Jim Turcott passed away Monday evening. He was 57.
To say that Jim was my teacher would be an incredible understatement of fact.
Sure, Jim taught at Levack District High School (physics and math) and he was my teacher. He was also the Student Advisor to the Student Council where I played a role as President in 1988. And as virtually any student who had Jim as a teacher would tell you, he was one of those unique teachers that you'll always remember, a gem of an instructor who cared and gave it his all in the classroom to ensure his students got as much as possible out of it. He gave the very same to the extracurricular activities he participated in from faculty adviser to coach.
Though I was never all that good at nor much interested in math, Jim transformed it for me into something I could be interested in. His mere passion for math and physics was contagious. I'll never forget during one of our many long conversations, when I was going on about the critical importance of creativity (you must remember that as a teenager I knew EVERYTHING and spent a lot of time trying to impress the world with my vast and unlimited knowledge -- I'm sure I often bored Jim to tears with long-winded babble-thons about stories I was working on and my attempts at being philosophical. He never once fell asleep during my ramblings though, which I always appreciated) how Jim explained to me that solving complex math problems was a perfect exercise in creativity and discovery.
He made me look at math the way that I looked at the writing process. He brought it home for me. He did that in so many different ways.
Because, as I said, Jim was a fantastic teacher -- but he was so much more.
Through school and related projects I had the pleasure of working with Jim on various stage shows. LDHS didn't have a drama program while I was there, but there were often assemblies (like the Christmas Assembly, which was basically a variety show) and other stage-related activities that Jim was always a central part of.
Sitting in Jim's basement, a veritable paradise of large screen TV, state of the art stereo system, satellite feed, pool table and bar (the man absolutely LOVED entertaining people), Jim and a group of others often work-shopped various skits and stage shows together. Those countless times writing skits with Jim reminded me of what I thought it might be like to work as one of the actors/writers for Saturday Night Live. Quickly slapping skits together at the last minute for a show that was going to have perhaps only one or two rehearsals (if any) and then be performed live in just a few days.
Jim in his "captain's chair" and some of the Grade 13 class of 88 - at a post-graduation celebration
Some of the jokes Jim came up with during those sessions still sit at the top of my consciousness -- even the stuff that never made it into a properly written skit or onto any stage, but instead only existed in a hilarious brainstorming session -- like his "Bingo for War Vets" concept. And it wasn't just his skill at finding the perfect laugh in a situation, it was his passion for delivery, his eagerness to share the laugh and spread the joy. That, to me, defines a good deal about the personal side of this man I have always looked up to.
I also had the distinct pleasure of being Jim's assistant in his DJ business for a number of years. He toured the Sudbury region as "Dr. T!" doing high school and teen dances, graduations, weddings and company parties. I was one of a long line of assistants over the years and will always cherish the times I spent with Jim -- particularly the long-distance shows that we did that were an hour drive or more away. (I still regularly use his classic joke when driving on long trips, waiting for a quiet moment then shouting out: "HAY!" and pointing at a bale of hay in an adjascent field)
Jim taught me a passion for DJing, and this was back in the time of actual LPs -- remember vinyl albums? Jim would record songs onto cassette tapes then keep a database of them in a booklet. The songlist booklet was printed in alphabetic order by artist and also by song title.
To plan a dance, we'd write out a song list and then cue them up on the tapes (with a note that once the song finished to either "run to" or "cue up to" another song on that tape for play later in the dance) -- it was a complex structure, not unlike a complicated math equation.
Jim had about 4 hardback briefcases of cassettes that fit perhaps 22 songs on each side with names like JIM01 or OLDJIM12 and the directory would reference a song in the following way:
JIM01A16 (This would mean cassette JIM01, Side A, Track 16)
Before I left town for university Jim made me a mixed tape of some of my favourite songs and as a tip of the hat to Jim's categorization system I called it JTFML88 (AKA: Jim Turcott for Mark Lefebvre, 1988)
I learned a ton about DJing from Jim -- how to set up dances, how to interview people before their wedding and get a taste not only for the personal favourites of the couple, but also favourites from their parents and friends; how to read a crowd and play off their non-verbal feedback; how to take requests in such a way that everyone who left the stage was satisfied regardless of whether or not you ended up playing the exact song they originally requested (ie, finding them an even better substitute to a request that wouldn't detract from the natural flow of the dance yet still made them happy)
My buddy Steve and I actually had our own DJ operation in Ottawa for a few years, modelled very much on Jim's operation. We called ourselves Stark Entertainment and had a blast doing dances and weddings and company parties. Steve, like Jim, was the acoustic expert who handled the balancing, etc -- and I was the tape runner, madly cueing up tapes on the two machines we had. Like the Dr. T. operation, we had two tape decks -- one for cueing songs and the other for live to floor.
That mad and exciting rush of having just a couple of minutes to make changes to the scheduled song list and incorporate a series of requests on the fly was a satisfying charge, right up there with doing an ad lib skit on stage and feeding off the immediate feedback of the audience.
Jim was also a huge fan of movies, particularly classic SF and Star Trek (the original series). I spent plenty of time in his basement enjoying watching those classic episodes and gaining an appreciation for Star Trek and science fiction. I often thought of the big comfy armchair in the centre of his basement paradise as Jim's "captain's chair" for the Starship Turcott.
Of course, on top of all of these activities he was involved in, Jim was a true family man. He loved his girls and talked of them often. He also spent a good deal of time with the loves of his life. While he loved entertaining and he loved DJing and teaching and interacting with people I think one of the reasons he had people over to his house so often was so that he could be sharing good times with many people yet still be close to the people who meant the most to him: his wife Cora and his two daughters, Vicki and Lisa.
Though we weren't often in touch over the years, we did occasionally correspond by email after he retired (a little more than 3 years ago) -- and one of the true highlights from my book launch for One Hand Screaming at the Sudbury Chapters in 2004 was when Jim showed up.
He was lined up behind a stream of people I was signing books for (yes, there was actually a short line-up of people who wanted to buy my book -- a good lot of them actual strangers), and when the person in front of him stepped away, there was Jim with that smile I knew so well.
I think I embarrassed him, because the moment I saw him I couldn't stop myself from jumping out from behind the table and giving him a giant hug.
I'm glad I did so, because regardless of all the fun times we spent together and the laughs we had, it was the closest I ever came to telling him how much he meant to me and that I loved him.
Yeah, I know, guys are supposed to be masculine and tough and subdued and reserved with their emotions. But if you don't tell the people in your life just how much they mean to you or how important they are to you, what are you saving it for?
Goodbye Jim. You were a fantastic teacher, an incredible mentor and a dear friend. I will always cherish the times we spent together, the many things you taught me, and particularly your love for life and for sharing laughs. When I was a young man I wanted to be like you when I grew up. And if I ever do grow up, you can trust that I will. Goodbye, old friend. Though I will miss you, the music of your friendship and laughter will always play in my heart.