Author Tags: Fiction, Poetry, Publishing
Born in Vancouver on August 7, 1943, Ron Smith received his BA from the University of British Columbia in 1969 and his MA from the University of Leeds in 1970, before becoming a professor at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, where he taught English and Creative Writing between 1971 and 1998.
In 1974 he founded the publishing company Oolichan Books in Lantzville, and from 1988 to 1991 he was the fiction editor for Douglas & McIntyre. He was also instrumental in helping establish the first aboriginal press, Theytus Books, in 1981. With Stephen Guppy he co-edited the first anthology of Vancouver Island fiction, Rainshadow Stories from Vancouver Island (Oolichan/Sono Nis, 1982).
In 1984, Ron Smith released a suite of poems, Seasonal, about his daughter and about which Robert Bringhurst wrote: "It's a wonderful book....There are not many sequence of poems being published these days which it is cleansing to read, but this is one." He followed this with a long poem entitled A Buddha Named Baudelaire (Sono Nis, 1988). Since then he has published two more books of poetry and self-published a collection of fiction, What Men Know About Women. [See Review]
Ron Smith's The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke (Ronsdale $22.95) is a personal account of what it's like to have a massive ischemic stroke to the brain stem. Smith recounts struggles with communication, the frustrations of being written off, the role of memory in recovering identity, the value of therapy and, above all, his passion to live. Including suggestions for improvement of care for stroke victims, The Defiant Mind is for stroke survivors, caregivers and medical professionals.
Upon his retirement from teaching, Smith was named the first Honorary Research Associate of the Faculty of Arts and First Nations Studies at Malaspina University-College. He has given reading and lecture tours in the U.S., Italy, Albania, England and across Canada. In 2002, a selection of his poetry was translated by Ada Donati and published in a book-length bilingual edition, Arabesque e altre poesie, in Italy (Schifanoia Editore). In 2004 his play, The Boarder, was selected for a "process reading" as a part of the New Play Festival at the Playwright's Theatre Centre in Vancouver.
Ron Smith received an Honorary Doctorate, D. Litt., from the University of British Columbia in the spring of 2002. He lives with his wife, novelist Pat Smith, near Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island. Smith has played an essential role in the growth of literary, historical and public policy publishing in British Columbia. In 2011, he received the Gray Campbell Distinguished Service Award presented annually by the Association of Book Publishers of B.C. to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the book industry in the province. [See speech below]
The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke (Ronsdale 2016) $22.95 978-1-55380-464-2
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story
Elf the Eagle (Oolichan, 2007). Illustrated by Ruth Campbell.
Arabesque e altre poesie (Schifanoia Editore, Italy, 2002)
What Men Know About Women (Oolichan, 1999)
The Last Time We Talked (Reference West, 1996)
Enchantment & Other Demons (Oolichan, 1995)
A Buddha Named Baudelaire (Sono Nis, 1988)
Collected Poems of Ralph Gustafson, Vol 1 & 2, editor (Sono Nis, 1982)
Seasonal (Sono Nis, 1984)
Rainshadow: Stories from Vancouver Island (Oolichan/Sono Nis, 1982)
AWARDS: Shortlisted, CBC Literary competition for fiction, 1995
Gray Campbell Award, 2011.
[LITHIS / BCBW 2012] "Fiction" "Poetry" "Publishing"
What Men Know About Women (Oolichan $15.95)
In John Grisham novels and video games, men are still supposed to be heroes saving damsels from distress. In movies they save planets and galaxies. By contrast, a man who tries to save his soul by pursuing inner truths is anti-heroic. Male narrators in Ron Smith’s What Men Know About Women (Oolichan $15.95), for example, mostly share awkward insights that we assume are autobiographical in origin, exposing and exploring the fragility of their egos. They do so in a style akin to talking to themselves, making us privy to their most private thoughts. “Hold me,” confides one narrator. “I am not ready to be old.” His wife’s affection terrifies him. “I’m in love with a woman with whom I can’t speak,” he tells us.
One wonders if the storyteller is more capable of being honest with readers than with people around him. Smith exposes a myriad of conscientious conflicts that are universal struggles for compromise. Put simply, it is difficult to behave decently and to be scrupulously honest.
With several references to Richard Ford’s fiction, Smith’s title story recalls a man’s journey to his daughter’s soccer tournament in the Twin Cities. His wife has flown ahead with his daughter while he drives to Minneapolis with their younger son. They are accompanied by another man, Gus, who has a crude but relatively conventional view of sexuality. Hoping to get closer to his 11-year-old son, the father/narrator closely monitors the fluctuating dynamics of his family life and the mysteries of gender differences. He and his wife share an unexpectedly gratifying close encounter in a motel room; later Gus tells a ribald joke in a cafe. “I have a tendency to put a reverse spin on events,” he says, “to see life darker than it is.” But by recalling hundreds of details from this fractured family adventure, the narrator celebrates the fascinating, irritating and unending complexity of so-called normality. The light at the end of the introspective tunnel is this man’s marital relationship. The title story ends with the narrator next to his partner in bed, unable to sleep, inarticulate but deeply grateful and respectful. “The point is, I don’t know why most people, let alone women, do what they do,” he confides. “This is something I’d like to talk over with Jean. Instead I lie there in the dark and try to harmonize my breathing with hers.”
