after a bad fall
all that’s routine goes askew
the smart part stays smart
– Calvin J. Whitehead
For Peninsula writer Calvin ‘Cal’ Whitehead – who passed away quietly last week in Peace Arch Hospital, at the age of 91 – life was a continuing adventure.
A regular contributor to Semiahmoo Arts’ Zero to 360 reading series at Pelican Rouge Cafe in later years, he had followed multiple careers in his working life – including acting – before discovering his ultimate calling as a teacher of English as a second language.
As his friend Myles Murchison recalled from Cal’s many colourful anecdotes, his experiences had included riding the rails “like a hobo” and hitching his way across Canada to find work in theatre in Toronto.
Cal’s passion for writing had flowered latterly, not only in self-published memoirs Back To The Earth and Winging It in Mexico and Central America (he donated sales profits to local charities, Murchison said), but also in his mastery of three-line haiku poems.
“They would be whatever popped into his head – they could be absolutely silly, or they could be very beautiful,” said Fay, his wife of 50 years, citing one of her favourites:
then she closed her eyes
and thus made herself unseen
an illogic ruse
“I think that one is very pretty,” Fay – a writer herself – said, adding that she would like to publish a collection of his poetry.
“Cal was in love with the English language. He did crosswords – he was my walking dictionary and encyclopedia. He could tell you the whole history of a term like ‘by hook or by crook.’
Fay and Murchison had invited a Peace Arch News reporter to hear their memories of Cal last Thursday – only a few hours before he passed, as it turned out – during a chat downstairs near the hospital’s coffee shop.
A brief visit to Cal’s room in palliative care confirmed fears that he would be unable to participate in the discussion. Down considerably in weight, and struggling to express himself in disjointed whispers, he was clearly a shadow of a formerly hearty self.
But his handclasp was surprisingly firm and he could still raise a smile for the family members and friends who came to visit.
“He was always a big guy,” Fay said, acknowledging that Cal’s health had been going downhill rapidly after a serious fall during their most recent winter sojourn in Progreso, Mexico.
Keen travellers to Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia, even before they retired to the Semiahmoo Peninsula some 20 years ago, the couple had always insisted on a ‘when in Rome’ policy wherever they went, in which they lived among ordinary people rather than patronizing exclusive resorts.
They were no strangers to alternative, unconventional modes of living at that point – for some 30 years they had made their home in a log cabin, which suited a common interest in a simple, pioneer-style life.
“When we were married, Cal asked me where I wanted to live and I said ‘a log cabin’ – and he managed to find me one,” Fay recalled, adding that while they rented at first, they later took the opportunity to buy the property and its surrounding 11 acres.
An hour’s drive west of Toronto, it allowed them a simple refuge from the stresses of urban life – a place where they pumped water by hand, had only an oil heater (later a wood-burning stove) and very limited electricity, and raised ducks, chickens, bees and goats.
“We didn’t have children – but we did have kids,” Fay recalled pointing to a photo of the two of them communing with first-born goats in the grassy yard of the cabin.
one of those mornings
when the cold toast tastes like cardboard
She and Cal first met in 1955, she said. He had just joined the publicity department at the CBC where she was working in the early days of live television.
“He was 30 and I was 23,” she recalled. “I didn’t like him at first. He was quite a joker and his jokes were on the risque side – and I didn’t like that. But once he got over that, we started dating. I knew very shortly that he was the one. He was kooky, and I like individuals like that. “
The B.C. born-and-raised Cal had had a challenging early life, she found out.
“His family lost all their savings in bank failures in the Depression,” she said.
“They had to sell their car and move to a poorer part of the city. Around 10 years later they were able to get around 10 cents on the dollar on what was left and that allowed them to buy a house near UBC, which is where their kids wanted to study.”
Cal graduated from UBC in 1949 with a bachelors degree in English, but the theatre bug bit shortly afterwards, Murchison recalled, when Cal attended a theatre audition in Vancouver with his girlfriend at the time – not yet famous B.C. actress Joy Coghill – and was asked to read for a role.
That led to his cross-Canada trek to Toronto, where he wound up working with Canadian theatre pioneer Dora Mavor Moore and actors Lorne Greene, Mickey Rooney and Christopher Plummer.
Some of the time he worked as an actor, but more often than not he was a stage manager, Murchison said.
After a year’s spell with the CBC, Cal moved on (other jobs included a stint as a writer at the Toronto Telegram and theatre work in Montreal) but he and Fay continued to see each other for a period of 10 years, she said.
“He’d go off in an entirely different direction – one break-up was for two and a half years – but we kept getting back together again.”
When Cal was offered a job teaching ESL to adult immigrants for the Ontario government in the mid ’60s he discovered in it a calling that could use both his theatre background and his love for language and writing, Fay said.
His energy and enthusiasm for the work led to him being invited to start an ESL school in Hamilton, Ont. – a challenge that he also met with great success.
“That school that Cal started is still going today,” Fay said.
“I think he’d spent a lot of his life not knowing exactly what he wanted to do. In teaching he found his niche,” she added.
But she also remembered another momentous occasion.
Without telling her what was on his mind, Cal had picked her up at her office after work and taken her to a park in Toronto near the Rosedale subway station for an impromptu picnic – fish and chips and champagne, with Colby cheese for dessert.
“He said ‘would you like to be Mrs. Whitehead?’
“I said ‘what took you so long?’”
Cal had, rather typically, chosen an odd time and place for his proposal, she noted.
“It was February and there was snow on the ground and on the picnic table,” she said.
“I thought, I’ve got to hang on to this one – there’ll never be another one like him.”
the solstice signals
and the world turns just for us
climbing back to light
Editor’s note: In PAN’s invitation to meet with his friend, Murchison explained that Whitehead had “pretty much emptied his ‘bucket list’ but for one item” – that he meet with reporter Alex Browne and have his haiku published in our pages.
Honoured to oblige.