In Memoriam: John Counsell Lockhart Gordon (1946 - 2015)1
Our first encounter was almost surreal. We were both in second year in residence at York University. There were occasional waterfights, where students, armed with garbage cans filled with water, would rush against each other along the halls. Not being a fan, I made sure I was wearing a tie, kept my door open, and watched with dry bemusement. John, by contrast, was one of the leaders and invariably one of the wettest contestants. One evening, after the water-fight, he came by to inquire about this outsider.
On the surface he was the life of the party. He was tall, athletically built, a member of the football team. There was a slight lumbering gait in his walk, which earned him the name: Monkey. John was not offended. He played the role as if it had been given to him in a script. He was enthusiastic, sometimes boisterous, occasionally wild in a healthy sense. Apparently, the wild side sometimes went too far. He had been expelled from another university for “kidnapping” a school bus for a day and driving a team of fellow students to see a nearby football game. Tom Sawyer would have said “borrowed.” The authorities had been scandalized. But no-one was hurt, nothing was destroyed and some overgrown boys had great fun for a day.
Quite quickly it also became clear that there was much more to John than met the eye. He was keenly interested in big questions. We debated what was the world’s biggest problem: population said John, communication said I. Many hours and a number of years were spent until gradually we accepted that both were vitally important. John was interested in my politics. I was interested in his views on God.
I was aware of wearing a façade to protect myself from superficial souls. John’s façade was much more developed. We both recognized that we were kindred spirits: outer façades with deep inner worlds. A friendship began. One day he invited me for dinner at home. It was a Saturday morning. I expected him to head for the city. Instead we headed for the country, down various roads, then a long lane, which announced that we were at Seldom Seen. There was a main house for the parents. A few hundred yards away there was a second house for the children. There was a tennis court and there was a lake.
John had been a champion tennis player at the national level in university. He spent three hours trying to teach me, at the end of which he assured me that we would remain friends, but out of the tennis courts. So we went sailing instead on the little lake. There was a stiff breeze and, there for the first time, I glimpsed the real beauty of John’s wild side as he ployed the sails to choose a new direction. The wildness was tempered with a respect and awe for the power of nature, a sense of control wrapped with exhilaration. The only place he felt it more, he later confessed, was during his helicopter skiing adventures in British Columbia and Alaska. And it was here, he also confessed, that he felt closest to God.
At five o-clock, John reminded me that we had a dinner appointment. We drove to Toronto’s Rosedale, entered by a backdoor and suddenly I was presented to a very charming and equally impressive hostess in the person of his mother. We sat down to dinner. The place mats were of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Baptistery in Florence. I had just been studying this in art history and proceeded almost over enthusiastically to hide my nervousness, to recount the story of Ghiberti and Brunelleschi’s contest to create the new doors of the baptistery. Brunelleschi had lost, went to Rome in a huff and there gained the architectural know-how that subsequently led him to return triumphantly to finish the dome of the Cathedral in Florence. Was I sure about that, asked Mrs. Gordon, with the sternness that one would expect of an elementary school teacher. It was certainly an exam. I was taken aback but defended myself. We retired for coffee.
At about 8:30 the door opened and John’s father entered. The Hon. Walter Gordon, the Finance Minister of Canada, had been in Windsor dealing with some labour disputes. Mr Gordon was also a founder of the Committee for an Independent Canada that led to the Canada Development Corporation, a conglomerate of companies united in an attempt to thwart American takeovers of Canadian industry. John might enjoy playing Monkey, but his father was at the centre of political and financial life of the country.
John led a secret life. Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister appointed him to a committee on the future of Canada. Every month he would fly to Ottawa for a meeting, meet till the wee hours, take an 8 o-clock flight back and appear almost on time at lectures. His fellow students would notice the signs of little sleep. They would ask: Another night with the boys? Yes, said John, quietly avoiding to mention that in this case the “boys” were the Prime Minister, cabinet members and senior members of state.
There were a number of further visits to Seldom Seen. With most friends, meetings were non-stop chats. John was different. Given his deep inner world, typically one or more hours would pass in complete silence together. These times were never boring. One had a sense that much was happening even if we sat at different ends of a room. Then there might be a walk or a swim and suddenly we were in heated discussion, which often lasted the whole evening and into the night.
