Address to convocation by Dr. Sandy Morris
I must thank the orator for his kind introduction. Hey that guy sounds cool. Maybe I can add him as a friend on Facebook. You know I've spent a lot of time on this very stage but tonight is the first time I've stood here without a guitar around my neck. Hopefully it will also be the last. I am deeply touched by the honour bestowed on me in the conferring of this honorary doctorate. This is indeed a very special moment for me. I'd like to acknowledge the musicians – especially the guitar players – who inspired me and helped me out. I wouldn't be here tonight without the generosity of so many talented people who shared their knowhow and experience with me. Ralph Walker, Jim Hennessey, Rocky Wiseman and so many others. Without those guys I wouldn't be standing here in front of you today.
I applaud the graduates tonight for successfully completing their degree programs. And even more so the parents and families of the graduating students – I wonder sometimes whether the hardest work involved is on the part of the students or the people who support them along the way. A respected institution of higher learning is confirming that your years of commitment and hard work have brought you to a level of competence that can be demonstrated before the whole community.
I too was, years ago, a candidate for a bachelor of arts degree. I attended MUN in the sixties when tuition was free. But when I left Brother Rice High School I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. We graduated early back then - I was only 16 years old when I entered first year university. Having no idea what I should be doing with my life, I decided to enter the Arts program.
In high school they had warned us that things in secondary education would be much different from what we were used to. There would be nobody to make sure you did your homework or showed up for class. Sounded pretty good to me. In fact I loved university life. It seemed so bohemian and exotic compared to what I had been used to. The university had professors that actually wore those tweed jackets with patches on the sleeves and some men had goatees and smoked those weird little pipes! And there were some great profs that I've never forgotten since. I'd even sit in on classes that I wasn't enrolled in. Jim Francis, Ted Russell, Walter Learning, Herbert Halpert and many others were role models in a very big way. You came to understand - in spite of the Arts Caf - what higher education was about and why it was important.
I loved the lectures and the subjects. Most of them anyway. In high school French was, for the students at Brother Rice, very much a written language. None of us had ever really heard it spoken properly except maybe on television or radio. My Grade 10 French teacher was a fisherman from Trinity Bay. He spoke French with a thick Trinity Bay accent and it was obvious to all us students that he had never heard it spoken properly either. The CODCO sketch where Tommy Sexton's character explains to an unruly class that "les coeurs des artichokes" means "hartichoke arts" wasn't far from our actual reality. This became an issue in French 101 which included as part of the curriculum "French lab". In French lab we students sat in a room full of these big old reel to reel tape recorders and the idea was the person on tape would say something in French and we were supposed to repeat it. I guessed the machine would record our responses and someone would listen later on and grade us on our pronunciation.
Well I couldn't make head nor tails of what the person on the tape machine was saying. So I took to listening to the person next to me and repeating whatever he or she said, hoping all the while their tape machine was in the same location that mine was. Didn't always work out that well. But at least whatever the person in the next seat was saying was in an accent I could understand, so I figured I had a better shot at imitating him or her than I would with the French language speaker on the tape. When the time came for the final French lab exam I was extremely nervous. When I turned the large dial on the tape recorder to "play" the first thing I heard was "when asked to state your name, year and faculty, state your name, year and faculty. State your name, year and faculty now". The boy in the booth next to mine said "Rick Nurse, Arts 1" so I quickly said "Rick Nurse, Arts 1" . Can't remember what my mark was in French that year but I hope I didn't ruin Rick's score.
But I did get something out of the experience. I developed a great love for the tape recorder. Still got a couple of those old reel to reel machines in the basement and they still work too. Now all I need are some French tapes. To this day recording engineers always wonder why I always ask them to "rewind or fast forward" in a thick French accent.
The one thing that they never did in French class was play any French music. I've always thought that we take much too narrow a view of our rich musical heritage in this province by focusing - almost exclusively - on Irish and English folk songs and tunes. The French were a huge part of our history and their musical contribution to our province is enormous. I have been fortunate enough over the years to have many fabulous experiences playing with Emile Benoit and Bernie Felix and Norman Formanger, as well as being exposed to French repertoire with Anita Best and Pamela Morgan. My French Lab experience notwithstanding I have developed a great love and appreciation for French music.
Although I cut my university education short in my third year, I took away a lot from the experience. The single most important lesson I learned in university was how to learn; how and where to do research, how to find out which questions were worth finding the answers to. I still use the MUN library - although I might need to renew my card! Through my whole career that institution has been an invaluable resource. And thank god for that Dewey Decimal System! I'd be nowhere today without it.
But I did decide to cut my education short. I'd had a love for playing guitar ever since I'd seen Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. I got my first instrument in the summer of Grade 10 and at the following year's spring concert at the end of the 11th grade I played for two school choirs, two folk groups, a slew of soloists and my first ever rock band. It's been like that ever since.
There was no job description of "guitar player" when I graduated high school and entered the university. I knew musicians but they all had day jobs and played music on the side. There was no music school back then and I didn't know of any guitar teachers. I learned, the same way most guitar players did back then, by relying on "needle drops.". You'd take the arm of the record player and drop it at the appropriate place on the disc that you were working on and try and "cop the lick" you were trying to learn. And, if you were lucky enough to find another guitarist, you'd pick their brains and try and remember what they'd told you. We didn't even have cassette machines in those days and reel to reel machines were mostly only found at radio stations. And French labs! But musicians did have one thing going for them in those days - jobs! Bars booked music seven nights a week and sometime Sunday matinees as well. While I attended MUN I started getting gigs with the local bar bands and before I knew it I was actually making a weekly salary while I was attending classes. The late nights were too much after a while though and I knew one or the other had to go. I told my father I was thinking of giving up university for a while to follow the career that I had inadvertently stumbled into. He asked me how much I was making and when I told him he said I was doing as well as a plumber or electrician. I wish I could say that today! I always though I'd come back to MUN and finish my degree but work kept getting in the way.
I'm supposed to give you people advice or some kind of acquired insight into how you should go about the rest of your lives. If you want to be taken seriously get one of those tweed jackets with the patches on the sleeves or grow a goatee. Smoke a funny pipe. Learn to sing a song in French. Or learn to play the guitar. Play it on a beach somewhere. Come out for a beer with me after. Become the music.......
Now I gotta go look for a job. Not a real one but, you know, playing guitar somewhere......
My father used to tell the story of the maintenance man in the railway station in Port Aux Basques who came to work one day to discover his broom was missing. He searched around for it for a while and when it wasn't to be found he sat in the corner and waited to see if it would show up. When his foreman came in and asked why the floor hadn't been swept he said, "Sure how can you do e'er thing when you got n'er thing to do e'er thing with". Now you've got your brooms - go sweep out the station.