Scientist, raconteur, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather. Born Oct. 28, 1914, in Edgerton, Alta., died March 3, 2012, in London, Ont., of heart failure, aged 97
When Elvins came to visit, he wouldn’t have his coat off before pulling sheaves of clippings, letters from forgotten relatives, photographs or other flotsam from his pockets to share tidbits of information. His laughter and positive spirit were infectious.
Elvins could often be found telling his stories to perfect strangers whom he would quickly and easily charm, in no small part because of his genuine interest in others. Dad could meet a pedestrian at a stoplight and extract their life history before the light changed. He would also miss no opportunity to boast of the accomplishments of his family, from his wife of 70 years, Hanna, to his children, Erica and Martin, his five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Elvins earned a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Toronto, and his research helped to lay the groundwork for the development of the potash industry in Saskatchewan. He was recruited to direct the Agricultural Research Institute in London, Ont., with an honorary professorship at the University of Western Ontario. This led to a distinguished academic career and a large circle of national and international colleagues and friends.
Elvins’s social conscience took root in his childhood on a farm near Edgerton, Alta., before the Depression. His experiences milking cows and plowing fields with a team of horses before the age of 10 featured prominently in his stories.
He inherited his lifelong love of politics and sense of social justice from his parents. His father, Henry Spencer, was MP for Battle River and whip of the Progressive Party and his mother, Zella, was a social activist at a time when this was not common for women.
One of his favourite anecdotes was how, in the early 1940s, he introduced the then-little-known Tommy Douglas as “the next premier of Saskatchewan.”
Dad was progressive in a time when it wasn’t fashionable, and ceaselessly defended the disadvantaged and the underdog. Always a vocal opponent of dogma of any kind, he co-founded the Unitarian Fellowship in London. For well over 50 years, he was a dedicated member of the Baconian Club of London, a group of scientifically minded men. He gave his final lecture to them less than a year before his death.
An avid tennis player until the age of 90, Elvins was one of the earliest participants in the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging. His longevity may be partly ascribed to regular exercise, though he was perhaps better known in the centre’s classes for schmoozing than for physical exertion.
To know him was to be charmed by him. Even in his last days, Elvins could emerge from semi-consciousness and delight a nurse with a shrug or self-deprecating smile. Not only did he see the glass as half full, he made yours so as well.
Marty Spencer is Elvins’s son