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An Excerpt from Grant MacEwan's Eulogy

Grant MacEwan on United Nations Day at the Grant MacEwan College on October 23, 1994.

By Max Foran

...I knew Grant MacEwan for 37 years and he only asked me to do one thing for him, just one. I asked him many times if I could do something...He only asked me ever to do one thing, and that was to give this eulogy.

And at the time I said 'Sure, mate, I'll do that.' I said, 'You're going to be hard to do.' He said, 'Oh no, Mr. Max'-he called me Mr. Max-he said 'No, Mr. Max, you'll think of something, and what you don't think you can make up.'

And I didn't even try to think about what I'd say at this time because he was indomitable, he was indestructible. I thought if anything he'd be giving mine. And so I'm up here and what do you say about this guy, what can you say?

The subject of two biographies, a living legend, a friend to everyone in the province and to western Canada, a source of anecdotal references and fond memories from thousands and thousands of people, the recipient of honours, a man of stature. What do you say?

So I submit to you now something he would do if he were in my place, a personal tribute on behalf of my family.

...I met him on December 21, 1963. I'd just come from Australia to marry his only daughter, Heather, who I had met there, and we were being married the next week. It was cold, about 35 below.

I'd never seen snow. And I got off the plane to be welcomed by this tall, gangling figure in a blue suit. And I remember the laugh and Scottish brogue that punctuated his accent...And he had on a red tie with a big oil derrick on it. That should have told me something. And then we went out to the car, and it was a fairly well-worn Buick and he drove it like someone who was used to being behind Clydesdale horses.

But he welcomed me into the family with his humour and his warmth and his non-judgmental attitude, his friendliness and his silent support all the time as I tried to adjust to his new country, although he did admit afterwards that when he saw me he met a person who had no money, no job, and precious little command of the Queen's English.

I became a student of Grant MacEwan's. I watched him, oh, I watched him like a hawk. I watched what he did, I went with him on lieutenant-governor forays into all parts of Albert, I worked with him, no I didn't work, I fetched and held things, he did the work, and I accompanied him...and I watched him.

The first, the first real knowledge I had of what a superior individual this was, was a realization of the man's incredible physical stamina and mental strength. The man was incredible...His mental strength was so great that he could present a uniform image through time and he never changed. You might change, but he didn't, and that was the strength of the man as a reference point, he never changed. But we did.

Feb. 2000 - MacEwan Day (this was his last visit to the college;he passed away June 2000)

This mental strength and toughness, try to work with him, and I'd say will he ever stop? Or do the easy way, mate...Why build a log cabin without a power saw, why don't we get something and get it up in a hurry? Nope, don't do that. No nails, no power saws. Why not the easy way, mate? Never took the easy way, because underpinning his consistency to self was these two twin driving engines behind him. This incredible physical stamina and this towering mental strength. And it underpinned everything he did.

It explained the relentless, nerve-racking energy he put into the lieutenant-governorship. I mean, three functions a day, every day, for eight-and-a-half years, you can't do that. Walk for Miles for Millions in the morning, walk 26 miles, done by 10 o'clock, out for two more functions before the day was out. His mental strength was amazing.

The second trait I noticed about him was his frugality...But it was a frugality born not so much out of a need not to spend but an abhorrence of excess, an abhorrence of extravagance. That underpinned his frugality. What you don't do is go to excess, never, ever go to excess. These two qualities, I think, underpinned his philosophy and underpinned his public behaviour.

And then, through time, I noticed this guy becoming a legend. I watched unfold as he went to all the communities in Alberta, touching, reaching, speaking, just being who he was. And I said to myself, my goodness, I'm watching a legend unfold here, a living legend. And with this legend came the eccentricities that he had, his frugality, we all knew that.

He wanted to make my wife and I coffins for Christmas, in 1966, and he wanted to fit us out for them. He said we could use them as blanket boxes 'until they were needed.' Phyllis, his late wife, talked him out of that. I remember him walking around the house switching off lights, turning down ovens, and Phyllis following him, turning them on. It was a kind of circular ritual...so people walking by saw these lights flicking on and off.

A great man

...After years of his life, and my own study of western Canadian history and my own awareness of where he'd been and what he'd done, I said to my wife one day, 'Your father is a great man.' And I mean greatness not in the sense of celebrity, not in the sense of distant awe for people who've done great things, I don't mean greatness in the sense of a man who made some fantastic breakthrough scientifically. I mean the true level of greatness, where an individual's deeds and achievements become so great, and so consistent, that in a way they transcend themselves to the population and they begin to embody the very essence of what they have done.

...He lived from 1902 to 2000. He was the western Canadian experience. He is older than this province...Not only did he span the life of this province, but he did the sort of things that embody what this province and western Canada is all about. He drove west to homestead at age 15. He homesteaded, he lived on a granary, he stood behind the plow, he went to a one-room school and then, when he became an academic, he wrote the first definitive textbook on the feeding of livestock in this country.

I said 'what do you think you did at university, mate, what was your big success?' he said, 'Max, if I did anything, I helped take the university to the farm.' And the words,... (brought) down the elitist institution to the grass roots where it belongs.

And he was there for the big events of western Canada, very active and pioneering in the PFRA, that massive federal intervention in the dryland country of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. He presided over the agricultural reclamation after the Winnipeg flood of 1951. He sat on innumerable boards, whether it be heritage, water conservation, or related fields. He embodied everything that western Canada stood for, the spirit of the region, the sense of co-cooperativeness, of sharing, of volunteerism, of rugged individualism, of simply being at one with the land. And I would argue that symbolically, as well as practically, we have just lost the most outstanding western Canadian of the century. I would argue that uncategorically. I would defend it in public and I would defend it in any academic circle on this continent...he raised the bar.

...His philosophy was a philosophy which combined pantheism, traditional Christian religion to embrace a new notion of the land, not a new notion, but a more accurate, real notion. The land and the maker are symbiotic, the vineyard and the maker of the vineyard are together...A pro-hunting group once asked him to speak, and he said, 'You know what I think?' And they said yes. He said, 'I do not eat nor do I kill my friends,' and they said well, you come anyway.

...His operational words were never progress, never consumption, never prosperity, his operational word was always responsibility. And where he was different, he didn't preach doom and gloom, he didn't preach economic intervention, he didn't talk about large-scale cataclysmic efforts. He simply called for the individual to look inside himself and develop his own relationship with his maker, which took in the land and the creatures on it. That's what he did, and he called for a new order. He's right, you know. We all knew he's right. But he went out and he said it, and foreordained the modern conservation movement, ecological awareness. He was saying it 40 years ago, and he lived it.

At the end

...(In bed after his serious fall last week) I told him about the joke we shared about an unnamed minister for agriculture who Grant always claimed couldn't tell a good bull from a bad bull, and he grinned, he actually grinned, wide smile, and then I went to say good-bye. And I didn't know what to say.

photo taken 1991 during groundbreaking ceremony for city centre campus

And I looked and I saw those hands, those big, gentle hands, hands that had assisted in the birth of many an animal in the birthing barns of the University of Saskatchewan, hundreds of them, hands that had steadied a quivering horse, nervous and excited, hands that had reached out across three provinces to touch people, hands that had carved wood beautifully, that could use an axe like you and I use a toothpick, yet hands that had never raised in anger and never raised in threat to any human being or any animal.

And I could see those big hands and I kind of lost it. And I said, good-bye mate, in many ways, you're the best. The best there ever was. And such is the measure of greatness. Thank you.


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