When John came to the Lunenburg studio to record a Bluenose Opera House radio program, it wasn’t the first time we had met.
John’s friend, Bluesman Morgan Davis had suggested we meet. I had earlier self-consciously bumped into him at a fundraiser (he could never say “no” to helping others) and blurted out “Hi Mr. Lahey”.
I had been given John’s cell phone number by one of his sibs and was told he was in L.A. So I called him. When he answered, I identified myself (knowing the Americans were getting paranoid about which direction the bad guys were coming from and kept tightening up their ‘homeland security’), as Customs Officer Kellogg, and that we had learned he had contraband goods with him in the form of extra CD copies of Jackie Dunsworth’s “Slip Sliding Away”.
Dead silence for a few elongated seconds. (He should have hung up on me right then and there.) Then he responded: “Who IS this?” I felt stupid, going too far. But I didn’t yet know John and how gracious he is. And always curious.
When I told him my name and added that I was planning a radio show to promote gifted artists, he said he’d be back in Nova Scotia the following Monday; we could meet at the Trellis Cafe, his ‘defacto off-campus office’ in Hubbards.
We did. Over their hamburger soup we both had, I told him what I’d planned as John’s eyes narrowed and I could tell wheels were turning. Our first meeting went well. As we walked out to our cars, his arm was draped around my shoulder as he said: “You’re yin, I’m yang and we’re going to get along just fine!”
I still hadn’t launched my program (which was eventually to be syndicated around the Maritimes and into Ontario) and wasn’t sure what role John would take: would he record a bunch of short commentaries recorded in batches (due to his heavy schedule) modelled after Don Harron’s “Charlie Farquharson”?
Another year passed and Morgan suggested the three of us meet at the Trellis to kick some ideas around. John apparently had thought I was proposing a TV show, not simply radio, and had brought his laptop along and was using it while we bantered and ate. I learned he was playing Scrabble while listening and talking.
I had now launched the program, but still wasn’t sure how we could slide John’s enormous talent in to do him justice AND work around his demanding schedule.
Another two years had passed, the show’s formula was worked out so that each guest would be treated equally as a co-host; they’d have plenty of room to tell their life story while also choosing and introducing music important to them (a merging of the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” and an idea George Harrison had given me during my first full year in radio).
I finally called John to invite him to guest co-host a show, but I worried about his fast mind, vast talent in many areas….. would he be too boxed in by the timing demands?
To get to know his work, he invited me to a shoot in Chester of the syndicated television series “Haven”. I arrived and was shown around the amazing indoor set, then invited to sit with him in his trailer; we chatted, he took several phone calls while waiting for his taping. Once a person came by to announce ten minutes, he said “Let’s go”. He led me over to the food trailer and he ordered burgers for both of us. No-rush Johnny, no worries about last-minute burps. I was excited to shortly witness his work on a set. Time was up, a van dispatched to where we were standing, Mr. Dunsworth climbed into the front seat and waved goodbye to a surprised me as they took off to another location.
When he arrived at the studio he was the first guest to bring a gift….. actually there were three. One was a copy of a tiny book he had written; the second was a CD of just his simply telling stories of his life; anecdotes about boyhood adventures and pranks. The third (he was like a kid with a new toy) came from a dollar store he had just visited. Unlike the scores of orange plastic-handled box cutters, he’d come across sturdy, ridged-handled, quality metal ones that were well made probably for professionals, and he was delighted. He had bought two for a buck or two, and gave one to me. That was John. No nonsense, no explanation needed, generous.
While taping the BOH we never used scripts other than listing credits at the end. I just had notes (sometimes one word), so all of it was spontaneous and literally done while flying by the seat of our pants. With John, we just flew.
At one point, I softly chastised him for our second meet, saying “You know Mr. Dunsworth, it was rather intimidating meeting with you at the Trellis Cafe, kicking ideas around while you played TWENTY THREE simultaneous Scabble games on your laptop”. He softly responded “But I don’t do dat anymore.” Then he brightened and added: “I DO hold the world’s internet record for three consecutive seven-letter words!” Without thinking I responded “That’s good. It means you’ve graduated from four-letter words!” He took it all in stride and smiled.
We’d always supplied, well beforehand, our guest co-hosts with a list of needs that included requesting a number of their favourite songs they would introduce (which reveals much about their early life, interests, formative years, career path, relationships). John was so busy on the road, that we barely got artist names, not particular song titles. I wasn’t happy about that, but understood.
