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Lincoln Alexander Memoir Recounts a Remarkable Life

University community invited to Nov. 29 celebration


Cover of Lincoln Alexander's bookChancellor Lincoln Alexander has added to his lifetime list of extraordinary achievements by becoming an author two months shy of his 85th birthday. The former Ontario lieutenant-governor's memoir, Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy, was published this month by Dundurn Press.

“It's a hell of a book, which I never thought it would be,” says Alexander, who's been U of G's chancellor since 1991.

All members of the University and Guelph communities are invited to help him celebrate the publication of his new book Nov. 29 from 4 to 6 p.m. in Peter Clark Hall. Book launches were also held in Toronto and Hamilton earlier this month.

The book's title was something Alexander's mother often said to him during his childhood.

“Those words, her words, have been at the core of what I've accomplished in my life,” he says. “My mother was the one who encouraged me to go to school. She was right, of course. My education has always been my empowerment.”

Alexander's life is often described as one of exemplary firsts. Among them, he was the first person in his family to attend university, Canada's first black member of Parliament, the first black chair of the Workers' Compensation Board, the first visible minority to hold the post of lieutenant-governor and the first person to serve five terms as U of G's chancellor.

Alexander says he was “encouraged and prodded” for years to write an autobiography but kept finding excuses not to do it because the task was so daunting and because he's not one to brag about his accomplishments.

“One of the people who kept encouraging me was president Alastair Summerlee. The difference with Alastair was that he wouldn't take ‘no' for an answer.”

Summerlee says he considered it his duty to convince Alexander to put pen to paper.

“I wanted to acknowledge the many contributions he has made to the University. I also believed that, by telling his story, he would be giving a great gift to U of G and to Canada, for Lincoln's life is truly the embodiment of what this country and the University aspire to be. He has overcome obstacles, has been a fearless advocate and has selflessly devoted himself to promoting education, equality and fairness.”

Through U of G, Alexander was introduced to Guelph writer Herb Shoveller, and the two started working together on the book in the summer of 2005, finishing it in about eight months.

Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy chronicles the remarkable series of events that led to Alexander becoming one of Canada's most groundbreaking and influential leaders. It traces his early years in Toronto as the child of West Indian working-class parents — his mother was a maid and his father was a railway porter — to the present day.

Alexander writes fondly about his mother in the book. “She was a mere maid, but her knowledge and foresight transcended her station in life; she knew that accepting defeat was easy, but success was possible and education was the vehicle to take you there.”

He also includes loving passages about his wife of more than 50 years, Yvonne, who died in 1999; his son, Keith; his daughter-in-law, Joyce; and his granddaughters, Erika and Marissa.

In addition, the book details many of Alexander's political and personal experiences.

Shoveller, who worked for the London Free Press for two decades before moving to Guelph in 2004, admits he was a bit intimidated by the project at first. A freelance writer, he is also a partner in a small company that does personal histories of people's lives.

“But this was by far my largest project,” he says. “Plus, I had never done a history of anyone of Linc's stature, so while it was very exciting, it was also nerve-racking.”

Before the project could even begin, he met with Alexander to make sure they could form — in the chancellor's mind — a successful team.

“I knew other overtures had been rejected,” says Shoveller, “but the morning after our half-hour meeting, the chancellor called and said: ‘Let's get this juggernaut rolling.'”

Shoveller calls working with Alexander “a tremendous experience.” The two would meet and talk for hours, with the chancellor recalling even the tiniest details of his life.

“During all our discussions, two subjects kept emerging: racism and the importance of education,” says Shoveller. “They ended up being the central themes of the book and are reflected in the title.”

Alexander was born Jan. 21, 1922, in Toronto and grew up there and in New York City. Back in Canada at age 20, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Following the war, he settled in Hamilton, where he married Yvonne in 1948 and earned a bachelor's degree in political economics from McMaster University in 1949. He went on to Osgoode Hall Law School and was called to the bar in 1953.

In 1968, against the Trudeau tide that swept the country, Alexander was elected MP for Hamilton West. He was re-elected four times before stepping down in 1980. During his years in Ottawa, he served as an observer to the United Nations in 1976 and 1978 and was appointed labour minister by then prime minister Joe Clark in 1979. From 1980 to 1985, Alexander chaired the then Workers' Compensation Board. In June 1985, he was sworn in as Ontario's 24th lieutenant-governor, serving until 1991. In 1992, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario.

“This is a man who has walked among kings,” Jim Bradley, Ontario's minister of tourism and minister responsible for seniors, said Nov. 16 during the Toronto launch of Alexander's book. Bradley added that, despite possessing such prestige and influence, Alexander has remained an extremely humble person.

During his years as U of G's chancellor, Alexander has conferred degrees on more than 20,000 graduates at convocation. His rapport with students is legendary, and he takes the time to say a few words to every graduate.

This June, the University presented him with the inaugural Outstanding Leader Award and announced that it will be an annual honour bearing his name. It's the third U of G award to carry his name. The University also has the Lincoln Alexander Medal of Distinguished Service and the Lincoln Alexander Chancellor's Scholarships.

Also in June, Alexander was named the “Greatest Hamiltonian of All Time” in a contest sponsored by the Hamilton Spectator. He says he's always felt indebted to his hometown and to Canada because they've enabled him “to be myself.”

“I'd like to think that this book repays that debt somewhat. It's aimed at people who think they can't do something or think they'll never make it, and I'd like to think I'm helping convince others to never give up.”