On Tuesday, April 13, the McConnell Library in Sydney hosted an evening of readings as part of the Atlantic Book Awards festival. Cape Breton writer, D. C. Troicuk, who launched her short story collection “Loose Pearls” (Cape Breton University Press) that day, read some of her work. Bob Chaulk, who with Greg Cochkanoff wrote” S. S. Atlantic: The White Star Line’s First Disaster At Sea”, also read. (Chaulk’s book won the two awards it was nominated for the next evening at the awards ceremony in Halifax.) A part of the evening was a tribute to Ron Caplan—founder of “Cape Breton’s Magazine” and Breton Books—by Ian MacIntosh, Deputy Regional Librarian and Collections Librarian, and prodigious reader. (Ian also acts as Rummy Rumsfield in Found Out, the murder mystery fundraiser at the McConnell.) Ian’s speech, gracefully written and wryly delivered, highlighted parts of Caplan’s life a lot of people were unaware of along with Ron’s vast contributions to the culture of his adopted home. Ron, modest as ever, took a few minutes to rebut his own tribute (he claims he can only play one song on the guitar). Here’s the text of Ian’s speech, a fitting tribute to a truly deserving recipient. – Ken Chisholm
I am honoured to be here tonight—rather than at my usual Tuesday night perch at the Library’s circulation desk—to introduce and to pay tribute to my friend, Ron Caplan – a man of many interests, many accomplishments and, perhaps, a couple of surprises.
First, let’s get that list of accomplishments out of the way. Ron has received the Barbeau Award of the Folklore Studies Association of Canada, an award from the Canadian Historical Association for exemplary contribution to the oral history of Cape Breton Island, the Nova Scotia Highland Village Gaelic Heritage Award, a Parks Canada Heritage Award, a cultural life award from the Cultural Federations of Nova Scotia, the Governor General’s gold medal for his master’s thesis at Saint Mary’s University and—perhaps the one of which he is most proud—an honourary doctorate from Cape Breton University. And these are only the ones of which I am aware—there may be more.
Of course, we all know why Ron has been recognized by such prestigious organizations. It has been for his work as a chronicler of Cape Breton Island, its people, its folklore, its heritage and its trials, tribulations and successes. By means of the pages of Cape Breton’s Magazine, and then through the books he has published by Breton Books, he has documented his adopted island and preserved for us now, and for others far into the future, stories of sensitivity, suffering, beauty and joy. The four founding languages of Cape Breton—Mi’kmaq, Acadian French, English and Scottish Gaelic—have all been given their rightful place to tell our stories to ourselves. And Ron has done so in such a way that we are almost never aware of his presence. He backgrounds himself in his interviews to the point of almost vanishing, showing his respect for the person being interviewed and also for the importance of what they are trying to pass on by letting us hear their words, unfiltered by him.
This is not surprising given his innate modesty. He is actually, in my experience, a pretty shy guy. I remember having to really press him to be a participant in a workshop at a library conference held here in 2001. Finally, to stop the nagging most likely, he broke down and agreed to do the session. He put together a series of readings by some of his authors and the workshop turned out to be one of the most successful and commented upon that year. He loves people, he loves his work and he loves the place he has made his home, most especially Wreck Cove which is where I first met him in 1976 at his house with that incredible view of the Cabot Strait. He had only been on the Island for five years at that time but was already widely known for his innovative magazine with the BIG pages, homespun look and fantastic cover photographs featuring everyday local people who always had interesting stories to tell about themselves and their ways of life. I remember him then as a young, happy man already at peace with his life because he had found something special to do with it and wanted to share that happiness. I was working on the Victoria County Bookmobile that summer and Ron always made it an occasion when we made our monthly stop to drop off some books for him. Of course his happiness, both then and now, also has come from other sources. He has been blessed with a loving and supportive family, especially his wife, Sharon Hope-Irwin, a person of great accomplishment herself. He has also been fortunate to have had the assistance of Bonnie Thompson, details maven and organizer extraordinaire, who has laboured with him over the years to produce first the magazine and now the 100 publications of Breton Books.
My predecessor at the Regional Library, Mary Fraser, was an early backer of Ron’s work in the 1970s. Miss Fraser, a woman of formidable energy and intelligence, remarked to me once that, although Ron was not from here, he was no dilettante. His interest in Cape Breton was genuine and she respected that. As with everything else, Miss Fraser was correct in this assessment. Ron, in return, has been a consistent supporter of our library region and has spoken, quietly, over the years to many people about the importance of library service. This earns him a gold star as far as I’m concerned.
I promised you a couple of surprises, didn’t I. Well, did you know that prior to coming to Cape Breton Ron edited a poetry magazine called Mother in his hometown of Pittsburgh? Did you know that he was a volunteer in California with VISTA, the domestic version of the U.S. Peace Corps in the mid ‘60s? Not news to you? Well then, did you know that he was a muscle man for a labour union at one time? I bet THAT is something fresh about his background. In conversation a few years ago Ron casually mentioned that he had known the famous American labour leader, Cesar Chavez, during the California farm workers strike in 1965-66. Being both a reference librarian and a snoop I checked and discovered the following passage in a publication called Huelga which was written about that strike. “From distant Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, comes incredible six foot, six inch Ron Caplan, poet, expert guitarist, a Paul Bunyan of a man whose mere appearance on a picket line sometimes sends scabs running out of the fields.” Perhaps Ron’s mild manner only developed after he came here!
Walking to and from work each day I pass by Ron and Sharon’s Sydney home on Cottage Road. They joke that they can set their clocks by my appearance. Ron and I commiserate over shared back-aches and pains when I see him in the yard or out for a stroll. He seems a laid-back guy but we can be certain that there is still lots of life left in him for his work. A couple of months ago I was working at the library circulation desk when he and Sharon came in. I recommended to him a new book on jazz that had just arrived but warned him that the detail in it seemed obsessive at times. “That’s great,” said Ron, “obsessives are my kind of people.” I think we can safely assume that his own obsessiveness will manifest itself in creative and important ways well into the future as Ron continues to turn Cape Breton’s mirror back on itself. Thank you, Ron, for coming to live among us and for making us aware, through your eyes and your work, of the specialness of our home.