Woodcock at Canadian Literature, the established literary magazine of the time, as it is today under the acting editorship of my daughter Laura, offered us his support. The Canada Council offered us money, which we happily accepted—life was simpler back then. And we prospered, culturally speaking. Clara was still an active and enthusiastic partner when I left the Journal, five years later.
She continued to act as my mentor and friend. I shared some wonderful dinners with Clara when we would meet from time to time over literary and academic business. We shared a sporadic but wondrously gratifying correspondence. We shared a past, both coming from Southwestern Ontario, my family, the Camerons from Granton, and hers from Strathroy. And we shared in the knowledge that we, too, in our own ways as critics and teachers, writers, and thinkers, were leaving a place for the future to stand on. Clara McCandless Thomas, Morley’s beloved Clara, she made the labyrinth visible for the rest of us, she showed us the way and, with luminescent grace, how to be where we are.
Tribute by Steve Thomas
First, I would like to offer thanks on behalf of my father and our entire family to President Shoukri and all those here at York who have worked on this event. I’d like to thank Bob Attfield for providing the music and my son Tyler Thomas for the wonderful slide show. And I’d like to give a special thank you to John Lennox, the chief organizer who is going to speak next. In a way mother had three sons: myself, my late brother John, and John Lennox.
If I had double the time I’d talk about both my wonderful parents – Morley, a highly respected meteorologist and climatologist with Environment Canada and Clara. But today is chiefly Clara’s day.
I am the only one here who can call Clara Thomas “Mother.” Of course it started as mummy, then mum, and then in later years mother. I went through Stevie to Stephen to Steve.
Do you remember June Cleaver, wife of Ward and mother of Wally and the Beaver? June was the prototype fifties mother — cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, loving her kids to bits and always dressed to the nines.
As I grew up in the fifties I gradually learned that my mother was different than other guys’ mothers. She took off on Saturdays to teach Western extension in Collingwood, Welland and all sorts of places. She was always marking big bundles of exam papers that arrived by post from Western. We spent every summer in London as mother taught Western summer school. She even taught Eric Nesterenko, the Chicago Black Hawk legend, one year. And then there were her Phd studies at the U of T. There were books all over the house and group studying as she prepared for her Comprehensives.
So, Ok, she was different than other mums. But I didn’t feel hard done by, for she played June Cleaver too. She cooked, did laundry, had Tony permanent parties with her girlfriends, enjoyed and wore great clothes and jewellery, and loved my brother and me intensely. And it was all still there six years ago when my brother was dying of cancer. She read him Freddy the Pig books before he went to sleep each night.
Universities were her territory. First Western and then York. I’m so glad mother was hale and hearty a number of years ago when the archives here were named the Clara Thomas Archives. There was a big party at Schulich. She loved it.
Mother began teaching at Glendon (then York) in year two, 1961. Now, with two full time incomes the family could move from High Park to Lawrence Park. I moved from Humberside Collegiate to Northern Secondary School, a significant move for me. I remember doing the index for mother’s first book, Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson, during this period.
Some years later she moved to the new main campus. These were her years of friendship with Margaret Laurence. Kind of cool, it was, having Margaret in our living room, drinking scotch and available to discuss politics. My son Tyler has Margaret as his godmother.
Then there was the retreat at Strathroy. The same little house she had grown up in. Mother put in a pool. Most of my family have enjoyed that pool—Mary, Sherry, Tyler, Sara, Paula, Liz, Shanti and Sunil. We played the infamous game of pool cricket which was lively and raucus, so it was saved till my parents went inside for a nap after lunch.
In retirement my mother — and father for that matter — became models to me. They never quit working. Mother taught, wrote, collected honorary degrees and travelled to all sorts of interesting places including the University of Sicily. The Canadian Studies Department there was headed up by one Johnny Banano. He called Clara the “Bigga Cheesa”. And she did all this activity right up to her 90th birthday.
Through the years, she supported me in the ups and downs and ups of my personal life and the growth and success of our firm. She had a keen interest in all the family — those I’ve mentioned and Sara’s daughters Ainsley and Isla and Liz’s daughter Molly. Little Molly is two and can’t be here today but trust me she looks just like pictures of my mother when she was a kid in the 20s – red hair and all. And they share no blood!
