A Tribute to John

by Mark Duncan

John’s Eulogy, December 3, 2023

Each of us carries a ledger, and in it are two columns: what we have given and what we have taken. I don’t think there is any doubt that the ledger of the man we honour today has a number in the giving column such as to make the taking column irrelevant. 

How did he give? In these ways:

He gave through his unparalleled ability as a teacher. In fact, he was very probably the greatest teacher in the School’s history. Only someone who had never been taught by or worked with John could think otherwise. John’s students adored him, not just for his ability to get the very best out of them, in the process garnering victory after victory in national and provincial math contests, but for his quick wit, kindness and self-effacement. I often wondered, “How can such an accomplished man be so humble?” Yet he was always aiming the spotlight on his students and never on himself. 

He taught in an informal way as well. He was a great listener but also a great talker, able to expound on a vast variety of subjects, many of them highly esoteric. He delighted in the eccentricities of the English language, and it was impossible not to be humbled by his extraordinary knowledge of world culture. John loved literature, especially poetry, and was able to recite long passages of his favourite poets from memory. As I used to tell him, it would be impossible for me to do his job but certainly possible for him to do mine. 

He gave through his mentorship, not just for teachers in the Math Department, but for all of those lucky enough to fall under his influence. Happily, I was a member of that group. Someone once said that great teachers are like candles – they consume themselves in order to light the way for others. They make it plain that temporary failure on the road to success is a bruise, not a tattoo. 

He gave through his delightful personality. He was full of fun and loved jokes, with the notable exception of risqué ones. I don’t think that type comported with his idea of being a gentleman. A remarkable fact is that in the 45 years I knew him, I never once heard him voice a four letter word. His humour was like that of a less caustic Oscar Wilde – ironic but rarely acidic. Speaking of Oscar Wilde, he once drew my attention to one of his favourite Wildean quotations: “Bachelors should be heavily taxed. It is not fair that some men should be happier than others.” 

The example of his gentlemanly wit that I will always remember occurred when my daughter was in her infancy. When she was very young, we used to go over to John’s on a regular basis. Upon entering, she would say, “Hi Johnbarsby!” – she thought it was all one word – before commencing her ritual of putting on his shoes and happily shuffling around the room. After that, she would get up on his lap, and he would read her Mother Goose.  

One day he came to a verse the two of them had not yet read. It went like this:

From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles.

From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles. 

From Wibbleton to Wobbleton

From Wobbleton to Wibbleton

From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles. 

After reading her this verse, he adopted the gravest of expressions and said to my three year old, “Zoe, if the distance from Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles, and the distance from Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles, the distance from Wibbleton to Wobbleton, and then from Wobbleton to Wibbleton and finally from Wibbleton to Wobbleton is actually forty-five miles.” Thus was born her love of math.

He gave through his kindness. I am sure you will agree with Mark Twain that “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” That was the language John spoke. As you all know, happiness follows closely upon kind words, and the amount of each kind act bears no relation to its effect. About a week before he passed away, I was over at John’s for coffee. At that point he had been admitted to the ER twice in the past week. He was weak and exhausted, but that didn’t impede him from being who he always was. After slicing off a piece of blueberry pie for me, he said, “I’ll heat it up for you. It will be so much nicer that way.” There was something quintessentially John about that simple gesture, and I will never forget it.

He gave through his writing. This is one of John’s gifts that has flown too much under the radar, so allow me to bring it to your attention. John was a writer of lovely short stories, reminiscences and essays, both personal and argumentative. In the past year, he published his wonderful book Fifty Years in the Classroom and What I Learned There, and I cannot recommend it too highly. To those who have heard of this book but have not yet purchased it, I have a simple question: “Whatever is the matter with you?” It is a treasure trove of school memories, both as a student and teacher, character portraits and educational theory. His website – johnbarsby.ca. – has more of the same marvellous stuff. Please give it a look. 

Finally, he gave through what is perhaps the greatest love of all: the love of friendship. I will not expound on what John’s friendship meant to me, since that is a very private matter, and it would be presumptuous of me to conjecture what it meant for others, but I think that quoting a few sentences from one of his favourite books might strike a chord in those gathered here today. Here is that great philosopher Winnie the Pooh speaking to his friend Piglet: 

“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”

"Any day spent with you is my favorite day. So, today is my new favorite day." 

“If the friend you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.” 

