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Arts Making history The late historian Charles P. Stacey was a stickler for the truth, but his objectivity gave way to passion when it came to Mackenzie King.

When I was a master of arts student at the University of Toronto's history department, in 1961, one of the games we played was to pee in the urinals after the great men of the department had finished their business. I can still remember our glee the day a colleague (who shall remain nameless to protect his reputation) and I watered Donald Creighton, the biographer of John A. Macdonald. But somehow, none of us thought of doing that to Charles Stacey. The great military historian of the department, the army's official historian during and after the Second World War, could be almost as frosty as Creighton, but he never seemed openly disdainful, and perhaps that was why we left his urinal unsullied.

In fact, Stacey, while outwardly gruff, was a remarkably warm man, and particularly so to his graduate students and junior colleagues. I was in Stacey's graduate course that year and, as I had just graduated from the Royal Military College, in my mind, I was Lieutenant Granatstein but he was always Colonel Stacey. I think the day the rank barrier first began to come down was when Ramsay Cook, then a young historian 25 years Stacey's junior, called out to him in the corridor, "Charles, are you going to lunch?" He could be called Charles! After that, junior historians such as Norman Hillmer, Michael Cross and Robert Bothwell became his close friends and they too eventually came to call him by his first name.

So did I, though it probably took me longer. Stacey was recalled to Ottawa as a civilian in the mid-1960s to integrate National Defence Headquarters three services' historical sections, and I worked on his staff for a year. He was still "Sir" or "Colonel Stacey" to me (and everyone else there), but he was always genuinely warm and extraordinarily helpful. I was trying to finish my doctoral dissertation, and Stacey sent me off on research trips -- nominally for him but really for me -- and he read my chapters as they came off the typewriter. To have him say that a chapter was in good shape could leave me purring for a week.

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Above all, what I learned from him was that history was a serious business. The historian had an obligation to try to get things right, and getting things right was hard work. Was it really a Tuesday in July, 1941, that such and such happened? Was that reference correct? How did so-and-so spell his middle name? None of this seemed terribly important, as I chased after the information, but it was. If the historian -- and especially an official historian, as Stacey was -- made simple errors, the entire structure of the work could be called into question. That was a hugely important lesson.

So too was the care with which Stacey massaged his prose. The right word had to be found for each sentence, the word that conveyed exactly the desired meaning. For an official historian, somewhat constrained by his military and political masters' concern that no one be embarrassed, nuance mattered. But again, the right word matters for every historian, indeed every writer, and that was yet another lesson I learned from Stacey.

Curiously, Stacey's most successful book was, I think, his least sound historically. Stacey was a Mackenzie King-hater. He detested King's temporizing on conscription during the war and loathed the long-time prime minister for the pettiness he had seen up close when he escorted King around the battlefields. His 1976 book, A Very Double Life: The Private World of Mackenzie King,was the first to make full use of the voluminous King diaries, and Stacey laid out in full detail King's obsession with spiritualism and his stunted sexual life. The careful historian of the wartime army spun into supposition and "must have beens" when he looked at King. Revenge had overcome objectivity -- or so I felt -- but the book was splendidly written and it has shaped the public's perception of King ever since.

Charles Stacey died in 1989 at the age of 83, but his books continue to be read and to have great influence on military and foreign-policy historians. His three volumes on the army during the war are hot sellers on the rare-book market and his magisterial study of Canada's war policies, Arms, Men and Governments,remains one of the best books by a Canadian historian. There can be no doubt that he was a superb historian, a master of his craft. That he cared enough to share his techniques with his students, that he actually was a gentleman and a scholar, to use a much overworked phrase, were great bonuses. I and many others remain in his debt. J. L. Granatstein is a Canadian historian. His new book, Our Century , co-written with Robert Bothwell, will be published this fall.

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