(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, April 21, 2018)
It’s the painters and the writers, the sculptors and the musicians, who tell us, the rest of us, to stop and look and listen. To pay attention. To see the holiness in the ordinary. This is the heart of the matter, the nub of it, the core of life.
The times when we manage to get ourselves off of auto-pilot are the times we see things – vital things – we’d otherwise miss. An old woman walks by. The wind rustles some leaves at your feet. A single note of music brings a memory you thought was long gone.
This is the sort of truth that Bryan Wylie knew. It’s what he was about.
I wish I could have heard him teach. I wish I could have been nourished by his thoughts. But circumstances had me overseas during the years Bryan, here in Hamilton, delivered his annual lecture series on humanity’s search for meaning through the arts.
No, the pleasure was never mine, not in this world, to observe how Bryan helped illuminate this community. For over a decade after his so-called retirement, Bryan taught on the arts and culture in libraries and churches and other community locales.
Slow down. Look. Listen. This was Bryan’s public word, this after more than three decades at Hillfield Strathallan College. There Bryan had taught with distinction, so much that in 1989 he was awarded the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teacher Award.
He was just five when he gathered his friends on the street to play school, himself as teacher, complete with chalkboard. Later, in 1969, a young man who’d just dropped out of McMaster University, he started teaching Latin at Hillfield Strathallan. When Latin was soon-after dropped, he was asked to lead the English department.
Through the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s Bryan developed the school’s arts instruction. In fact it was through the arts – he was directing the play Godspell – that his spiritual conversion came.
“The student playing Jesus asked me, ‘So, for the finale, do I return as Jesus or God?’ ” Bryan figured it out. “I had him come back as both,” is how he explained it on Mohawk Radio’s Art Waves.
Danielle Hourigan, a student of Bryan’s before she joined Hillfield Strathallan’s staff, told me Bryan was not only a consummate teacher, but one of those rare people who connected what mattered to him – his faith and his love of the arts – seamlessly into his life.
“He didn’t want you to be like him. He wanted you to be the best of who you could be,” she said. “If you’re a street sweeper, be the Michelangelo of street sweepers.”
After retiring from Hillfield Strathallan in 2002, Bryan’s public lectures dominated his time. You’d often find him preparing – one presentation might have upwards of 300 slides — in his office at Philpott Memorial Church. Over the years he spoke to thousands.
He was largely self-taught through his many visits to museums across Europe. Florence and Venice, particularly close to his heart, are among the places his ashes will be spread.
It was in Florence where, last fall, Bryan took ill. He later recovered in Hamilton. I saw him one day. “You’re looking good,” I said to him. Shortly later, on a day I flew west over the Atlantic, he was gone.
This is the poem, the song, of Bryan’s life. But this afternoon, along with several hundred others, I’ll still have a chance to hear what Bryan has to say. I’ll be at a memorial event put together by who else but Bryan himself.
Called “All Good Gifts,” Bryan had planned it years ago. Even in his sickness, he had conversations with friends who made that final promise to him. Bryan is named as the event’s director.
It will be a panoramic view of his life. On Bryan’s request, TVO journalist Steve Paikin, a former student of Bryan’s from the Class of ’78, will MC. Former students and friends will come from as far away as the UK.
So there I’ll sit with everyone, including the children, my children, all of us old enough, and, by a mysterious grace, young enough too, to keep this memory in a safe place.