These stories are not urbane advertisements for the writer’s cleverness. They are private reflections, mature and intimate, from a man who struggles to be a decent father and husband. As such, they are essentially moralistic explorations, critical-minded but not cynical, beyond the realm of biscotti literati. Ron Smith is concerned with personal truth for the sake of redemption; it’s a safe bet he won’t achieve flavour of the week status. 0-88982-177-1
[Alan Twigg / BCBW SUMMER 1999]
A Buddha Named Baudelaire
Ron Smith has long been a key figure in the West Coast literary scene, and there are many of us, readers and writers, who feel indebted to him for the work he has done over the years at Oolichan Press, publishing poetry and fiction with fine editorial taste and visual elegance. A recent Oolichan poetry offering, for example, is Circus Dogs ($7.95) by Tommy Douglas (not the late politician), a whimsical, surrealistic collection of bizarre encounters and strange juxtapositions.
After a long silence as a poet, Ron Smith has now published A Buddha Named Baudelaire ($7.95) with Sono Nis Press rather than with his own Oolichan. If your taste runs to decadent writing and mine does you will like this book.
Ron Smith offers the kind of prose poems which Baudelaire also loved to write, and there is in his work the same sense of the mysterious correspondences of existence, and the same awareness of the visible world existing in all its epiphanous glory, that distinguish the great French poets from Baudelaire d Gautier down to Rimbaud, and which Smith admirably celebrates without. imitating.
A Buddha Named Baudelaire is a fine meditational structure that has been so long in the making that it seems to concentrate the essence of the writer's life and thought into a tight cluster of hard and gemlike flames.
-- by George Woodcock, BCBW, 1989
Elf the Eagle by Ron Smith & Ruth Campbell (Oolichan, $19.95)
from Louise Donnelly
Former Malaspina College English professor Ron Smith—a poet and editor who helped Randy Fred establish Theytus Books, Canada’s first Aboriginal press—is most often described as the founder of his own publishing company, Oolichan Books, based in Lantzville.
His Vancouver Island home is situated on the waterfront, surrounded by nesting eagles, but it wasn’t that idyllic setting that inspired Elf the Eagle, the first in a planned series of picture books about a runty and fearful baby eagle’s adventures. It was Smith’s own fear of heights.
Elf the Eagle opens with Elf as a fuzzy ball of fluff, his egg tooth throbbing, breaking free of his shell into the terrifying world of a sky-high nest. There is nothing below but water and dagger ferns and “sharp, scary rocks.” What were his parents thinking?
In the days that follow, as dark brown feathers replace the white fluff and his show-off sister Edwina aces her first solo flight, Elf cowers in the nest. Edwina taunts him, his parents bribe him with food held temptingly just out of reach, but it’s a clumsy tumble that sends the eaglet hurtling down towards rocks that “loom as big as a whale.”
At the last moment Elf manages to open his eyes, bravely somersault with an updraft of air and is soon gliding higher and higher, “wheeling and soaring in the blue, blue sky.”
Having taught in Italy and had his poetry translated into a bilingual Italian-English edition, Smith will oversee an Italian version of Elf, also illustrated by Ruth Campbell, whose fetching illustrations have captured the majesty of the parent eagles, Edwina’s avian insouciance and Elf’s fearful black marble eyes. As an Emily Carr graduate living on Vancouver Island, Campbell says her portrayal of Elf is a product of her sympathy for all of us who have to leave our comfortable nests.
Having undertaken volunteer work with wildlife rescue, Campbell writes, “Freedom and independence [are] ambitions of the human care givers, not the fledglings themselves, since young birds are quite happy…being fed juicy tidbits…and having all their needs attended to.”
Elf the Eagle was shortlisted for the Christie Harris Illustrated Children’s Literature Prize in 2008.
-- review by Louise Donnelly
[BCBW 2008] "kidlit"
Gray Campbell Award acceptance speech by Ron Smith, Arbutus Club, Vancouver.
Speech, April 14, 2011
I want to thank the Gray Campbell family for their support. And I want to thank Margaret Reynolds and the Association of Book Publishers of BC for this honour. When I received Margaret’s call last month, I was both surprised and delighted. When I look at the list of past recipients of this award I like the company.
I also want to thank Alan Twigg for nominating me for the Gray Campbell Award. To receive this acknowledgement from one of my peers is very special indeed.
I want to congratulate Ralph on his award. I’ve always admired New Star Press, in particular the uniqueness of its vision. And, in particular Ralph’s commitment to that vision in the face of increasingly sinister and compromising market forces. To be guided by your conscience and, I might add, consciousness, is rare these days.
I’m pleased to be sharing this evening with my family; especially with Pat who has been at my side through all the highs and lows of this wonderful journey and who deserves to be up here as much as I do. Her counsel has always been wise and I would be much the wiser had I heeded her advice more often. But then I am male and apparently we rarely take directions! And my two children, Nicole and Owen, now 35 and 30, have lived with my addiction for their entire lives. Sometimes, I fear, I might have let the word get in the way of action.