One of the artists he chose was Sting, so I picked his “Stolen Car, Take Me Dancing”. John couldn’t believe it, claimed effusively it was his favourite Sting number. We had a synergy going.
After we recorded the show, I made a copy of the lightly edited one and delivered it to his house. When he finally had time to listen to it, he wrote to me and humbly said I was brilliant, he was a dork. I wrote back and said “You’ve got that wrong, it’s the other way around”.
Not long after, CBC national office in Toronto suggested I should submit the program as a summer relief show. They needed our two-hour edition distilled down into one hour. I thought John’s show with us was one of the best we had done. I called him to ask if I could borrow back the copy I had given him, so I could pre-edit at home since every minute in the studio cost me out of my own pocket. He immediately agreed. Then he added: “You do so much for the arts community. I’d like to hand over the CD and buy you breakfast at the Trellis, as a way of thanks”.
We met and as usual had an interesting, light-hearted conversation while we ate. He paid the bill, then we walked out to the parking lot. Two women getting out of a van recognized him (as people seemed to do everywhere) and came over to chat him up. He then introduced me, saying “This is Paul Kellogg who hosts the Bluenose Opera House. We’ve become good friends since we did the show”.
I could tell by the blank look on their faces they had never heard of it. Again without thinking, I put my arm around John’s shoulder and said “That’s right. We’ve become really close, almost like brothers”. I could see one of his eyebrows raised as in “Uh oh. What’s coming?” Then I continued “We’re so close, we’re getting ready to take a test case to the Supreme Court of Canada”. They asked “What for?” I responded while lowering my eyes to appear shy, almost embarrassed, “We want to get married”.
They exclaimed “But now you can do that. There are no more hoops to jump through in Canada. It’s now legal for same sex couples”. I answered “But not for two straight guys!” John hadn’t expected this, and nearly doubled over with laughter.
In my private life, my 25-year relationship with my good wife was unravelling, and we had determined it was time to go our separate ways and sell our finally-finished dream home. I was ready for the next chapter, but heartbroken about selling the beautiful sanctuary (not that buildings are more important than human beings). It was something that I felt we had both earned through a lifetime of really hard work.
John knew about my design work, and called one day to say he was going to stop by to see the place before it was sold. Clustering his area errands, he dropped by, toured the house while we shared some coffee. He later wrote he was wowed, his head was still spinning a day later. He asked if he could bring his son Geoff up by boat, to show him the place. I again made coffee and walked mugs down to the small outboard tied to our float. We sat there as several times he pointed the home out to Geoff, saying how wonderful it was, sitting up on a gentle knoll like a resort. Upon leaving, without my moaning over life’s turn, John must have instinctively felt my sadness, as he stood and gave me the longest guy hug I’d ever had. I realized that without words, sensitive, caring John could read people, including me. No prima donna there.
Not long after, John invited me to see his beloved Southwest Cove home, a real (and unforgettable) treat for me. I thought maybe he’d show me around the place and his landscaping, and I’d head off in short order. He’d spent so much time working on the road, that his days at home were short, chores unending.
I saw his handiwork in the house at the edge of the sea that he and Elizabeth had built, toured the grounds, marvelled at his back-breaking stonework including a massive sea wall with stone compasses built right into the walk; stone seats built up a hillside like a Roman forum, overlooking the beach and ocean…. like an outdoor, private amphitheatre.
Two of his three daughters (Zoe and Molly) I was introduced to in the kitchen were making coffee, and I was offered a mug, then a seat oceanside but under some trees. We chatted, then I thought it time to leave, let this man get back to his day. He’d have none of that.
I followed him up to his shed (noticing the old Ford pickup truck with back-saving crane in the rear bed, plus some small watercraft lying about in varied condition). He had just picked up some black ABS pipe to fix his broken saltwater pool pump. I watched as John got more frustrated, trying to figure out the puzzle-like shapes of straights, elbows, curves, saying “back in the hardware store the kid has this all set out so easily”. After a few more minutes of standing back, I stepped forward and said “O.K., Johnnie-boy, give me a chance to play”. In about a minute (it’s all geometry) it appeared to be done, the pieces fit. We walked them down to the water’s edge, John connected the parts to the motor and pump lines, flipped the switch eh voila! It worked.
