A Man With The Greatest of Hearts: Jack Layton, 1950-2011

August 22, 2011 Michael Kaufman

Jack Layton — political leader, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, and a man with the greatest of hearts — died this morning. He was only 61.

For my readers outside of Canada, his name is known to a few of you as the co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign.  For those of us here in Canada, his death is a terrible loss for his was a major voice of compassion, fairness, and change in national politics: so much so that in elections only months ago, he propelled his tiny social democratic party into the second largest standing in our House of Commons and formed the Official Opposition to the Conservative government.

Jack seemed larger than life and, in that, it is particularly hard to imagine he is no longer alive. He carried with him energy and optimism that knew few bounds.

The public discussion is, of course, about his public life: his contributions as an organizer, environmentalist, fighter for social justice, and a municipal and national politician.

But I want to tell you the type of man he was for his public ideals were the way he lived his life.

He seldom stopped moving. I don’t mean in a fidgety A.D.D. way; not at all. He certainly would stop to share a drink, enjoy a meal together, or pick up his guitar and sing. For a man who wanted to get things done and who had such a forceful personality, he also had a tremendous patient streak: willing to listen, willing to let things take their course. No, what I mean is that he was tireless.

Let me tell you three little stories about his values, his sense of commitment, his roll-up-his sleeves approach to life, and what mattered most.

Back in the early 1990s, a year or so after we had started White Ribbon, the organization was in debt which would make it impossible to pursue our plans for an outreach campaign to urge men to end our silence on violence against women. So, as if it were the simplest, most inconsequential thing to do, he suggested we put up his house and my car as collateral for a loan.  (This story also shows he had met his match in Olivia Chow, the great love of his life, for, of course, he had checked with her first.)

And, then, if I may share another personal story, in 2001 when Betty and I got married, he and Olivia volunteered to put together some flowers. This was out in the country and they showed up the evening before with great bunches of flowers and vases and proceeded to stay up until three in the morning cutting and arranging, he, I expect, working under Olivia’s direction. He was a man who rolled up his sleeves because it made a difference to the people (and the country)he loved.

For all he is being remembered as a political leader, let me end with a story about what really mattered most to him. When I saw him last week for the last time, he was very tired, very sick. He talked through his fatigue with optimism but also realism. But let me tell you when his astonishing life force was suddenly there to be seen: We spoke briefly about children and, in his case, his first grandchild. A luminous smile transformed his face. And there it was to behold: the Jack I had known and loved with the fire of great love once again in his eyes.


10 Comments on “A Man With The Greatest of Hearts: Jack Layton, 1950-2011

  1. Jack Layton: The best Prime Minister Canada never had. He was an amazing person and will be missed greatly!

  2. Not just men – anyone assigned male at birth is vulnerable to prostate cancer. That includes trans women as well.

  3. I appreciate the effort and maturity as a politician that I observed by Mr. Layton he certainly was a man of direction, a man of passion. This needs to be said, all men need a wake up call. If you are over 40 and Certainly if over 50, you HAVE to see a doctor annually for a PSA (Prostrate Specific Antigen) blood test
    Early diagnosis results in 90% survival rate, and then later diagnosis survival rate drops swiftly and dramatically to 10-20%. If you care about your life or as a woman you care about your husband , brother , father, INFORM them. This is serious business, even more progressive than breast cancer. Help save their life potentially, by getting involved. Guys tend to be a bit lax when it comes to this. This is the raw deal. This is about survival. Get on top of this. thanks.

  4. Thank you for this. I was fortunate enough to have met him with my girlfriend at Toronto Pride in 2010. We talked for a bit and he was very understanding of trans issues and had some great conversation with my girlfriend as well, and the two took a picture together. I was always moved by not only his speeches, but his energy and his personality. But, as has been said today at the funeral service, we must be optimistic and not let his positive force go.

  5. He was a great man I really admired…this is a terrible loss for people of Canada…may he rest in peace. I loved your piece. Please accept my condolences.

  6. Such a great loss. Thank you so much for creating such a worthy cause, you will be remembered & appreciated for many years to come. We will carry on your good work. Look down with pride at your legacy :)Annie – Tararua – New Zealand

  7. Jack was a wonderful man. He was a man who made you proud to be a man…embodying the best qualities of what it can mean to be a man. He was political, progressive, effective and he was my friend. And I mourn his much too early departure from this life.

  8. Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing these memories of Jack. I’m so glad you were able to be with him so late in his life. I’m certain your friendship and loyalty were a great comfort to him. You captured the Jack I knew during my association with the WRC.

  9. Thank you for sharing this Michael. Grief seems to be a combination between sadness and love. This helps focus on the love.

  10. My brother was in Nunavut for about 3 years as the Chief Superintendent Commanding Officer with the RCMP. Jack visited the north and was looking for a place to have a ‘good workout’. My brother suggested they go to the RMCP gym. So, later in the evening, my brother met Jack there and they proceeded to work out. I have to tell you that as a man in his 50’s—my brother is in amazing shape and is currently training for his upcoming marathons. He can lift weights with the best of them.

    He felt humbled to be working out with Jack. 45 minutes of Elliptical, 45 minutes of weights then another 30 minutes on a treadmill and he looked energized and ready to take on the world. My brother tried to appear energized but later realized how exhausted he was!!!

    Tireless seems to be a great description of Jack Layton!

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