'Jimmy, we hardly knew ye'
This post is devoted to Jim Flaherty whose State Funeral was broadcast earlier today. Laura and I were working in Los Angeles traveling when our son Brendan phoned us with the shocking news of his death last Thursday. Although we've been in Winnipeg the past few days, we were able to make it back home just in time to catch the broadcast. While flying home, I thought back over the Jim Flaherty that I knew.
Jim's gift of friendship
Jim had the gift of friendship and there were many more who had deeper, long-lasting friendships with him, than I. However, being in the business of media training and coaching, I had the privilege of working with Jim Flaherty in his various Cabinet portfolios provincially, as well as his first leadership run. Several years later, as Finance Minister he came to me to prepare him prior to the delivery of his first Budget Speech. In between, Laura and I would bump into him on many different occasions and we always enjoyed our conversations.
The last time I spoke with him
Being Irish-born, I found it easy to strike a rapport with him - a friendship which stayed true all the way through, including the last time we chatted a few weeks ago. It was after Sunday Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral and as Laura and I introduced to him our young adult children - Caroline, Brendan and Liam, we all joked about our shared propensity for Irish names. That triggered the rest of the conversation that was mostly about his three sons - Galen, Quinn and John. He positively glowed as he spoke of them. Although he clearly looked like he was struggling with his health, he was as hard-working as ever. In fact, he was on his way to the office to put the final touches on his Budget Speech - the last one he was to deliver, only a day later. When he resigned from Cabinet a few weeks later, we all thought that now he would be able to take the time to rest and get his health back. Tragically, it was not to be.
Jim 'slips away to the next room'
His wife Christine Elliott, M.P.P., in one of the most unimaginably difficult things to do, gave a wonderful tribute, including these lines from the ballad, Death is Nothing at All, by Henry Scott Holland:
"Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it."
His sister Norah, in her funny but profound tribute, revealed that his siblings and parents always called him 'Jimmy'.
Jimmy we hardly knew ye
The Irish song, "Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye" was used as the title of a book by Kenneth O'Donnell and Dave Powers about their boss, John F. Kennedy, that is a wistful way of saying, 'I'd wished we'd spent more time getting to know you'. That would capture how most people who knew him would feel about 'Jimmy' Flaherty.
On a personal level, what will be left behind was the memory of his laughter and deft wit - sardonic, self-deprecatory and playful - that left one feeling better about life and the world. He told more with his eyes than with his words at times. Helpful, in the sound-bite world inhabited by a Cabinet Minister whose every word is measured by the markets.
Something else stays with me in his personal story. While he was a Princeton student, Jim supported himself by driving a cab and bussing tables. I think that tells us a lot about his character and his ability to understand the realities of people's lives, and of those who need a 'hand up' [as illustrated by The Abilities Centre he created in his beloved hometown of Whitby].
His most significant contribution, of course, was his handling of the October 2008 economic meltdown, and the actions that he took - in concert with the Prime Minister and the Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney - to save the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Canadians and to ensure the continued flow of money in the economy.
As we saw in the State Funeral and in all the tributes that were shared in the days following his death, was how he was able to maintain personal friendships and respect across the aisle. Even though he had a partisan streak in him and could fight fiercely for what he believed, he had the gifts of friendship and empathy and was able to develop friendships with politicians of every stripe. We need more Jim Flahertys'!
"Take a drink and remember the man. And raise your spirits to the sky. Raise them to Jim Flaherty. God bless you Jim, and may we be forever in your debt."
Jimmy, we hardly knew ye!