Star reporter Will Johnson's friend Malcolm Ross (seen here as a young man) passed away at the age of 58 in January.

COLUMN: ‘I’m Anglican, I drink beer!’

The recent loss of a close friend inspired Star reporter Will Johnson to contemplate the things money can’t buy.

My friend Malcolm Ross was a teenager on the front lines of the Rhodesian Bush War, wilderness-camped with his battalion in the dead of night, when an ornery rhino stampeded into their clearing uninvited.

Snorting and charging, it knocked over their equipment and flattened tents while the soldiers fled panicked, clambering into the surrounding acacia trees.

One problem: the tree Malcolm chose had ant-infested bark that sloughed off in his palms, shirt sleeve-like.

He scrabbled at the trunk in desperation, repeatedly sinking back down to the ground, while behind him the rhino laid waste to everything around it.

Another problem: this particular type of rhino was nearing extinction, and they’d been forbidden to shoot them. His only option was reaching safety in the overhanging branches.

While recounting this anecdote decades later from his throne-like living room easy chair, Malcolm would gesticulate frenetically, demonstrating his frantic ascent, inserting a moment of levity into war stories that were otherwise horrifying.

 

A priceless personal estate

Shortly before Christmas I made plans to travel to the coast. I’d heard Malcolm’s health was deteriorating, but Cancelgar robbed me of the opportunity to get a last interaction with this man who had such a tremendous impact on my life.

He passed away at age 58 in early January, the same week we lost David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

So last weekend I drove to Cranbrook to make sure I could catch a flight and be there for the Ross family. Together with my parents I sat in a Vancouver church pew (for the first time in years) and heard both familiar stories and completely new ones about his early years in what is now Zimbabwe, his marriage to his wife Melanie, and his Canadian life with his children Shaun and Kathy.

When Shaun took the stage to deliver the eulogy, standing in front of a shoulder-crammed congregation, his voice was a bit shaky.

“My father Malcolm summed up the ethical principles that guided his life and business with a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln,” Shaun said. “Measure your wealth not by the things you have, but by the things you have that money cannot buy.”

By that measure, Shaun said, “it’s clear that Dad accumulated a rich, though priceless, personal estate.”

Unapologetically, hilariously himself

Malcolm Ross was many things during his life an ultra-successful financial director, a farmer, an engineer and a miner. But I think of him primarily as a personal mentor.

“I’m sure there are hundreds of stories in this room about how my Dad didn’t just offer financial advice, but challenged people to clarify the ultimate goals of their work, their wealth and their lives,” Shaun said.

He was right: more than once Malcolm altered my life trajectory with nothing more than a well-timed observation or a thoughtful remark. (For instance, he encouraged me not to drop out midway through the third year of my BFA to backpack through Australia, “finding myself”. Bullet = dodged.)

My first memory of Malcolm, though, comes from the Christian summer camp I attended with my family as a preteen. New to the locale and unfamiliar with some of the administration’s scruples, the first thing he did upon setting up his tarped-over tent trailer was crack a beer.

“But Malcolm,” someone exclaimed. “This is a Christian camp!”

He chortled at that, gave his belly a jolly thump and delivered a characteristic pronouncement: “This is a Baptist camp. I’m Anglican, I drink beer!”

His seeming disregard for the rules scandalized (and excited) me at the time, but it was more than that: Malcolm was unapologetically, bombastically and hilariously himself.

Though Malcolm carefully considered other people’s input and took self-examination seriously, he would not let anyone else’s influence compromise who he was or his principles which were considered and very strong.

And though I no longer share his faith and my personal finances would horrify him, that’s an example I try to follow.

Scotch, sushi and people I love

Once the memorial service was over on Saturday, I spent the rest of the day surrounded by a myriad of people I love, eating sushi and drinking double Obans in a crowded bar while the Whiskey Dicks played “The Night Pat Murphy Died.”

I’m sure Malcolm would’ve been pleased.

I got a chance to cradle his miraculously beautiful two-year-old granddaughter Penelope in my arms, and she even demonstrated how she can say my full name now. Later I got some face-time with her mother Nicki too.

While we lingered there, multiple hours passing, I thought about the fact Malcolm had lost both a brother and a brother-in-law in the war, and how unlikely it was that he would end up in my life decades later. Shaun would call that Providence.

I reminisced about backyard pool parties, childhood games of Kick the Can in Diefenbaker Park, and long evenings spent watching movies in “the womb”, a basement space in his Tsawwassen home where I spent countless sleepovers.

Midway through Saturday evening, his daughter Kathy stood up in front of the bar and offered an excruciatingly tender ukulele ballad to him, singing that if she could she would “fly on paper wings to where you are.”

Long past midnight, and back at the Ross house, I sat drinking tea with Melanie and Kathy around the kitchen island, our stockpile of Malcolm anecdotes inexhaustible.

A remarkable man

It seems strange to tell people I came home from my weekend on the coast soul-enriched, as funerals are typically dour occasions, but I climbed back on a plane Monday feeling nothing but gratitude.

While I solo-drove by frozen lakes in the Rocky Mountains, blasting music and mind-shuffling through my memories, I started taking an inventory of all the things in my life “money can’t buy”: my partner Darby’s love, for instance, my canine progeny, my epic and loving family, and my adventures working here at the Nelson Star for the past two years.

The list goes on.

My hope in writing this column is that you’ll be encouraged to do the same thing: itemize the things you’re grateful for and spend some time reflecting on the people who’ve affected you.

In conclusion, I’d like to quote Malcolm’s wife Melanie, who on Saturday stood in front of his coffin and congratulated him on a life well-lived.

“Malcolm, you remarkable man,” she said. “We will miss you forever.”

 

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