What does receiving this award mean to me? I want to rant for a minute or two here. While I have some reservations about prizes and awards for publishing and writing, the fact that these two are given in a spirit of celebration and are not based on competition, seems to me to get things the right way round. I’m always happy to celebrate someone’s achievement but I’m a little less comfortable with the spectacle of the horse race mentality that has become the basis of so many of our literary prizes. I’m happy to see writers and publishers receive money for the risks they take but I fear the inevitable loss, creative and imaginative, that come with the sorts of restraints competitions imply and often impose. I fear the width of the track gets narrower and narrower. But this was not a race and has forced me to reflect on how lucky I have been to be a part of this wonderful industry for close to forty years.
When Margaret informed me that I would be expected to make a speech, something longer than thirty seconds she advised me, I wondered what I would say. Then I remembered seeing a Knowledge Network programme on Takao Tanabe a couple of nights earlier. Suddenly I was thinking about how I got into publishing and reflecting on who were some of my early literary influences. I remembered meeting Tanabe but I couldn’t remember where or through whom. So if you don’t mind I would like to pay tribute to some of the people who were influential, in my role as publisher and writer. You see, I view this as an award not so much for what I’ve accomplished but for what I’ve received over the years.
It all began when UBC quite rightly asked me to leave the university as a student. I had spent my first two years on campus as a Phys Ed student and for the most part had only learned the rules of bridge and how to perform a somersault in mid air. Oh, and I also played on the rugby team. As an academic I was a total failure. After a summer of working up north, I returned to Vancouver and through contacts managed to land a full-time job at the UBC Bookstore. I had connections. As the new academic year began, this was 1962 or 63, three rather disreputable characters were assigned to help me. They were temporary staff. They were also better paid but presumably I had security. At the time I was naïve enough to accept this explanation for my lousy salary. Now those three individuals were Claude Breeze (the painter), Jamie Reid and John Newlove. I don’t remember if it was through one or all of them that I met Tanabe or if it was through Bill Duthie or later through Dick Morris that I met this remarkable artist and book designer. Connecting all the dots is sometimes difficult. But John and Jamie became very important early influences.
First of all, John and Jamie turned me on to books. I know, there are lots of other things they could have turned me on to, but I’ll claim those as self discoveries. John talked about poetry and history, recommended books I should read, and Jamie talked politics and constantly reminded me of the many ways in which I was being exploited. In the basement of the bookstore, I built a little hideaway out of duotang cartons. I piled them up to the ceiling, leaving a small space inside where I hid a chair and ashtray. I could slip a carton out and crawl into my space. Often I would hear John shuffling past, calling Ron, Ron, there’s a truck to unload or an urgent order to fill. Where the f… are you? Surprisingly he never saw the smoke winding up and along the floor joists above me. There in my den I would sit, smoke and read. But John did more than just recommend books, he wanted to talk about them. And we talked. Mostly, though, I listened. And what an education. A few weeks before he died, Pat and I were in Ottawa and spent a day with John―we had remained friends for all those years―and I told him about my little hideout. He laughed and confessed he had never figured out where I had disappeared to. When I told him how important he had been to my growing passion for literature, he expressed surprise. I only published two of John’s books but The Green Plain remains one of my favourites. He told me he wished he’d published more with Oolichan. At least you wouldn’t have put a fucking elevator on the cover, an embarrassing cliché, and certainly not one from Alberta! No, I said, I would have made sure it was from Saskatchewan.
Over the next few years I hung out on the edges of things, going to readings etc, and then going back to university to get my degree in English. I had the good fortune to hear some amazing writers, all of whom “turned me on” to the craft of writing in some way. Leonard Cohen came through with his guitar and gave a concert in the new Education Building. Eventually I would hear Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Basil Bunting, and Seamus Heaney. There were many other writers brought in by Warren Tallman and George McWhirter all of whom nurtured my growing interest in the word. As a doctoral student I met Jon Furberg whose energy and enthusiasm for poetry was infectious, and who along with a few friends had started a small publishing venture, Pulp Press. As early as this, 1971/72, the idea of publishing intrigued me.
About this time I wrote a letter to Robert Kroestsch, whose novel The Studhorse Man I had just read. It did all sorts of things other Canadian works didn’t do and I rushed to tell him so. One year later I was teaching at Malaspina and he was one of my first guest readers. Over the next four years I arranged fifty-two events at the college, most of them literary, although I did invite Leona Boyd to play her guitar and Maurice Good, an Irish actor, to do his one-man, west end-of-London show based on Samuel Beckett. I had done my thesis on Beckett, so this was an obvious engagement for me. The list of poets and novelists who made their way to Vancouver Island still surprises and pleases me, but I want to mention two who became hugely influential in my publishing life.
Bob Kroetsch and I became good friends and remain so to this day. He is my daughter’s godfather but in a curious way also my godfather. At the time he was running an important avant garde journal called Boundary 2 out of Binghamton, New York. In 1974 he was visiting and, after a few drinks, convinced me I should start a publishing company. As an incentive to get into publishing, he told me he would give me his first book of poetry, The Stone Hammer Poems. Little did I realize what I was getting into, nor did I appreciate how lucky I was to have this as a first title. The other person who had been a part of the reading series and who immediately came to my aid and provided me with unwavering support was Robin Skelton. He also offered me a title for publication. I owe Robin a great debt. We spent many evenings over a bottle of Jamesons’ Irish whiskey discussing the plight and pleasures of publishing. There were many evenings when I wouldn’t have been able to complete that somewhat alliterative sentence.