"How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

I am going to finish today by giving John the last word – a personal essay he wrote for the Globe and Mail in 2016, when he was 71. As I read, I trust it will be easy for you to hear the voice and personality of the much loved man we commemorate today. In John’s own words:

“I clearly remember the day when I left home to seek adventure. I was seven years old at the time. The year was 1953 and the place was a small Saskatchewan village located in the Qu’Appelle Valley.

Perhaps I was inspired by Tom Sawyer, whose adventures were parcelled out to me at bedtime, one chapter a night, read by my mother. Perhaps my dog Chummy gave me the idea. He was my constant companion, always there to protect me – unless, of course, there was a rabbit to be chased.

I found my mother in the kitchen, preserving tomatoes. “I am going to walk down the dirt road,” I told her, “to look for adventure.”

Her reply was predictable. “Make sure you’re back in time for supper.” In those distant days, at least in rural areas, unleashed children and dogs roamed freely.

I left by the back door. As I passed the garage, I could hear the whine of an electric saw. Rural electrification had recently come to us, and my father, with his new electric tools, was madly at work making wooden lawn chairs.

The road that passed our house was truly a dirt road. Grass grew between two ribbons of hard-packed earth. I headed out of town. Railway tracks were on one side and a pasture was on the other. Beyond the pasture was a line of hills marking the northern edge of the valley.

Chummy dashed ahead. The ditch between the road and the pasture was completely dry, filled with foxtails, goldenrod, plants with nasty burrs, and prickly wild rose bushes long past the season for blooming. Chummy plowed through this tangle, confident that I would later pick off the burrs he’d acquired, and squeezed under the fence. The pasture! The home of rabbits and gophers! I knew I would not see him for a while.

I took a detour through the neighbours’ yard to see their two white pigs. Back on the road, I passed a stand of trees. I came to a farmer’s dugout, filled with water and securely fenced in. I stood for a while looking through the fence, hoping to see some turtles, but none appeared. I moved on. Home seemed very far away. Eventually, I sat down on some freshly-cut grass at the edge of the railway embankment.

The smell of late summer was in the air and my thoughts turned to school, which had so far not been a happy experience. I was socially awkward, unsure of myself, and still did not speak clearly. I could not pronounce the letters r and j, and avoided words that contained them. That made it awkward when anyone asked me my name, since it contained both of the offending letters. I usually startled them by saying, “I don’t know.”

I stretched out on the grass and closed my eyes, soothed by the sound of the grasshoppers, and the song of the meadowlarks.

A babysitter had recently taught me how to imitate a meadowlark. “Use a squeaky voice,” she’d said, “and say very quickly: ‘I was here a year ago.’”

Suddenly Chummy was back, nuzzling my hand, and I sat up. A strange sense of anxiety came upon me.

What were Mom and Dad doing while I was away? Perhaps this was 2953, not 1953, and they were experimental scientists, pretending to be my parents, doing the kinds of things parents did in 1953, so that they could study me to learn more about the children of the distant past. “Oh, he’s gone for a while,” I imagined them saying as soon as I was out of sight. “Now we can take a break from those miserable tomatoes and those stupid lawn chairs.”

Even worse, suppose that Mom and Dad belonged to a team of scientists who did shift work? When I got back they would be gone, and new people would have taken their place, trained in their roles and dressed so that I would not know the difference.

Worst of all, suppose the experiment was called off? I would get back, but the house and garage would be gone. Instead, knee-high grass would gently ripple in the wind.

Returning home seemed very urgent.

I dashed past the dugout and past the small stand of trees. Suddenly, home was in sight. I had not gone that far after all. As I passed the garage, I could smell fresh paint and knew that the latest batch of lawn chairs was almost finished.

In the kitchen, seven pints of preserved tomatoes stood on the counter, and the hiss of the pressure cooker told me that more were to come.

My mother looked exactly the same. Had there been a shift change? There was no way to know for sure, but I decided it was best to abandon that fancy.

“Did you have an adventure?” my mother asked.

My vocabulary lacked the words to explain that the experience had been both scary and memorable.

I recently visited that village for the first time in more than half a century. Almost everything had changed. The dirt road was now a gravel road. The house and the garage were gone. Knee-high grass gently rippled in the wind, just as I had envisioned it so many years ago.

Only the distant hills seemed the same, and the sound of the meadowlarks.”