Meanwhile, at the university, no one suspected a thing. John remained Monkey and seemed to play the role more beautifully by the month. As third year came to an end, John had a surprise announcement. He was getting married. He sent a note which asked us to bring a toothbrush -- code for a weekend arrangement -- and come to a given address in Malton. When we arrived at the given address, we found ourselves at the private airport in front of a DC 3 aeroplane. There was John, acting as if he was merely monkeying around, urging us to get on board for a spin. Next thing we knew, some 70 of his associates and friends were flying to Marinette, Wisconson.
When we landed we were taken to a hotel, owned by the parents of his betrothed. John had avoided the usual candidates for marriage and had chosen instead a lovely lass, whom he had met on the Laurentian slopes. As the proceedings continued, John’s parents entered and suddenly the game was up. The young man whom they knew as Monkey was the son of Finance Minister, and the Gordon Jr., of Clarkson and Gordon, the largest accountancy firm of Canada. Until then no one had even suspected that everyday John Gordon was also the son of a famous Gordon.
John was an only son, but anything other than a spoilt child. When he began as an accountant he had a very meagre wage. He chose a new apartment. He had to paint it himself. I helped in a minor way. Everything was done patiently and meticulously: a far cry from the Monkey façade. A year passed and our ways parted. I left for London for a doctorate. John began his apprenticeship in Clarkson and Gordon.
In 1972, my father died. Mother was forced to move into an apartment in Brampton. There had been wonderful dinners once a month. Now many persons were suddenly “too busy.” John remained a faithful friend. One day he discretely revealed that he had opened an account in my mother’s name, in case she needed it. Mother’s independence led her not to use it. After five years, by mutual consent, the account was quietly closed. Even so it was a great psychological help, knowing that there was potential support and remains one of the kindest acts I ever witnessed. It was typically John: great, secretive, generosity.
While John had been high-spirited, and sometimes bordering on rambunctious, there was never the slightest sign of mental instability. But in the mid-70’s, John had a breakdown and was in a psychiatric hospital. Was it induced to remove a major player – a modern twist on Hamlet? I was in London and at a loss at what to do. Spontaneously, I promised to write a letter daily while he was in hospital. Writing something positive every day for six weeks proved very hard. When John was released he flew to London for a few days, we celebrated with a wonderful dinner, and recognized that our friendship had acquired a new depth. Even madness could not stop it.
Professionally the young chartered accountant, as the only son, was poised to become the heir apparent of Clarkson and Gordon. He encountered unexpected challenges. During an introductory dinner, Chinese investors offered him a six figure sum in bribes. John quietly declined, explaining that this was not the Canadian way. Meanwhile, the business world was changing:
In 1979, the international relationship started by A.C. Ernst in 1924 culminated with the merger of Ernst & Ernst with the British firm, Whinney, Murray and Company, forming the worldwide partnership of Ernst & Whinney. In 1989, Ernst & Young International (EYI) was created when Arthur Young firms merged worldwide with Ernst & Whinney. Clarkson Gordon (an Arthur Young member) joined EYI.2
Probably foreseeing this, at age 32 (1978), John moved his family to Calgary and began the second phase of his life away from the centres of financial and political power. A year later, his marriage was failing. John flew from Calgary; I had a V(isit)USA ticket for a month and flew from New York to Seattle, and we stayed at the home of a university friend. For three days, we had very long walks and talks, with intermissions for food and copious amounts of drink.
His wife had originally fallen in love with a dashing young man on the ski slopes. She married his vigorous façade, possibly not able to fathom his inner world, his day jobs and complex family history. The failure of the marriage literally drove him to drink and almost over the precipice, but fortunately, the very inner world that was the problem, also allowed him to regain balance.
John’s near boisterous enthusiasm became more carefully hidden, but was by no means diminished. There remained in him the searcher wishing to tackle great challenges. He founded a Wholesale Home Appliance business, which was not successful. He explored the oil industry. He dreamed of becoming a film maker, made various exploratory steps, but his upright character and profound honesty were ill-matched to deal with Hollywood characters. Gradually he left the international scene to focus on the local. He did some Business Coaching.
A new day job entailed building houses on Sylvan Lake: Marina Bay and later Ryder’s Ridge. On the surface, the chartered accountant now did the books for a building company. But as usual there was more to the story. These new developments were effectively exercises in utopia: how to create a new community at the edge of nature. It began with a vision of changing the natural lakefront to build houses – an approach that a later mayor would question. The man who loved nature, was now exploring how to live with nature always in view: being at one with nature as everyday life. Ryder’s Ridge went on to win a prize for best new community.
When he retired, he pursued a stock market strategy, the St. Lawrence Investment Fund, which never became as mainstream as its name. If his material pursuits seemed to lose the wind in their sails, his spiritual efforts took him sailing in another direction and while the material waned, the spiritual waxed and blossomed. The term, Beyond, in his club, was much more than an adverb.
The mountains, hiking in summer, skiing in winter played an increasing role in his life. He went to both the Canadian and American Rockies for skiing and once ventured to the South Island of New Zealand for one of the world’s most famous hikes. In 1987, he lent me a family apartment in Banff for a month so that I could discover the true wonders of the Rockies personally. On another occasion, we went together for a 4 day hike with a tent. It was one the sublime experiences of my life.
When I moved back to Toronto in 1984, our meetings were limited largely to the times he came to Toronto to deal with the Walter and Elizabeth Gordon Foundation. John loved good food and made a near science of finding new places. Sharing food and drink was another way of showing his profoundly generous nature.
We would recommend each other books. One of the first he urged me to read was an autobiography of Truman, one of his heroes. Increasingly the books turned to new-age and religious themes: Destructive Emotions, Why God won’t go Away, The Power of Now, Conversations with God, Love’s Hidden Symmetry.
Coming from a family with an uncle as missionary, an aunt who was a teaching nun, an aunt and a niece who were Mother Superior, he was preaching to the converted. On the surface, it looked as if John was being taken in by new age gurus, whose deepest belief was directed at the deepest pockets. But again John was different. He explored ideas and lived them. He became a rare combination of a priest figure, in the sense of confessor, and psychologist. This was scarcely evident over polite dinners. But on the long walks around Albertan lakes, the friend transformed into a consoling spirit, sometimes, ever so gently, noting areas for improvement, at other times, offering challenges for a deeper kind of love, not the physical eros, but Latin charitas, Greek agape and eleémosuné. He used simpler terms but his subtely could have matched the Church Fathers.
On the physical level, John thought he had found a real new partner in the mid 1980’s. She was Swedish, charming, sophisticated, fashionable, mundane. There was a wonderful wedding ceremony at the Banff Springs hotel. His parents were able to attend. It was full of promise. He built a dream home that reflected his concepts of light and space. Alas, there was a hidden psychological flaw in her personality, whereby the charming façade transformed inexplicably into negative emotions. It ended painfully with considerable material losses. Finally, there was a third marriage. It was low key, but gave John the support that he so deeply deserved in the last decade of his life.
The same John who had carefully separated his Monkey façade from his business credentials and his deep inner world, used this approach throughout his life. He did not let the tragedy of his first wife’s leaving affect his love and support for his children. They were a separate compartment. He visited them on a regular basis, fostered their education, supported their plans. Family life remained very important.
At university, John had always been one of the boys, a team man. If he had been in London he might have been a member of a traditional club. In Calgary, he became a member of Mens Mastermind Clubs and founded his own Health Wealth & Beyond club. His friends now called him Johnnie. Be great in the little things and little in the great things, said my father. John was always addressed in the diminutive (Monkey, Johnnie), but acted in the superlative. It was a near rambunctious form of greatness, characterized by great enthusiasm and a great laugh.
His father, Walter Gordon, at the height of his career, resigned from his cabinet position, because honour and noble principles meant more than temptations of wealth and power. John began in his father’s footsteps but then left a potential path of high finance and politics. He disappeared from the public eye. Google images shows only his obituary photo. He made no great claims. He published no books, but he had a quiet influence on everyone he encountered. As a young man he was as quiet about his direct family as about his roots which linked him with Sir William Lockhart, Cromwell’s Ambassador in Paris; with the Earl of Aboyne and the Plantagenets.
Titles were unimportant to him. He knew that true nobility is something to be lived: he lived nobly, enthusiastically, loyally, kindly, gently, truly, generously, magnanimously, humourously, wonderfully. He was a closest friend, even at a distance: a glowing exemplar. My soul weeps at his passing: my spirit remembers that the friend pretending to be a monkey, was a model of true humanity: a monkey king (Hanuman, Sun Wukong) in a Western avatar.
Maastricht, 14 December 2015 (3)
1. Obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/calgaryherald/obituary.aspx?pid=176165803
2. Ernst and Young: http://www.subsea.org/company/listdetails.asp?companyid=2077
3. I am grateful to Roy Moore, a friend of John, who kindly read the draft and drew attention to a few more aspects of his extra-ordinary life.