The legacy of Stuart McLean

Stuart McLean has died. The long time radio producer and host of the much-loved The Vinyl Café passed away on Feb. 15. McLean dedicated decades of his life not only to the CBC, but also to Canada itself.

What started as a small show, where McLean would read letters and stories as well as play some of his favourite records, made him a household name before he knew it. McLean brought endless hills of rolling laughter to people everywhere. Whether it was with stories of Dave and Morley, letters shared by fans through The Vinyl Café Story Exchange, or even a cricket he once brought into the studio, Stuart McLean never failed to get Canadians cracking smiles.

His unmistakable voice and remarkable ability to write and tell stories always kept us wanting more. McLean’s ever humble sense of self made him all the more enjoyable as his ever growing fame seemed to always surprise him. Always commenting on the size of his crowds as if he did not deserve them, when in fact it seems as though it was us that did not deserve him.  

His stories did something for the face of Canada that I do not think has ever been done before or will be done quite the same ever again. He had a way of making this beautiful home we share here in Canada something even more special than it already is. He was able to mirror, I think, what Canadians everywhere want to think they are, want to think Canada is—humble, beautiful and hopeful.

Listening to his stories brought not only laughter but also a sense of identity that many Canadians seem to think they lack.  Sure, many stories were about hockey, tapping maple syrup, skating on canals and spending a lot of time shovelling out driveways, but these are the stories that, no matter where you are, as a Canadian, made you feel right at home. There was something so nostalgic about the way Stuart wrote his stories and something magical in his voice that sucked you in and wrapped you up like a hug from an old friend.

McLean had a way of making you feel as if you were standing in the middle of a hockey rink on a Sunday morning or waiting at the counter for an order at Kenny Wong’s Scottish Meat Pies. You could feel the emotions of all of his characters, they felt like people you knew, and in a way they were. The Vinyl Café was made up of stories that somehow seemed above and beyond, but were really just stories of everyday people experiencing Canadian life the way we all do, and I think in the end that is why people held them so close to their hearts.

As for me, McLean was one of the many reasons I became involved in writing. Listening to him as a child with my grandmother, from the annual Christmas special to the much-beloved story Dave Cooks The Turkey, turned into listening as often as I could and eventually began to foster my love for radio. McLean made radio something much more fascinating than I ever thought it could be. There is no television script or movie idea that could ever do Dave and Morley justice like the one who brought them to life in the first place.

I don’t think there will ever be a way to thank him enough for what he has done, not only for me, but also for hundreds of thousands of other Canadians, for radio, and for the country as a whole. If we could have seen what his heart looked like I’m sure it would have been in the shape of a maple leaf. For all the joy, laughter and smiles he has brought us, we owe him a never ending thank you. For now the country stands in the place where laughter meets tears, a place described by one of McLean’s favourite authors, the great E.B. White.

Until we meet him again, in McLean’s own words, “Farewell for now, get home safe.”

– Graphic by Jeremie Philips