COLUMN: Former Gov. General and Sault high school hero serves again

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If asked to name the most outstanding characteristic of The Right Honourable David Lloyd Johnston PC CC CMM COM CD FRSC FRCPSC, the word that would come to my mind would be “pluck.”

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines pluck as: “Courageous readiness to fight or continue against odds: dogged resolution” – and that certainly sums up the man who is arguably Sault Ste. Marie’s most famous alumnus.

And I can say this with authority because I have known “Davey” as his fellow students at Sault Collegiate Institute called him back in the 1950s, for (gulp!) seven decades as of this spring.

It was in May 1953 that our Grade 8 softball team from Francis H. Clergue Public School went up against the squad from Alex Muir PS – and got trounced.

It was Davey Johnston who almost single-handedly brought on our ignominious defeat.

Our ace pitcher couldn’t put one across the plate that Davey didn’t hit out of the park. And just when you thought that our number one hitter was, at last, going to get us on the scoreboard with a blistering line drive, Davey would make an impossible dive and catch the sizzler with one bare hand.

His younger brother Jim (AKA Jake) once told me that when he had a pitching try-out for his school team, Davey acted as his catcher and coach in their Woodward Avenue driveway – keeping Jake at it until Davey felt comfortable that his brother was ready for his big day.

As his legion of fans and well-wishers can attest, Davey would demonstrate this “dogged resolution” to do one’s best throughout his academic and public service career.

And he isn’t finished yet, what with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing on March 15 that the former GG had been appointed as the Special Rapporteur on Foreign Interference.

Already his “courageous readiness to fight or continue against odds” is being tested as the expected kneejerk opposition to his appointment has brought down fire from the federal Conservatives and the right-wing media – despite the fact that his vice-regal appointment in 2010 was made by then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

But the pluck Davey has drawn upon throughout his long and illustrious career to date will no doubt see him through.

All he has to do is apply the same determination that saw him quarterback the Sault Collegiate Wildcats to championship status in the Northern Ontario Secondary School Association (NOSSA) football wars of the 1950s.

His quarterbacking prowess stood him in good stead again when, as NOSSA champs, the Wildcats earned a berth in the annual Community Chest (precursor to the United Way) Red Feather Tournament in Toronto in the late 1950s. The Cats, helmed by Davey, distinguished themselves by trouncing the Saltfleet District High School squad 13 to one.

I was at that game but not as a player.

In Grade 10, I asked Davey about trying out for the Wildcats, and, as ever, his reply was that of a kindly straight shooter: “Well, you’re not fast enough to play offence, and you’re not big enough to play defence. But come on out and give it a try.”

Needless to say, I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a football hero “to get along with the beautiful girls,” so I joined the SCI Pep Club instead, and we chartered a coach on the Soo to Toronto Canadian Pacific Railway run (back in the days before the CPR reneged on its deal with the feds and pulled passenger service out of Sault Ste. Marie).

To watch “our boys” charge up the field to a win was worth the price of the train fare and the stay at Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel near Varsity Field, where the tournament of champions took place.

Ironically, it was hockey, not football, that got Davey a scholarship to Harvard University, where he garnered several honours – including being named years later by the Eastern College Athletic League in the United States as one of its 50 all-time top players and being featured as the captain of the Harvard hockey team in his college roommate Erich Segal’s best-selling novel Love Story.

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree at Harvard, Davey earned law degrees from Queen’s University and the University of Cambridge. He began his professional career as an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in 1966, then moved to the Law Faculty at the University of Toronto in 1968.

He became dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario in 1974 and was named principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University in 1979. In July 1994, he returned to the McGill Faculty of Law as a full-time professor, and in June 1999, he became the fifth president of the University of Waterloo. It was while serving in this capacity that he got the nod to become Canada’s 28th Gov. Gen. since Confederation.

Shortly after his vice-regal appointment, I interviewed Davey at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall for a national magazine – and once again, his down-to-earth style came to the fore.

I hadn’t seen much of him since our high school days, and I was a tad non-plussed as to how you greet a governor-general. I needn’t have worried. As he walked into the building’s Small Drawing Room where the interview was to take place, his Johnny Carson grin stretched from ear to ear, and he shouted out, “Tom!” then proceeded to enfold me in a big bear hug.

Davey demonstrated his stick-handling abilities from his old hockey-playing days during our interview when I asked him if there was any truth to the rumour that his wife – née Sharon Downey and also from the Soo – had to be talked into agreeing to accept the dramatic change of lifestyle and heavy responsibilities that the GG appointment would necessitate.

Mr. Diplomacy replied: “Sharon finished her PhD in rehabilitation medicine at 52 and decided she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in a lab. Our children were all grown up (they have five daughters), and when we moved to Waterloo; Sharon really remade her life around horses. She managed a horse-breeding business with up to 36 horses boarded on our farm at that period of time.

“So her life was settled and sensible, and I guess she probably saw me ceasing to be a university president and becoming a little more sedate rather than leaping into a public position and changing locations – but she’s very adaptable and loves people, so I think, having made the decision that we’d go to Ottawa, she’s settled in well.”

Davey added that he, too, had adapted to the rigours of a five-year term representing the Queen in Canada – a stretch that would turn into seven years when the newly-elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked him to stay on for a bit.

“In my case, I don’t think I’ve ever worked,” he said, that boyish grin once again spreading across his face. “I went off to university when I finished high school, and I liked university so much that I never left it until I was 69 and a half, and I was asked if I would consider doing this job. This was the time to become involved in public service, so I took it, and it continues to be a great joy. On the business of age, I feel like a 21-year-old, and I will continue to quote ‘work’ unquote as long as I draw breath.”

I don’t imagine even Davey knew that this dynamic work ethic would still be propelling him forward at age 81. But as the motto at our beloved and late-lamented Sault Collegiate Institute advised: Labor Omnia Vincit Improbus – Hard Work Conquers All.

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