After her stroke, for the last few years mother wasn’t herself. She spoke little, but she did recognize people and occasionally she’d surprise. Not this summer, but the one before last, granddaughter Shanti came to see Mother at Strathmere Lodge. Mother looked at her and said “Shanti, when are you going to Camp Kandelore?” Kandelore was brother John’s old camp and passion. We had told mother many months before that Shanti was going to go and be in the same Pioneer group that John had been in.
My oldest friend is Stephen Ferris. We met in kindergarten at Keele St. Public School in the west end. We bonded over our names. We spell Stephen with a “ph.” His wife Ina, I met in grade nine. Steve is in economics at Carleton and Ina in English at Ottawa.
I’d like to read Steve’s recent email for I think it very profound.
Even when it is expected, the passing of a parent and friend is always a shock. Maybe the forced recognition of the finality of things is the big factor, or maybe that was just as it struck me. The most surprising outcome for me was that rather than feeling that I had lost touch with my parents, I often remembered them more after their death than before and was more frequently struck by (or willing to recognize) the personality features I’d picked up from them. It was more pleasant than, but somewhat like, having spent time in Scotland and coming to recognize that some of those not-so-nice features of Scots were features I had in common. (My friend is thrifty!)
You had a wonderful, interesting mother who had a full active life. It must have been a little difficult sharing her with all her students, but in being so involved with her students, she will have made important contributions to their lives and careers as well. Ina’s and my memories of your mother were only positive and we will be thinking of both you and her over the next few days.”
So what did I get from my wonderful mother? A love of classical music, a love of art galleries (apparently when I was little I tried to grab a Rembrandt at the AGO), a love of theatre — I saw Shakespeare in the tent at Stratford at a very early age. A love of reading — I had a Library card at 3. The summer I was 12 my mother fixed me up with a 5 hour a day job doing gardening and presented me with a big pile of classics: Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Kidnapped etc — to read over the summer. She wanted me busy. No idle hands.
And my mother inculcated me with the idea that the oldest child has special responsibilities. I was always to take the lead and watch over my little brother John. It took. Just ask Paula, and Shanti the oldest in two more generations, how I bug them about being the oldest. I could go on and on here. Did I get any bad qualities from Clara? Well — perhaps a strong will.
I’m going to close here with only two final mentions. First, I want to speak of my younger brother John who was cruelly taken from us six years ago. John was a York Phd History grad and for the last seven years of his life taught IB, coached football and ran the model parliament at UCC. He loved it there.
Mother wrote down her wishes years ago for such a celebration as this. She wanted both John and I to speak. So I’m doing this for John too. How we miss him. And how much better things would have been if he’d have been here the last several years.
And finally, I’ll close with a love story 76 years old. In the fall of 1937 dashing football player Morley Thomas met beautiful brilliant Clara McCandless at Western. Their love has sustained them through thick and thin all these years.
Since mother’s stroke Dad visited mother every single day at 4, helped her eat dinner and took her back to her room for bed. Now that job is over. But cheer up, Dad. Morley has agreed to come to live in Toronto after mother’s estate is settled. Visiting you all the time will be the job of all your family here in Toronto, Dad. We look forward to it.
So thanks to Dad, thanks to Mum, thanks to you all. I know she would have loved this tribute.
Anecdote by Tyler Thomas
Looking back on the time I spent with my grandmother over the years, I often think of the two things that we shared fondly. These were not the only things we shared, of course. As my paternal grandmother, she was a huge influence on me and I’m sure we had quite a lot in common. Two aspects of her personality will stick with me for the rest of my life.
The first was our love of film. I remember being quite young, maybe eight or nine, and Clara, sensing my budding interest in film, recounting her frequent walks to Canada Square cinema to catch a matinee. If we happened to have seen the same film, I vividly remember her asking me what I actually thought of the film. This early introduction into the world of critical analysis was profound. Maybe Ghostbusters was not the be-all and end-all of cinema? Twenty years later, I don’t think even she could convince me this wasn’t true, but it certainly got me thinking about it at an early age (sorry Mr. Reitman).