I took a semester off from teaching and printed the first four Oolichan titles in the evenings on the Malaspina College press. But I had no idea how to bind the books so Robin suggested Morriss Printing in Victoria. Very quickly Dick Morriss became a dear friend and did much to help me learn the printing and publishing businesses. By the way, this is where I first met Margaret Reynolds. Too quickly we forget those who have made major contributions to our culture and I would like us to remember Robin and Dick this evening for all they did for the literary arts in BC.
Writers are clearly the life blood of publishing and I am indebted to all the authors who have submitted manuscripts to Oolichan Books down through the years. Yes, some have been a pain in the ass, but I suspect a few feel that way about me. There is no doubt, though, that Oolichan owes its success to a long list of very talented people. At different times, Rhonda Bailey, Ursula Vaira and Hiro Boga were instrumental in keeping the operation going on a day to day basis. In recent times, David Manicom, Bill New, P.K. Page and John Pass have brought the press national attention. Now under the leadership and guidance of Randal Macnair, Oolichan Books will continue to publish and in the process discover its destiny. Already Randal has brought new life and vision to the press. I feel blessed to have been the recipient of so much good fortune. Thank you for the award, although it makes me feel as though I may have got away with an act of piracy.
Introducing Ron Smith
Ron Hatch of Ronsdale Press provided the following introduction for Ron Smith at the presentation ceremony for the 2011 Gray Campbell Award to “the publisher who put Lantzville on the literary map.”
It would take all night to list Ron’s many accomplishments as a publisher at Oolichan Books and why the Association has honoured him with the Gray Campbell Award. Let me list a few:
1. He has published a whole packet of important authors – a who’s-who of Canadian literature: John Pass, Robert Bringhurst, Robert Kroetsch, Sharon Thesen, Joe Rosenblatt, David Manicom, Ralph Gustafson, John Newlove, Marilyn Dumont, Bill New, and on and on. I have it on authority that there is a letter in his files that states: “Ron is the best editor of poetry in Canada today.”
2. He has published many important award-winning regional histories about BC: Jan Patterson’s Twin Cities, The Albernis, Cathedral Grove, Journeys Down the Alberni Canal; Gladys Blyth – Salmon Canneries of BC; Lynne Bowen – Three Dollar Dreams; and my favourite – Boss Whistle; Hector Richmond – Forever Green – a book about BC forestry practices that my daughter-in-law Tzeporah Berman says she still uses. Also an important Oolichan series of titles on land claims issues in BC – still being used in universities across Canada.
3. The word is that he also (quietly – as is his wont) helped Randy Fred in 1981 to establish Theytus Books, one of the first two aboriginal publishing houses in Canada.
4. He was instrumental in establishing the Ralph Gustafson Chair of Poetry at Vancouver Island University. A chair in poetry at a university??? Not easily done.
5. Ron has promoted Canadian literature overseas. Oolichan titles have been published by Penguin Books in India, and Suhrkamp Verlag in Germany.
6. He has also taken on the difficult job of publishing foreign authors such as Austrian author Marlene Steeruwitz in a Canadian translation.
7. Ron is not only a publisher, he is also a writer.He has published four books of poetry: Seasonal. Sono Nis (1984); A Buddha Named Baudelaire. Sono Nis (1988); Enchantment & Other Demons. Oolichan (1995); Arabesque e altre poesie, Schifanoia Editore, Italy (2002). His collection of short stories has a title that might well win in a contest for the most arresting title ever: What Men Know About Women. Oolichan (1999) . And he is the co-editor of Rainshadow: Stories from Vancouver Island. Oolichan 1982)
8. Some eight years ago, in 2003, the University of BC beat us to the draw in awards when it recognized Ron’s achievements as a publisher, writer, editor and mentor by awarding him an honorary doctorate for his contribution to Canadian literature
9. More recently still, Ron played an important part in convincing the government to restore the arts funding (some of it) through his work on the BC Arts Council board where he has been a strong advocate for the literary arts sector.
10. Ron has recently sold Oolichan to Randal Macnair, and the press has moved from Lantzville to Fernie. For a moment when I heard this, I thought Ron might be retiring but in taking a quick peek at the Oolichan website, I see that Ron is listed as editor and, indeed, that his wife Pat is there, also – as she has been all along – as consulting editor. Ron is still very much a part of publishing in BC.
And so it gives me great pleasure therefore to present to you this year’s winner of the Gray Campell Award – Ron Smith. Ron was born in Vancouver during the war years, studied at Leeds, in the UK, and at UBC, and has taught at Malaspina University College (now Vancouver Island University) for some 28 years in English and Creative Writing. He has been the Fulbright Chair in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. And he was fiction editor at D&M in the late 1980s.
When I was asked me to make this presentation, it started me thinking back all those years (was it really 1970?) when Ron and I were chatting in the English Dept office at UBC and he asked what I thought of his going “over” to Malaspina to teach. Good idea, I thought. Be in on the ground floor. He mentioned he was thinking of starting a publishing house. That was the glimmer of what was to become Oolichan Books in 1974. It’s a good name, as the Oolichan is also known as the candle fish, bringing light to the Pacific Northwest.
Many years later, when I was thinking of starting a publishing house, I asked Ron about how he got started; not just about how he made books, but how he sold them. He said that he started out with a really important author – Robert Kroetsch – and that when Bob stumped around the country giving readings, Ron had followed in his car with boxes of books in his trunk – and sold them – as if books were going out of style.
