Sitting in his house after the 1971 convocation, with his degree resting on the dining room table, Stuart McLean was quietly pleased. He was surprised to feel that his hard work had added up to something. 43 years later, Stuart doesn’t remember who the speaker was at his ceremony, but as the award-winning host of CBC’s the Vinyl Café prepares to take to the podium for this year’s Arts & Science and Humanities Convocation, he seems to have his head in the right place.
Stuart sees convocation as a moment of transition that should be treated with gravitas. He respects the accomplishment of the graduates because he knows what a struggle university was for him. “It is no small feat, it asks things of you, some of which are hard.” Statements like that are simple, but they carry the weight of a very accessible truth. Thankfully, Stuart won’t be filling his speech with grandiose phrases that don’t mean much.
He thinks that he has a contribution to make, but by no means has an inflated sense of importance. He wants to share one or two ideas that others might not be saying. When asked which of the characters from the Vinyl Café might make for good speakers, Stuart laughed and said that he would like to see Sam’s friend Murphy, who is still in the wonder and awe of boyhood, give a speech. He’s a smart kid and has “an interesting take on things.” Perhaps like Murphy, Stuart sees himself as a side character to the main story, or, in this case, our story. Appropriately, side characters can add perspective because they don’t see the story from the straight and narrow.
The humble approach Stuart seems to be taking to his role at convocation can be seen in his take on all of his work. When asked if he saw himself as a cultural journalist or a historian he said he was flattered but that he just saw himself as a writer. While Stuart is used to being in the spotlight, he said he is always a part of a team, “every successful venture is done by the many, not the few.” Speaking of the Vinyl Café, Stuart was quick to point out that he depends on Jess Milton, his producer, and Meg Masters, his story editor, to guide him and, occasionally, hold his hand.
Speaking at convocation is a tough job to do well because it asks for balance. You need to speak with gravitas, but avoid being grandiose. You need to be able to say something important, but do it briefly enough to share the spotlight, and simply enough to be understood in such a brief moment. Stuart does not try to be sophisticated; he just tries his best to speak in earnest. Riffing on E.B. White, he is happy if he can, through his writing and performing, bring people closer to big hot fire of truth. He does this on a regular basis with the Vinyl Café, and with a little luck, he can treat us to a similar experience. While Stuart probably doesn’t expect his speech to be what we remember from our convocation in 40 years time, he’s going to help make it a memorable moment.