My grandmother was also the first to actively open my eyes to the components that make up film itself. Why is writing important? Why does composition matter? Why would sound design be different for a horror film? Some would argue that this led to my bad habit of wondering aloud about these questions while watching films. “You’re over-thinking it!” people have told me time and time again. “You’re taking away the magic of film!” Aside from helping me a lot in film school, I think of her encouragement in this respect as the exact opposite. She opened up the world of critical thinking to me in an interesting way with a medium she knew I loved. The question of why I liked or disliked something was a lesson I’m glad I learned at an early age.
The second thing I shared with my grandmother – and indeed with that entire side of my family, thankfully – was a great sense of humour. Laughing always came easily, however I knew my grandmother had a wit that was renowned. Growing up I knew that if I got a good laugh from her, I’d struck it big. The biggest laugh I think I ever got was after a Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ place on Lewes Crescent. We were packing up for the drive home and for some reason I can’t remember, the topic of me being in French immersion at school was being discussed. I would have been either eight or nine years old and in grade three.
“Well, Tyler, do they teach you Parisian or Québécois at school?” my grandmother asked me.
“Neither” I said.
There was a pause. I was young and perhaps my parents thought that I hadn’t understood the question. “French from France or Quebec?” she repeated, followed by another slightly awkward moment. What they could not have known was that I had been more or less prepared for this question by my teacher over the course of the year.
“Neither” I repeated. “Mme Lebreton is from New Brunswick” — I knew I had them at this point — “and in Nouveau Brunswick they speak a very distinct dialect of Acadian French, not unlike Old French.” My grandmother howled at this and I knew that I had killed.
My grandmother was not a filmmaker, nor a comedian. She did, however, have a keen interest in a wide variety of topics for which she was never short of an opinion. It has been a great pleasure these past few weeks to learn of the lasting impression she had on so many in such a wide variety of fields. I realize how lucky I am for the time that I got to spend with my grandmother and she will be sorely missed.
Tribute by John Lennox, York University
Fifty years ago this fall, in September 1963, my wife Jane and I and about 300 other young people entered first year at Glendon College which was then York University and which was inaugurating a distinctive York curriculum and degree. We were all assigned faculty advisers and Jane’s was Clara Thomas who always remembered Jane’s request – access to a piano on which to practice for an upcoming recital. A year later we became her students in an English course called “American and Canadian Literature” taught by “Mrs. Thomas” as she was styled in the York University calendar for 1964-65. In first year, I had had vague thoughts about university teaching as a possible career choice, but it seemed to me that such a goal was to have ideas above my station. And then I encountered Clara. She was unpretentious, stylish, animated, and demanding. She laughed easily but was capable of pointed observation as was the case when, in leaving one tutorial, she remarked: “Well, I certainly hope that this adolescent lapse will be well and truly over by next week’s class.” Her personal life was not sealed off. She would sometimes talk about “our son” –that was Steve – who was a student at Western. And the “our” as opposed to “my” was typically inclusive. My parents were the same and they, like Clara and Morley, were part of the war generation. In short, I realized that Clara came from my world and suddenly an ambition which had seemed presumptuous seemed possible thanks to this one dynamic person. And that, in essence, was for me the start of our friendship because underneath the authority, the sharpness of mind, the knowledge, I began to know a true and constant friend – ever supportive, honest, utterly dependable. And that never changed over 50 years.
In our fourth year, Clara offered a course called “Commonwealth Literature.” There were three of us in that class (what luxury!) – Jane, Heather Pantrey and myself. Margaret Laurence was on the reading list. In that class I witnessed unforgettably and for the first time the power of the written word. We were studying The Stone Angel and came to Hagar’s moment of overwhelming illumination – her “simply to rejoice” revelation. Clara was reading the passage and, without warning, could not read on because she was overcome by the power of language and meaning – and what she called “the shock of illumination.” The impact of the complete identification of reader and work was stunning to us and, as I realized then, embodied the essence of her lifelong commitment to the power of words, the imagination, the freedom of the individual, the life of this country, and language’s imperfect but everlasting attempts to communicate with others. It was the bedrock of Clara’s faith, I think.
