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andrew steele

Illustration by Anthony JenkinsAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

I first met Jack Layton at the Royal York during a Rotary Club meeting.

In retrospect, it's an unusual place to encounter the most successful leader of the New Democratic Party in Canadian history. The Toronto Rotary Club tends to be a stomping ground for small and medium sized business owners looking to network and raise some bucks for deserving charities.

But this was in 1992, and Mr. Layton was a former municipal politician running an environmental consulting business.

Mr. Layton's run for mayor the year before had been energizing for this young progressive. He spoke passionately about important causes, and was obviously sincere and dynamic. I thought City Hall needed to be shaken up and he was the guy to do it.

I was a few months short of my 18th birthday, or Mr. Layton would have received my first vote as a citizen of the age of majority.

Ultimately, Mr. Layton was unsuccessful in that contest. Fearing a repeat of the 1978 election of lefty John Sewell, the non-NDP political machinery fell into lock step behind June Rowlands.

Mr. Layton gave up his seat on council to run for mayor, and was years away from regaining it.

But the man I met a few months after his defeat wasn't bruised or bitter. He was sunny and engaging. I was very impressed.

More than most politicians I met as a young man, Mr. Layton took the time to ask me questions and treated me like someone whose opinions about politics mattered.

He was bright and helped stimulate a good conversation among the ten people at the table. At the end of the luncheon, he gave me his card and said I should give him a call if I ever wanted to help out.

And he gave that fabulous smile.

His abbreviated life must contain a legion of these encounters: small moments when Mr. Layton left someone feeling better about themselves than when they started; small moments when someone was gently nudged along the road to public service.

There is likely an entire generation of political activists in the NDP who work as hard as they do because of Jack, because he nudged them along that road.

I can't imagine the loss of a father or husband to cancer. It's beyond anything I've had to experience.

But I think I can share a tiny sliver of the pain of those who knew Jack Layton as an inspirational political figure, mentor and friend.

It's a tragic day for Canada.

We have lost a happy warrior, and a great Canadian who lived full out until he died.