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A teller of stories

Oration honouring David Quinton
Friday, May 16, 10 a.m.

There is a curious irony in the lives of many successful media folks – they are essentially rather shy, even modest, in everyday interactions. However, when they are telling someone else’s story, they open up. From all accounts of friends and co-workers, this is true of our honorary graduand today.

Between 1964 and 1990, when he was best known as the producer, writer and host of the CBC television show, Land and Sea, David Quinton was a mega-star in Newfoundland and Labrador. Although we are not a people given to mobbing the famous in our midst, I’d venture that there wasn’t a kitchen throughout this province that wouldn’t have opened its doors to David’s knock. There wasn’t a stagehead where his programs were not discussed, nor a rural community where his stories were not valued. But he’d be the last person to acknowledge his own well-deserved fame.

But where did his passion come from, this reluctant townie with the gift of understanding the quiet strengths of our communities? Born in Newfoundland, he has roots in the Bonavista Peninsula, and spent his summers in Red Cliff. He went on to university at UNB and Acadia, receiving degrees in biology and education. He used these disciplines by teaching us about the environments we share – social, cultural and natural. It has been said that in his work, we see the “observations of the biologist presented in the language of a poet.”

Indeed, for a time he worked as a biologist with the Provincial Wildlife Service. His tasks included saving a baby caribou from the claws of a black bear. Fortunately for all of us, in the early 1960s, David Quinton left the barrens and began working for what was then called the Fishermen’s broadcast on CBC radio in St. John’s. In 1964, the idea for a television show on rural Newfoundland and Labrador emerged, and he was hired to produce and host this new show, called Land and Sea. In developing this program, he always kept the focus on the story itself, and the accompanying characters. When I watch the old Land and Sea programs, I am struck by how little you actually see David Quinton on camera. The story, and the people who lived that story, were the stars.

In both his radio and television work, David got the people to speak out on the broadcasts, despite unofficial CBC corporate policy in the early days which frowned on the practice of allowing average folks on the airwaves. But he believed in the wisdom and dignity of the people.

As his body of work shows, David Quinton had a good sense of what made a story. He had an eye for the visual appeal of rural Newfoundland; an ear for the audio delights of the people. His programs show us what we often miss. He goes to places that we usually drive past, but he hangs around, gets the story, then tells us what we overlooked in our haste. In the process, he has preserved our province’s culture and history, and reached far more people than those of us who limit our writings to the arcane journals of academia ever dream of reaching.

What do we learn from his life’s work? Many things, but one is to stop, look and listen; what we see around us will not always be thus. He is in the tradition of tribal elders, a teller of stories, a preserver of oral culture, a social historian, an enabler, an encourager.

We are incredibly fortunate that David Quinton was set loose upon this province, camera in tow, over 40 years ago now. As it turns out, his work with Land and Sea represents one of the few enduring film and video records we have from a vanishing time.

It is a practice, in rural communities, to call many adult males “uncle,” as a term of respect and endearment. In the spirit of that tradition, Vice-Chancellor, I present for the degree doctor of laws, honoris causa, a man who has helped the rural people of this province to find, and recognize, their own voices, Uncle David Quinton.

Dr. Ivan Emke
University orator