After that, he never looked back.
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story by Ron Smith (Oolichan $30)
Athletes who can compete at the highest level in two sports are rare. Chicago Bulls wunderkind Michael “Air” Jordan couldn’t manage it. When he tried professional baseball, he was marooned in the minors.
The NFL dandy “Neon Deion” Sanders played both major league baseball and pro football. John Ferguson and Jack Bionda played both pro hockey and lacrosse.
Canadian cyclist and speed skater Clara Hughes is the only person to have won multiple medals in the summer and winter Olympic Games, for cycling and speed skating.
Before them all came Gerry James. Within one year, he played in both the Stanley Cup and the Grey Cup.
• As the youngest player to play in the CFL, at age 17, James earned $50 per week, when it was still called the Western Inter-provincial Football Union, in 1952.
• He scored the first touchdown against the newly-minted BC Lions in 1954 at Empire Stadium.
• He was the first player to win the CFL’s Schenley Award for Outstanding Canadian.
• He led the league in scoring in 1957 and won the Schenley for a second time that year.
• For 43 years he held the CFL record for most rushing touchdowns in a season (18). He set 18 CFL records and played on four Grey Cup winning teams.
In hockey, after winning the Memorial Cup with the Toronto Marlboros in 1955—by which time he was a teenage father—James played for four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, epitomizing King Clancy’s aphorism, “If you can’t beat ’em in the alley, you can’t beat ’em on the ice.”
James later became one of the most successful coaches in minor league hockey, voted all-star coach seven times in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and tutoring the likes of NHLer Brian Propp.
Gerry James has been inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame and the Saskatchewan and Manitoba Halls of Fame—along with his father, Eddie “Dynamite” James, who was a football star with the pre-war Blue Bombers—but who is he now?
You have to remember the glory days of the Canadian Football League and the hockey broadcasts of Foster Hewitt to even recall his name. Fortunately his golfing partner on Vancouver Island, former book publisher Ron Smith, knows and understands sports better than most sportswriters. Upon his retirement, Smith decided James was worthy of an in-depth biography.
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story is not a quickie rehash of career highlights and stats—although it certainly does provide extensive records of James’ twin sporting careers. Smith, no slouch himself as an athlete, has spent years gathering information for an intimate portrait of how a very naïve, gifted and angry young man evolved into a complex, argumentative and inordinately proud enigma.
Although he’s clearly respectful, Smith does not try to make Gerry James likeable. The result is a compelling narrative that will prompt even the most ardent sports fan to realize sports can be over-valued in society, and that success in sports is invariably a double-edged sword.
gerry is a nickname. he was born Edwin Fitzgerald James in Regina, in 1934, but the James family, including one older brother, moved to Winnipeg—leaving Edwin in the care of his aunt in Broadview, Saskatchewan, for the first year of his life.
Reunited in Manitoba, Gerry’s asthmatic brother Don, four years older, beat and oppressed him for as long and often as he could. “He had no stamina at all,” James recalls. “I think when he saw that I could do all the things he couldn’t do, he was jealous. I think he feared that I would become Dad’s favourite.”
At age 14, Gerry was strong
enough to finally pummel his brother, remorselessly, into complete submission. The brothers barely spoke for the rest of their lives. (Don settled on the east coast; Gerry would eventually gravitate to Vancouver Island with his wife, Marg.)
Sibling rivalry and the cruelty of an older brother were certainly catalysts for James’ fiercely competitive nature, but he was also determined to rival his ex-sports-hero father, who was less than heroic at home. “Gerry remembers many occasions when he leapt on his father’s back to try to stop him from striking his mom,” Smith writes.
His parents divorced in 1947, after his father, a chronic drinker, had returned from the war. To this day James’ favourite memory of boyhood was taking a bath. “A simple bath,” he told Smith. “Can you imagine? Warmth is a precious luxury, an almighty luxury, especially for someone who grew up on the prairies.”
Outspoken, but rarely one to indulge in introspection, James once noted, in 1981, “It was either sports or jail, one or the other.” By grade ten in Kelvin High School, he was a sports celebrity in Winnipeg, excelling as a sprinter.
A Canadian Press story predicted he might exceed his famous father. Soon enough, sports announcer “Cactus” Jack Wells dubbed him Kid Dynamite, in much the same way as Henri Richard became known as the “Pocket Rocket” in reference to his older brother Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
James lost his two front teeth while playing baseball at age 15, in St. Boniface, against grown men, when he was sucker-punched by a rival first baseman. “That was probably the shortest fight I was ever in. For two days I kept quiet and hid my mouth because I knew my mother would be upset and I knew she couldn’t afford the additional financial burden of replacing them. I never did find the teeth.”
James was once offered an NFL contract by the New York Giants, but in those days the CFL paid more. Eventually the Leafs demanded that James not play football in 1956 if he was contracted to play hockey. James has vivid memories of the Original Six. “For all-round skill, Gordie Howe was the best,” he says, “but for sheer entertainment value, the Rocket would get my vote.”
