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Paying Respect

Man and woman in business clothesI am currently back in Waterloo. The reason for my visit isn’t a happy one –– Arthur Stephen, the person who brought me to this city and Wilfrid Laurier University in 1999 –– died suddenly last week. Boss, mentor and ultimately a fast friend, he is gone from us too suddenly and too soon, and so I am here to pay respect.

I was working at the University of Lethbridge when someone told me about a Director of Public Affairs & Publications opportunity at Laurier. I didn’t know much about the university at that point, and in the three-and-a-half short years I’d been working in higher ed, I hadn’t actually crossed paths with Arthur. In retrospect this is surprising, since he was a legend in university advancement even then. But I’ve always believed we meet people at the exact moment we’re supposed to.

The role itself sounded interesting, and I was increasingly eager to be closer to Newfoundland and my mother. I put together my application package –– letter, resume, and a ‘Before & After’ portfolio –– and sent it off. Not too many days later I received a call from a soft-spoken gentleman with an accent I couldn’t immediately identify. He’d received my package, and while the competition was still open, he wanted me to know I’d be on the interview list. You don’t get that kind of call often, but when you do you don’t forget it.

The first part of my interview process was a one-on-one meeting with Arthur on what I recall being a Thursday afternoon in June. The next day started with an early morning meeting with the President –– Bob ‘the Builder’ Rosehart –– followed by what must have been a two-hour interview with the large interview panel. After all the standard-type questions had been asked, Arthur turned on a slide projector, and a whole new round of questions started. He was looking for a particular reaction to each photo or design… I had absolutely no idea if the answers I was giving were right or wrong, and marveled at the sheer volume and variety of the slides. But I made it to the next step, and the next, after which Arthur offered me the job, waiting patiently and answering every question I had until while we made another significant family decision. It was a choice we never regretted –– I ultimately arrived at Laurier in September 1999 and stayed for 14 years.

I learned fairly quickly that the selection of slides Arthur had used in the interview was just a small segment of what he had compiled over the years. He was a masterful visual communicator, and he had what must have been tens of thousands of scans of images, covers, news clippings, posters, etc. I have never known anyone with his ability to weave a story using images that on the surface seem not to be connected very much at all. I have never known anyone else with the foresight and discipline to collect and store them all.

Less than a year after I started working for him, I ‘helped’ Arthur prepare for a presentation he was to give at a conference we were attending in Whistler. He was surprised when I wanted to sit in on his session though, because, in his words, I already knew everything that was in it. I chuckled when he said that. I knew what all the slides were, yes, but I had absolutely no idea what he was going to say, and I wasn’t going to miss that for the world.

Man at desk with slides
Arthur at his Laurier desk, sorting through slides on his light table, all his white binders on the shelves over his shoulder, and pictures of his family on the wall in front of him.

Arthur was, I think it’s fair to say, one of the fathers of university branding in Canada. In much of this he was self-taught, something I learned on a late night drive back from downtown Toronto after a Laurier event. And he shared his knowledge and experience selflessly, watching proudly as the people he mentored and inspired moved on in their careers. He also was the type of leader who did his best to make sure you had the information you needed to do the job he entrusted to you, and he would offer advice as needed while still challenging us to stretch beyond what we had done before. Knowing Arthur as I do, I can’t imagine him ever giving himself any credit for our successes, but he deserves it. He most certainly does.

There were times he drove me a little crazy, and I imagine I did the same to him. There were also days I worried about him, because I knew he worried much and cared deeply. I can only hope that all of us, as a collective of Arthur Stephen protégés, somehow made his worry and efforts worth what they must have cost him.

To Arthur’s wife, Yvonne, and his daughter, Jennifer… you don’t need anyone to tell you how much he loved you. But I will share with you that one of the things I cherished most about Arthur was that when the phone rang in his office, I would always know the moment he picked it up if he was speaking to one of you. He didn’t have to tell me. It was evident in his voice –– tender and so clearly filled with the love he felt. It’s a voice I only ever heard when he talked to each of you.

Arthur, you left us too suddenly and too soon. It doesn’t seem real there will be no more conversations about Laurier, universities, politics, Scotland, the British Open, golf, football, or hockey pools. No more quick coffees (well, most recently waters) at William’s. No more inquiries after Peter and Kenneth. The world is emptier now, without you.

It’s almost sixteen years ago that I began telling colleagues I was leaving Lethbridge to take on a role at Laurier. The reaction of people in the post-secondary sector was always the same: “Ooohhhh… Arthur Stephen…” spoken in almost reverent tones. Then they’d say it was the opportunity of a lifetime and tell me how lucky I was.

They were absolutely right, of course. Though I think maybe the word I’d use is blessed.

Be at peace, Arthur. And thank you. For caring. For teaching. For everything.