Friday, January 23, 2009

Goodbye, Stan - you'll be missed

Twenty-eight years ago, on one of the worst nights of my life, Stan Hagen was there for me.
I’ve never forgotten his random act of kindness that April evening at the Nanaimo White Spot, and only wish I’d told him that before he died this week.
We ran into each other fairly regularly over the years, and the first thought in my head every time was of the night at the White Spot. I always wanted to tell him that there was a special place in my heart for him, because he was so kind to me at a time when I was utterly devastated. But wouldn’t you know it, I never did.
We were different people in those days. I was a young piano teacher in Courtenay, in what turned out to be the dying days of my first marriage. He owned a cement plant in town and was raising a happy, clamorous young family of five with his wife Judy.
I knew Stan and Judy because I taught piano to two of their children. We weren’t close pals by any means, but we exchanged pleasantries at the door whenever they brought their kids for piano lessons, and they were regulars at the twice-yearly piano recitals I held in my living room for my little clutch of students.
That night at the White Spot, I was on the run: from my marriage; from the Comox Valley; from the terrible question of whether I should leave my kids behind. I had driven down Island that April evening in a wild and grief-filled panic, knowing only that I needed to get out of town for a night and think.
For reasons I can no longer remember, I’d checked into an unpleasant little motel in an industrial part of Parksville. (It’s still there, and I still can’t drive past it without cringing.) I can’t imagine why I decided to go to the Nanaimo White Spot for dinner, but I suppose it was a familiar place, and God knows I needed comfort.
I walked in and there was Stan, eating by himself. He asked if I wanted to sit with him. If I’d been a bolder type, I probably would have said no, because just about the last thing I wanted at that moment was to have to make polite small talk with the dad of one of my piano students.
But I couldn’t bring myself to be so rude, so I joined him.
He was a religious man, and I was reluctant to answer the inevitable question about what brought me to Nanaimo that night. I was worried he’d judge me for leaving my marriage, let alone contemplating leaving my children, too.
But I was too young and wounded to be able to pull together a quick cover story, and pretty soon I’d told him what brought me there. The funny thing is, I don’t really remember anything of the conversation that followed, except that Stan listened without one shred of judgment.
I left the restaurant a couple hours later deeply grateful for his brief company, and feeling better equipped to deal with the painful decisions I faced.
I didn’t see Stan again for probably five years, by which time our lives had changed dramatically. It was 1986 and I was a reporter in Kamloops, covering the education beat for the Kamloops Sentinel. Stan was a provincial politician, and the minister of advanced education.
I’ll never forget the look on the faces of his aides on the day he and I met up again, during one of Stan’s first visits to Kamloops as a new cabinet minister. It’s not often you see a cabinet minister hugging a journalist, and we laughed at how our lives had ended up intersecting yet again.
As would become the pattern from that point on whenever we ran into each other, the conversation quickly turned to the years when I taught his girls piano, and the many musical adventures they’d embarked on since then. He loved to bring me up to speed on their accomplishments.
I don’t know what it is about certain people, but our paths continued to intersect in surprising ways. Piano dad when I was a piano teacher, cabinet minister when I was a journalist, minister of child and family development for much of the time when I was working in the non-profit sector - Stan was always cropping up in my life. After I moved to Victoria, we’d meet up maybe once a year to have lunch together, and almost never talked politics.
I never took Stan’s measure as a politician, and won’t now. What I do know is that he was a good man, and that I’ll miss him. Godspeed, Stan.

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