Smith devotes more than half the book to chronicling James’ athletics, then deals with his coaching years, which included a stint coaching Special Olympians.
james and his wife visited
Vancouver Island during a trip to B.C. to attend Expo 86. They bought a lot near Nanoose Bay in 1989, arrived to live in B.C. in 1994 and took possession of their present home in 1997. Not long afterwards, he met Ron Smith on the putting green of the Fairwinds Golf Course. It might have been one of the luckiest breaks of James’ life.
Kid Dynamite: The Gerry James Story is a rarity—a sports biography that does its subject the favour of being warts ‘n’ all. It resurrects Gerry James as a fascinating personality, not simply an exceptional athlete.
An anecdote towards the end of the book serves as a case in point. James firmly believes the two sexes are wired differently. He doesn’t believe that men can write about what women think, so he skips over any parts of a novel that purport to reveal the female mind.
“Once I thoroughly enjoyed a particular work of detective fiction,” he recalls, “skipping the female parts as usual, only to come to the end of the book and discover the author was P.D. James. I was so pissed when I saw P.D. was female. I threw the book down on the floor. I felt like I’d been
Despite his feisty nature, James remains genuinely modest about his accomplishments. When his biographer told him he held the record for most appearances in CFL post-season games (36), James wasn’t even aware of the record.
“I played in the days before the big money in sports,” he tells Smith, “and I looked at it as a way to support my family. Marg and I had three children by the time I signed to play two sports, and our family kept growing.”
Smith notes that Gerry James’ ascendancy in two pro sports in Canada is not unprecedented. An obscure athlete named Elwyn (Moe) Morris played pro hockey and pro football. Lionel Conacher won a Grey Cup with the Toronto Argonauts in 1921 and successive Stanley Cups with the Chicago Black Hawks in 1934 and the Montreal Maroons in 1935—and was named Canada’s greatest athlete of the first half century (20th) for doing so.
Nowadays, once a week, Marg drags Gerry along to the soup kitchen at the Salvation Army to serve as a volunteer, and every Christmas, for several weeks, Gerry can be seen outside the Petro Canada station on the main island highway, attending to his Salvation Army donation kettle. People donate—cuz they don’t want to get punched in the nose.
Tommy Douglas Speaks
The lost art of political oratory has been partially recovered; Lantzville's Oolichan Books has published the major speeches of former national NDP leader, Tommy Douglas.
In the beginning, for Tommy Douglas, there has always been The Word - a faith in his own ability to win political converts by proselytizing from a podium, rather than by propagandizing with ad campaigns. It is the conviction that speech can heal, teach, or enlighten which infuses Tommy Douglas Speaks with a sense of intellectual vitality so often missing from the speeches of more prominent, more Machiavellian politicians of our day.
Tommy Douglas Speaks may not be the autobiography for which larger Canadian publishers hope to be clamouring in the near future (if only Douglas will slow down long enough to write one) but it does represent a minor publishing coup for Vancouver Island's one-man Oolichan Books. To read the text is to understand Tommy Douglas, and to understand Tommy Douglas is to understand the essential characteristics of democratic socialism in Canada from the Great Depression to the present.
Douglas said in 1958, "We believe that the measure of any community is the amount of social and economic security which it provides for even its humblest citizens." But like the majority of CCF/NDP rank and file members since the '40's, Tommy Douglas has never wholly embraced the Marxian precept that man's destiny is settled solely in the marketplace. The Baptist minister from Weyburn, Saskatchewan essentially believes that democratic socialism must emulate applied Christianity. Tommy Douglas Speaks documents the beliefs of a man who is not so much an anti-capitalist as a dedicated egalitarian, a public figure of speech and action, not rhetoric and reaction.
Self-deprecating humour has always been an essential facet of Douglas' practiced delivery, but his reputation as one of Canada's most accomplished political speakers is derived from much more than his sharp wit. His eloquence is due, to a large degree, to the fact that political pragmatism has always taken a back seat to his principles. Never one to sidestep an issue, Douglas was severely castigated as the devil incarnate for daring to make good an election promise to perpetrate the evil of socialized medicine in 1961. His implementation of the Saskatchewan Medical Care Insurance Act caused a strike by doctors and greatly contributed to his defeat in the federal election of 1962.
Douglas was one of the lone voices of dissent in 1970 when he analogized the imposition of the War Measures Act as comparable to "using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."
I say that the government's action today is an action of panic....I predict that within six months, when the Canadian people have had time to reflect on what has happened today-the removal of all the protection and liberties presently on the statute books of Canada, a country placed under the War Measures Act, regulations introduced allowing persons to be detained for 90 days without a chance to prove their innocence when that day comes, the Canadian people will look on this as a black Friday for civil liberties in Canada.
Obviously not all readers will see fit to swallow the wisdoms of Tommy Douglas whole, but a taste of Tommy Douglas Speaks should prove palatable to Canadians of all political persuasions. Douglas' old-fashioned slickness and make no mistake about it, the speeches in this book are finely crafted indeed-is a refreshing tonic in an age when leaders with well-defined ideologies are often dismissed as zealots, when displays of emotion on the part of politicians are invariably interpreted as signs of weakness, and when the measure of a politician's intellect is seldom judged by the cogency of his or her opinions and arguments.
