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Colin MacPherson (far right) and other footmen at Government House, circa 1959. The steward in the centre is Alexander McKinnon.
Colin MacPherson (far right) and other footmen at Government House, circa 1959. The steward in the centre is Alexander McKinnon.

As a butler, Colin MacPherson was a perfect practioner of a waning profession Add to ...

Honour was everything. As a valet and butler in diplomatic houses in Ottawa and Washington, Colin MacPherson often witnessed history in the making, but would not breathe a word about it. Pokerfaced amid the china, crystal and fine linen, he carefully masked his personal opinions and guarded the confidentiality of his employers, making himself, in the words of a cousin, “an island of a man.”

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But what he couldn’t do! From caring for the clothes that had to look perfect, to whipping up dinner for 60, MacPherson, who died on July 19, performed everything to the highest standard.

His youth would not have suggested a future among royalty, statesmen and superstars. He was born to a village policeman in Scotland on Jan. 27, 1927, the youngest of three children. He was 4 when his father went to Canada in search of a better life and never came back, perishing in a motorcycle accident before he could bring his family over.

Once he had turned 18, in 1945, MacPherson enlisted as a batman in the Scots Guards. For seven years he served as personal valet to the brigade commander and to the chief of staff. Then, in 1952, he found his way to Canada, where his father’s cousin and family had settled in Ottawa. Signing on as a valet/footman in the British Embassy, and rising over the next four years to butler, MacPherson prepared and served dinners, teas and cocktails for guests who included the Queen Mother, former British prime minister Winston Churchill, former French prime minister Pierre Mendès France, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and dignitaries too many to count.

In 1956 he moved down the street to the Canadian vice-regal residence. Now known as Rideau Hall, it was then called Government House, and was home to former governor-general Vincent Massey, and later Georges Vanier, and host to a roster of international leaders, ambassadors, royalty, writers, scientists and other achievers. He greatly respected his employers, forming a particular admiration for Massey.

The same could not always be said of the guests. Of the Kennedys he sniffed, “I can’t abide by people who put their cigarettes out in the mashed potatoes.”

He sometimes invited his cousin’s young children, Roy and Verna (now Dolan) Trivett, who lived nearby, to visit when things were quiet at Government House. They ran from room to room, summoning each other with the call buttons, and goggled at the in-house bowling alley. Sometimes after a fancy tea they would get to enjoy the leftover dainty sandwiches.

At other times, MacPherson would join them at his cousin’s cottage, where he would pay the youngsters a nickel apiece to catch bullfrogs so he could make them frog’s legs. He also taught them to fold napkins, polish silverware and dry the spoons and glasses, coaching them on the standards for serving the Queen.

His great strength as a butler was his specific and unwavering sense of what was right and wrong, proper and improper. Propriety, for MacPherson, was a matter of high honour. It was his calling.

He decamped in 1962 to Washington, D.C., where he served Ambassador Charles Ritchie for four years before moving over to the British Embassy for another four years as assistant chef.

For, somewhere in the course of his duties, MacPherson had discovered that he loved to cook. As butler positions became scarcer – people just didn’t have butlers in the same way any more – he reinvented himself as a chef and caterer, serving a select Washington clientele throughout the 1970s. Later he became the chef and entertainment co-ordinator for Davis Travel Agency and Davis Airlines. In Washington and Fort Lauderdale, in the company house or aboard his employer’s sailboat, he continued to look after all the details and to serve fine meals in the highest style.

Though he held three passports (U.K., Canada, and U.S.), and had lived in D.C. for decades, MacPherson’s heart was in Canada, and he moved in 2000 to Saskatoon, where one of his cousins lived. There, he became a fixture at the city’s auctions: He would buy up old silver, polish and refurbish it, then resell. “He knew what was good,” said his cousin Verna Dolan, “and he loved to work the deal.”

He also, in the manner of a man whose affairs were always in impeccable order, prepared a beautifully organized memorabilia album: menus, seating plans and hand-inscribed place cards from state dinners; notes on the personal preferences of guests; photographs of both serving staff and dignitaries; and itineraries from state visits and tours. He even included recollections of a few treasured moments, such as when the Queen presented him with a silver-bound pigskin cigarette case in recognition of his service.

Though he never married, leaving only his cousins and numerous friends, he did leave one gift to all of us: the memorabilia album he willed to Library and Archives Canada, a window onto a bygone era in a rarefied world.

 

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