Skip to main content

[DROP]rofessor of English, dramatist, and mentor extraordinaire, Arthur Motyer once gently nudged Michael Ondaatje off the stage and suggested he might prefer to write books instead.

"I was one of the lucky ones," said Ondaatje, who was Motyer's student at Quebec's Bishop's University. The tall, bearded English teacher with perfect elocution changed his life.

"He taught poetry and he directed plays. I wanted to do both. But I was useless in remembering my lines and so the parts he gave me got smaller and smaller. He persuaded me to write more and act less."

Story continues below advertisement

Motyer often ended his classes at Bishop's by reciting a Robert Browning poem. He'd time it so that he read the last line of the poem just as the bell rang. Then he'd sweep out of the room leaving stunned students sitting there, flooded with the pleasure of the words.

Another impressionable young student mentored by Motyer was Canadian philanthropist Scott Griffin. He was also introduced to the beauty of verse and it stuck to him like toffee on apples. In 2000, he established the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, awarding Canadian and international poets with the world's largest prize for a first-edition single collection of poetry written in English.

"What Arthur conveyed for me was the incredible range of English literature; that it was a window into our humanity and the reaches of our soul," said Griffin. "[The fact that]he was prepared to reveal his innermost thoughts and feelings to his students made all those under his spell privileged indeed."

A third Motyer protégé was Canadian literacy educator Elma Gerwin. In 2001, Gerwin was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although it had been 40 years since she sat mesmerized in his classroom, she asked her former teacher to guide her during the last months of her life. He agreed. What resulted was a three-way e-mail conversation between Gerwin, Motyer, and Gerwin's good friend Carol Shields, the late Canadian novelist who was also battling cancer at that time.

Motyer wrote a book based on this three-way correspondence: The Staircase Letters: An Extraordinary Friendship at the End of Life. This narrative linked the letters and resulted in a moving commentary on mortality.

He also wrote What's Remembered, a novel blending fiction with the facts of his own life. It tells the story of a closeted gay academic who struggles with secrecy, shame and desire. It's a search-for-love story, with freedom from discrimination as an added bonus.

"It is the world of gay men before there was the freedom to be gay, the life of gay men before there was the knowledge of AIDS – an era full of guilt, humour, necessary secrecy, randiness, and tenderness," wrote Ondaatje in a back cover blurb. "It is inspiring to read a first novel by a man in his late seventies."

Motyer began the novel shortly after his retirement, suggesting that he needed to first untangle academic connections before fully outing himself in print.

He died on June 23 of gallbladder cancer. He was 85.

Arthur Motyer was born Dec. 15, 1925, in Hamilton, Bermuda. His father, W. Ernest Motyer, was a building contractor and land developer. His mother, Edith Brunning, was given the challenging task of keeping Arthur and his two sisters off the beach, away from the bike paths and croquet lawns, and in the classroom.

But Arthur's keen fascination with books made his confinement at a school desk far from gruelling. He took his seat at Saltus Grammar School, wearing loose Bermuda shorts, stockings, blazers and ties. A typical homework assignment for the weekend was a long poem to memorize for recitation on Monday morning.

"Arthur was famous for being able to quote long chunks of poems and also to easily make poetic references," said his partner, Alasdair MacLean. "He tended to always have a huge range of both poetic and dramatic and literary information at his fingertips."

In 1942, Motyer left Bermuda to study English literature at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. At first, he found the loneliness of the Tantramar Marshes hard to endure after the lush Bermuda playing fields, but he soon found the Eastern Canadian landscape comforting. New Brunswick remained his home, off and on, for the remainder of his life.

Story continues below advertisement

He graduated in 1945 and immediately enlisted in the Canadian Army, expecting to be shipped to the Pacific arena. But the atomic bombs signalled an end to the war. Motyer returned instead to the safety and familiarity of academia, starting his MA in English at the University of Toronto. Midway through his first year, he won a Rhodes scholarship and spent the next two years studying literature at Exeter College, Oxford.

While there, he learned the fine art of mentorship from Professor Nevill Coghill. A few years earlier, Coghill had formed the literary discussion group "The Inklings," with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. These scholars met Tuesday nights at the Eagle and the Child Pub (a.k.a. The Bird and the Baby).

His years at Exeter also awakened him to his sexual orientation.

"In the Oxford context, it was not considered unusual to be gay," said MacLean. "But anywhere outside of that kind of context it was still illegal and it was still very much frowned upon. And of course nobody would think of actually leading their lives as a gay individual."

Motyer experienced his first love affair with a fellow student at Oxford. The affair and its painful demise come alive in his novel, written more than 50 years later.

In 1948, Motyer returned to Canada to teach English and drama at the University of Manitoba. Two years later he began a 20-year academic term at Bishop's in Lennoxville, Que.

Story continues below advertisement

His years at Bishop's led to the development of Centennial Theatre where among other things Ondaatje starred in Innocence at Sea, one of several plays written and produced by Motyer. Motyer also staged productions by Shakespeare, Shaw, Albee, Pinter, and Churchill.

While in Quebec he began what he believed to be a necessary life: marriage and children. He married Janet Speid in 1955 and their two children, Michael and Gillian, were born in short order. All seemed well. But things were complicated and sometimes painful.

In 1970, Motyer moved with his family back to Mount Allison where he taught English and filled several administrative roles, including dean of arts, vice-president academic, and chair of the performing arts committee.

He founded the Mount Allison Drama Department and the Windsor Theatre. And he was the founding chair of Live Bait Theatre in Sackville.

But during these years at Mount Allison, Motyer's life as a closeted gay man threatened his status in the academic community, as well as his personal life.

Again, his novel reads more like a memoir in places, said MacLean. But there are even more frightening bits left out of the book.

Story continues below advertisement

Motyer met and fell in love with MacLean in 1978, when the much younger man played a minor role in Little Murders at the Windsor Theatre. They remained together for the next 33 years. But before the two men settled down, Motyer's secretive gay affairs had jeopardized his career.

He was blackmailed twice, said MacLean. I-know-who you are-and-I-know-what-you-did letters were discreetly left in his faculty mailbox. He was terrified.

"Arthur said there was one day he was sitting in his office with the door closed and he just thought: 'I'm going to kill myself, if this all comes out, if somebody actually does make this public, it's going to be the end of my career, and my marriage.' "

In the end, he didn't respond or pay the blackmailers. Instead, he left his marriage, and established a life outside the closet. And he continued to do what he did best: teach.

"I had no method unless it was to care," he wrote about his profession. "I had no philosophy or formal structure of ideas, unless it was to make a teacher different from a book."

In September, Motyer will posthumously be awarded the Bermuda Arts Council 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Story continues below advertisement

He leaves Alasdair MacLean, children Michael and Gillian, his former spouse, Janet, and five grandchildren.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter