My mentor – Ramsay Cook

Posted by on Aug 7, 2016

The country was in crisis. The Referendum was looming. The daily news was electric and for once, it seemed all Canadians were engaged in the issues. And I was in the heart of it, in a lecture hall at York University, watching two of Canada’s leading academics locked in a heated debate on Quebec’s distinct status and pending separation. After class I rushed home to watch one of those academics debate again on the national news.

It was one week before the defining vote that had the power to divide my country. This was history in the making. I loved every minute of it.

This column is dedicated to the man I believe was on the right side of both debates that day, a man who unknowingly was one of the most important mentors in my life, who loved his country with such pride he invested his career researching and writing its history, teaching themes that challenged our national identity. Ramsay Cook was one of Canada’s most influential and prolific historians. To me, he was the rock star of academia.

And like any cool rock star, he had impressive celebrity friends, like Margaret Atwood. I know this because he accidentally remarked that he was hosting a dinner party and I boldly asked who his guests were. When he said Margaret Atwood I choked and coughed. He looked perplexed. To him this was normal. To me this was like dinner with Paul McCartney and John Lennon. “What do you serve Margaret Atwood for dinner?” I asked wide-eyed. Apparently fish. How cool was he?

Last week, at the age of 84, Cook passed away, leaving behind a legacy of published Canadian history for generations to come (take that internet). He will never know the impact he had on me, the girl who showed up to class in cowboy boots and a leather fringe jacket (look, it was the fashion of the early 90s, okay?). But I remember how he would hold the door open to class and say, “Hey Waterhouse, where’s your horse?”

When I learned of his passing, I realized I never said a proper thank-you for his part in changing the course of my life. Cook gave me three important gifts: validation, brutal honesty and opportunity. The rest was up to me.

When I graduated from York, I wanted to pursue my Master’s degree and I asked Cook for a letter of recommendation for the program. Let’s be clear: I had graduated with honours, but I was no scholar. We both knew it. Yet Cook wrote me that recommendation anyway, with full disclosure, saying “Kelly is a good writer, with a passion for Canadian history and she is a dedicated student,” but noting academic writing wasn’t my stripe. He encouraged them to give me a shot. They did, because he put his name to mine, which earned me the title of “Cook’s Kid” amongst my academic peers. Not a bad handle for an average girl like me.

But Cook’s honesty proved true. All the passion in the world wasn’t going to make me an academic. What it made me was a writer (who binge watches Canadian documentaries). I didn’t waste his advice or the opportunity, but in the end, his validation was worth more than anything. He believed in me so I could too. That’s what true mentors do. I am grateful.