There were moments of laughter. Some examples – her final lecture at Glendon before her first sabbatical when she gave the class dressed as and in the full persona of Sarah Binks, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan; her telling me early in my career “Be visible, John, be visible” and then her merry realization of what she had said; her hilarious description of the exploits of the Drama Guild of Canada; our shared experience of a Canadian Studies conference in Sicily where the managers of the hotel where the conference was being held thought that “Rule Britannia” was the Canadian national anthem (unforgettable, that) and, on cue, played a recording of it; Clara’s “moping” (her phrase) at Richard Landon about proper space to work out of the 13,000-letter Deacon collection in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Could it be transported to York for our research purposes, she asked? That question speedily led to our having the entire collection moved to the former public typing room in the Robarts Library which we occupied for 10 straight years. Clara could tell a frustrated and hyperactive mature student to go out and chop a cord of wood or engage in some similar strenuous physical activity; she could advise another student to get dressed for a job interview; or ask me why in God’s name I was growing a moustache. In her mind, she had early paired Jane and me. When she came through the receiving line at our wedding, she greeted my mother with the words, “Well, Marion, we did it!”
In her memoir, Chapters in a Lucky Life, she wrote that upon graduation from Western in 1941, she had two obsessive ambitions: to do graduate work and to marry Morley. She did both, they had two sons, and the Thomases lived a generous contributing life that eventually included others, among them Jane and me and our children. Families can often be closed – theirs was as open and inclusive as you can imagine. I will always thank them for that. Friendship was a supreme value for Clara and I don’t think that she ever lost a friend if she could help it.
She encouraged me to enrol for my Master’s at the University of Sherbrooke which, unbeknownst to me, turned out to be the best career decision I ever made. She offered me a teaching position in her Canadian literature course on my return in 1969 and without knowing how, I found myself the following year in a tenure-stream job. I enrolled in the doctoral programme at UNB at Clara’s prompting and, when that was done, the Deacon project was waiting for me as her co-collaborator. At every step, she opened doors, facilitated, and encouraged. I was not by any means the only one whom she helped in this way, but I believe that I was the biggest beneficiary. Extraordinarily, she saw me through every stage of my career from undergraduate student to faculty retiree. Is that not some kind of blessing or grace? A wonderful gift.
I was fortunate beyond words to have her as my friend, colleague, and role model. There were many male members of the university whom I admired immensely, but there was no one like Clara. She was a born feminist, uninspired by sports except for the fact that it was a preoccupation for her family that left her free to read and do her own writing. That’s creative opportunism. She revered Eleanor Roosevelt, championed Canadian women writers, admired the women in her family, but she also got along very well with men, understood them, and had a particular admiration for the colourful and vigorous Jacks – Saywell, and McClelland. She was honest, direct, occasionally and justifiably astringent, and full of a wisdom and tolerance and point-of-view that were unique to her.
Clara was cut from special cloth. She valued convention and tradition, she had a lot of time for clothes and jewellery, she was inordinately proud of her small-town, Strathroy roots, but she was unconventional. You could never tell what she was going to say. She was constantly surprising, political, and ever-amused by university goings-on, although Clara was always fiercely loyal to York. When she came into a room, you knew that something interesting was going to happen. On occasion she could get very angry – some of it pointed in my direction — but she never lost the capacity for empathy. She hated sentimentality (the natural complement of cruelty, she claimed) but she was full of sentiment. She never complained and questions about her health were out-of-bounds. When she and Morley lost John, life – forever changed – nevertheless went on. She and Morley had a marriage of 71 years. What does that tell you of the depth of mutual respect and trust between them?
In a letter to Al Purdy, Margaret Laurence used what I consider an unforgettable phrase she admired from the Quran to describe a sense of connection and meaning – “as close to me as my own neck-vein.”1 That was Clara for me.
A little more than twenty years ago, Clara handed me a note in which she had written the following and I’ll close with that:
“Poem by Joyce Grenfell. This poem, written shortly before Joyce Grenfell died, is printed as a epigraph to the second volume of Grenfell’s life. It is a kind of epitaph I’d like as well.”
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone,
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must,
Parting is hell,
But life goes on,
So sing as well.
Information on a fund raising campaign in honour of Clara Thomas available here.
1.Margaret Laurence to Al Purdy, 10 January 1969.