Oolichan Books' Ron Smith, a Malaspina College English professor, acquired Douglas' consent to do the book simply by approaching Douglas at a speaking engagement one evening and asking. Three years later, Smith presented Douglas with a copy of Tommy Douglas Speaks, and Douglas, an ex-printer, was impressed with the work of Victoria's Morriss Printers and by the attractively packaged Oolichan book which retails for only $13.95 and contains 16 photographs. Douglas held the book aloft and typically joked that few people would likely be interested in the verbal history of himself, whereupon publisher Smith promptly sold several dozen copies to the gathered NDP faithful.
Ron Smith's resolve to publish a non-literary title "that I could believe in" is coupled with a preference for independence. When he published The Stone Hammer Poems by Governor General's Award winner, Robert Kroetsch, he took 13 cartons of the title to Alberta and proceeded to follow Kroetsch to readings and conferences. This short promotional stint proved to Smith the veracity of Tommy Douglas' belief that there is no substitute for the immediacy of any one-to-one relationship.
Smith's friendship with Kroetsch, one of Canada's most critically acclaimed novelists, was integral to the formation of Oolichan Books in 1974. Kroetsch encouraged Smith to approach Malaspina College to respond to the need to establish another literary press outside of Vancouver. After Smith financed and self-printed his first two titles, he received Canada Council funding to produce works by Kroetsch and Robin Skelton. Oolichan Books now has no affiliation with Malaspina College.
"My commitment is primarily to publish West Coast writers, half of whom will be unknowns," says Smith. "But my tastes are pretty Catholic. I think it's a lot of nonsense when people subscribe to one poetic and ignore all others. That's why our list of books is as varied as it is. I hope to keep it that way."
Smith has already branched away from poetry to publish a children's novel, Journey to the Sun by Yves Troendle, and has another Troendle title for kids, Raven's Children, slated for publication later this year. Meantime, Tommy Douglas Speaks stands as an ideal example of the type of quality, non-literary title Smith hopes to publish once a year to help keep the wolf from Oolichan's ever-opening door.
-- by Alan Twigg, originally published in Signature #1, April 1979 (Association of Book Publishers of BC Newsletter)
The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke
An interview with Ron Smith was featured online by the Stroke Recovery Association of BC.
“What is a stroke?” This is the question that plagues Ron Smith. In his new book entitled The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke he explores that question in depth from his perspective as a stroke survivor. The Defiant Mind is a necessary book for stroke survivors still dealing with the effects of their trauma and for caregivers, vital to the process of recuperation, who feel hampered and harried by concern and confusion. For medical professionals, the book offers insights into the workings of the brain, the power of the brain to heal, critiques of conventional limits imposed on therapy and suggestions for ways to improve care.
How long ago did you have your stroke?
I had my stroke on November 19, 2012, a day, as a stroke survivor, you never forget and your family never forgets. So many people are affected.
What was your first thought when you were told you had suffered a stroke?
Disbelief. I was in denial from the onset. I had what the emergency doctor referred to as a stuttering stroke. I think what he meant by this is that I had a series of smaller strokes before the bigger stroke hit. After the major event, which happened in the waiting room of emergency, I wasn’t having thoughts that registered. I inhabited a place I can only describe as ‘limbo’.
What main challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Paralysis. My right side was paralyzed. This was frightening. Initially my speech was impaired but this righted itself fairly quickly. With a little effort, people could understand me after a few days. Perhaps the biggest problem was that I didn’t feel like I belonged to the world anymore even though I felt my cognitive powers were still intact. The combination of loss of physical and emotional control and the sense of no longer belonging to the everyday world resulted in severe depression. After a week and a half I decided I could either wallow in self-pity or take action. In combination with physical therapy I decided to meditate. Eventually I was able to travel to the injured parts of my body. I also decided, very deliberately, that I needed to take a positive and proactive approach to my recovery. I have never stopped therapy. I have read as much as possible by other stroke survivors and a number of books on the brain, brain plasticity and new forms of therapy. I also used memory to find my way back to myself, to the person I had been. Patience is vital to the stroke survivor’s well-being because recovery can be very slow.
Please tell us about your writing.
Before my stroke I taught English and Creative Writing at the university level; I owned a publishing company; and I wrote and published books (poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books). I was lucky, writing was my life and was a vocation to which I could return with relative ease. Too many stroke survivors can’t return to what they did in their former life; to something they loved doing. Eight months after my stroke I decided to write about my stroke experience. My only handicap was that I had lost the use of my right hand. I typed my book, The Defiant Mind: Living Inside a Stroke, over 300 pages, with the index finger on my left hand.
The Defiant Mind is a book about the wonder that is the human brain, both before it has been damaged and after, when it’s struggling to pick up the pieces and make some sense of the muddle it has become ? the jigsaw puzzle of scattered recollections, unidentifiable objects, inexplicable emotions, impenetrable ideas. I hoped the book would be useful to other stroke survivors, care-givers and therapists. I also hoped it would help the general public understand what a stroke is, at least from my perspective. I felt that most people simply didn’t understand stroke; I certainly didn’t before my brain attack. I think most people see stroke as heart attack’s lesser cousin. But if my book doesn’t achieve these goals at least it will have been another form of therapy for me; another way to explore my own experience. Writing also puts my brain to work, which seems essential to my recovery. I still write poems and I’m now plotting a novel that has been nagging me for years.
How did having a stroke affect your daily activities?