Then I followed him back into the house, where his daughters were making some pasta with veggies; offered us some. We again took our plates out on the deck and chatted.
I was again about to get out of his hair, when he said: “Let’s go. I want to show you something”. Into a car we went, off to his parents’ old cape summer home down the road. He led me inside and told me to tour the entire place, from attic to basement. While he sat on a sofa, I stood in each room while making a mental photograph, then the service equipment in the basement. I assumed he was going to ask me about updating of the place that appeared in excellent condition. Wrong I was.
When I’d finished, he’d noted that my house was about to be sold outside Mahone Bay, and I would soon begin as music director for a new Halifax station. “If you’d just pay for the utilities, how’d you like to live here while my sibs and I figure out what to do with our parents’ home and all this land?” I was gobsmacked by his never-ending thoughtfulness and sensitivity to others. A real gem, that John.
Thinking the playtime was over, I said I must be going. He’d have none of it. “C’mon, I’m commodore of the local yacht club I want to show you”. That exclusive picture was shortly corrected (without navy blue blazer, white pants, deck shoes) by gazing upon several floats, small prams, a few moderate boats tethered to moorings. He told me to follow him into one small dinghy. He quickly pulled the outboard’s chord and brought it to life, adjusted the choke and off we went. Having rented a place years ago on Owl’s Head Island, I knew the lay of the land. But not the sea. John gave me an amazing tour of the rock island, a tiny inlet with towering walls of stone that grumbled as the sea cave filled and ebbed with tidal water. It was a sharing of his beloved private place, in an afternoon best shared with a friend. I was humbled and deeply touched.
We had numerous hit and miss encounters with many months between his touring, my moving, my new responsibilities. I remember during my never-ending move, getting an email from John asking me to stop for a cuppa java, saying he was watching me roaring by exit 6 of the 103. I was out of time before the house sold, so I took a raincheck. Finally while in Florida, I wrote to him from my trawler, saying when I returned I would grab some coffee with him. He responded by saying just before Christmas wouldn’t do; he was in Albany on the “Santa Go (Screw) Yerself Tour”. I fell off my chair laughing. But he inspired me to suggest he write a book of his memoirs. I thought of a title, but before I signed off (John could do this to you, he could make your mind start to chug away whether on funny or serious matters) I wrote another thirty potential titles for him. He loved it and picked out several favourites.
In 2016 I bought a large store in Lunenburg, to reduce its offshore housewares, home decor and gift lines, but radically increase locally-made, quality artisan-made treasures. He would stop by when in the area. Once when I wasn’t there, the staff gave him a scrap of paper that to this day, is pinned over my small desk in the modest stock room. It reads “Pall, I drooped bye to say high. John D”. It warms me whenever I see it.
There’d be big gaps between our visits or writing, but it never stopped. At one point a few months ago he suggested we grab another bite at the Trellis. He got there first and when I arrived, introduced me to a couple sitting nearby. He told them I had bought a store in Lunenburg and couldn’t quite remember the name, so I filled in by saying “Comfort and Joy. It’s a fertility clinic by day, brothel by night”. He enjoyed that.
When we left, he proudly showed me his new acquisition in the parking lot; a perfect condition, shiny 20-something-year-old black Mercury Sable. What else could I say, other than “John, you look smashing in Sable!”
One story is that he would meet a friend on a sidewalk, and they’d start yelling at each other in Russian (or something that sounds like it, as it was said neither knew a word of Russian other than probably “wodka”). Strangers would gather as the angry-sounding levels built, until suddenly the two men would hug and walk away — onlookers stunned.
Before I knew him, we (my ex-wife, my son Keith) encountered him at his brother’s annual Canada Day neighbourhood picnic in Southwest Cove. I introduced my son to him, who said: “Mr. Dunsworth, over any other TPB actors, I’ve wanted to meet you. People may think slapstick is easy because it looks that way, but it isn’t, it’s difficult. I put you up there with Chaplin and the Stooges”. John’s jaw dropped and thanked him.
Just a few weeks ago, John called while he was driving, not flying, to another province. As he was passing my exit on the highway, he left a message to say he was thinking of me and how things were going in my life. It wasn’t about him. That was John. He touched everyone he encountered, no matter your work, your background, and it was deep, unmatched, unforgettable, simple, brilliant, selfless, loving. One-in-a-billion.
The kinda guy the world desperately needs more of; the one you can never get enough of.
Paul (or “Pall”) Kellogg