As with most stroke survivors, in some ways my life has changed dramatically, in other ways not much. I’m still handicapped so there are many activities I can no longer do. I used to play golf. I no longer can, although recently I have gone with a friend to try to hit balls. Most of our time is spent sitting on a bench talking about Tai Chi and various other exercises that might help me. He’s a martial arts expert. Being in an old familiar environment is simply good for my spirit. I tire more easily than I used to; I take a nap at least once a day. I can’t work in the garden which I used to love doing, my hands in soil. But I still enjoy the plants, so I sit amongst them and the trees. And there are a few little things like tying my shoes I can’t do, but my ultimate goal is to care for myself. I’m determined to do as much possible for myself. Yes, I get frustrated but then I think about how far I’ve come. At least three to four times a week I go to a local pool. I can exercise in water with abandon. I love the water’s primal feel and wish it had been a part of my therapy from the beginning. Otherwise I try to do as many of the things I used to do, with a little less rush.
If there’s a message you could send others who are recovering from a stroke, what would you say to them?
“Expect full recovery,” Jill Bolte Taylor advises. I agree. I have experienced new neuro pathways forming, literally. There is no time limit on changes. They may be slow, very slow, but they happen. As the Irish proverb says, “When God made time, He made plenty of it.”
Are there any ways in which your life is better now?
In some ways I feel I’m more productive now than I was before. As hackneyed as this sounds, I appreciate life more than I did before. I’m happy to have witnessed the birth of a new grandson; this was pretty special.
The Defiant Mind: Living Inside A Stroke
from Mark Forsythe
The Defiant Mind: Living Inside A Stroke by Ron Smith (Ronsdale Press $22.95)
“I continued to view my condition as a nightmare in which I was a reluctant participant. I was still convinced that I was going to wake up, climb out of bed, walk to the car and drive home.”
Just eight months after being felled by a massive ischemic stroke, Ron Smith began typing his manuscript for The Defiant Mind: Living Inside A Stroke using only the index finger of his left hand. His eighteen months of pecking after that became part of his recovery and helped satisfy his “need to be heard,” to let others know what it’s like from the inside out to have a stroke.
Smith thinks the word “stroke” is far too light to describe a brain that has been “attacked” or “carpet bombed.” In his case it meant paralysis on the right side of his body, depression, constant fatigue and untold tears.
At first he couldn’t communicate; his voice sounding like he was, “chewing on a mouthful of rubber bands.” He describes feeling absent from his own body, becoming “a shadow being” like something his archaeologist daughter might dig up.
Family and friends figure prominently in The Defiant Mind. The power of being told you’re going to get better, and that you’re loved, cannot be overstated. They helped Smith feel human again.
Like many people, he shrugged off the early warning signs. Light headedness, vertigo, a collapse on the golf course and a growing weakness on one side of his body were self-diagnosed as the flu.
His wife Pat thought otherwise and took him to Nanaimo Regional Hospital where a doctor insisted that he check in for observation. This saved his life.
While waiting in ER, he suffered a full attack.
“I felt as though I were trapped or lost at the heart of a maze. Bewildered, I couldn’t see a way out. And I kept spiralling down, down to a place I knew I didn’t want to go to. It was so dark and crushing and lonely.”
While lying in a hospital room beside a noisy and demanding patient, Smith used his memory to escape, and began to reconstruct his personal identity that he worried was slipping away. Smith remembered much loved books, music and paintings. Banned from solid foods until he could swallow safely, his hunger triggered memories of travels to Spain, France and Morocco as a young man on a puny budget.
“Who we are and what we do is fundamentally a function of memory,” he writes.
While physical needs were met by health care professionals, his mental needs were not. They didn’t know what was going on inside his head.
No one knew what caused the stroke or if it would happen again. Smith felt inner chaos (extreme sensitivity to sound and light), pain and spasticity, fear (am I dying?), anxieties (will I be disabled?) and loneliness.
“...my body felt weighed down, like a tree branch bent low to the ground after a heavy snowfall, and my brain was in free fall, rapidly losing touch with thoughts and images that connected me to the familiar. How I longed to kick my way through a pile of leaves and stare up through the bony shapes of maple and alder trees at the winter sky.”
In The Defiant Mind, Ron Smith explores new research around memory and brain plasticity which is the brain’s power to regenerate pathways. He works hard at multiple therapies: exercise, meditation, massage, acupuncture, personal training and swimming where, “everything stops hurting.”
He also imagines walking the streets of London and Rome or the sands of Long Beach with Pat. His ability to hold a book, turn the pages and read eventually returns. “What a feast for a reawakening mind.”
Smith worries that too often stroke victims are abandoned by health professionals and he tells the story of a patient who couldn’t speak, but could tap out messages in Morse Code. Each patient’s experience is unique. There is no template for treatment.
Smith does value the care health professionals provided, but laments a huge gap in knowledge and understanding of what individuals are actually experiencing.
Today Ron Smith, founder of Oolichan Books, uses a cane and walker amid the trees at his Nanoose Bay home. He hopes to regain at least 80% of his former mobility, but in hindsight says he should have taken note of symptoms sooner and dialed 911:
“Had I used common sense,” he says, “I could have prevented myself years of unnecessary grief.”
A stroke is the leading cause of disability in North America.
Mark Forsythe is co-author of The BC Almanac Book of Greatest British Columbians.