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Celebrating a great Canadian: Peter Herrndorf

I felt privileged to be there last night — an event celebrating Peter Herrndorf, who singlehandedly boosted every art form in Canada, and more besides. A phenomenal man.

He was Chair of the Board of Canadian Stage when my husband was running the theatre, so we met often at events, and were lucky enough to be invited to his famous Oscar parties, where the Toronto crème de la crème watched the show and made bets on the winners. Rosalie Abella usually won. But there was a personal connection too; we had some Toronto lefty and artist friends in common, and he, the beautiful Eva, and their kids came here at least once for a meal. He was — joyful, I think that’s the word I’d use. He was a big man who felt warm and light — generous, open, light-hearted, even though he had enormous responsibilities. When he was running TVOntario, he fought to save it from Mike Harris’s Cons who wanted to privatize it, and he transformed a small educational channel into the vibrant, important site it is today. He ran part of the CBC for years, elevating CBC news by changing the time from 11 to 10 and hiring Barbara Frum and other brilliant women. In fact, that was one thing the speakers mentioned last night — that he was a feminist who elevated and continued to support the careers of many brilliant women.

Though all the speakers were moving, the best was former Supreme Court judge Rosalie Abella, who spoke with wonderful humour and gravitas of their decades-long friendship. She joked that she took the Supreme Court position to be near Peter, who was running the National Arts Centre down the road, because she wanted the chance to conduct the NAC orchestra. Which Peter elevated, in typical style, by organizing world and national tours. Years ahead of his time, he set up Canada’s first Indigenous theatre company there; we were told it has had a worldwide influence.

At the end of his life  — he died in February — he was running Luminato, the Toronto arts festival, which I enjoyed only last week with Amal the refugee puppet. And he was involved in organizing last night’s stellar event, of course, filled with music, including a song from the children of the local Dixon Hall Music School, which provides music lessons for marginalized children and which he — of course — supported.

I hadn’t connected with him for many years, but ran into him in the lobby of the Sony Centre two years ago, and am very glad I was able to tell him something that mattered deeply to me. After my divorce from Edgar, I lost many friends and my entire social life. I was a floundering stay-at-home mother working on an unpublished book; Ed was a mover and shaker, and people, understandably, chose him. I was invited nowhere. But every year, a Christmas card arrived from Peter Herrndorf, with a personal note for me inside. Every year, without fail. Imagine — I was the ex-wife of a man he’d worked with for a few years, but he kept me on his list. There were four thousand people on that list, all of them receiving a personalized card every year.

So I was able to tell him what that card meant to me. He brushed it off, of course, because he was a humble man. But I’m sure he’d heard those words many times. Incredible, that he fitted us all in while running huge organizations and innovating and taking risks, founding festivals and awards, including the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, being a loving husband and beloved father, reading many books, seeing many films, and — most incomprehensible — watching endless sports. How was it possible to do all that? But he did.

I was there last night because of those cards, and to honour the enormous contributions he made to this country. He emigrated from Holland at the age of six, his mother a Jew who’d survived the war. He wanted to repay his new land for the safety and opportunities it offered him and his family, and he could not have given more. Thank you, Peter, from all of us, for your countless gifts to Canada, and from me, for your kindness to this one small woman.

PS. This is the first post in a new system I’m still figuring out. We’ll get there. And one more note about last night: at the reception afterwards, I went up to Rosalie Abella, one of the most accomplished women in the history of this country, and told her her eulogy was perfect, that she made us laugh while ripping our hearts out, a rare skill. She blushed and seemed flustered. “Really? You mean it? I’m so happy to hear that,” she said. I was floored. Even Rosalie Abella appreciates praise! I guess we all do.



6 Responses to “Celebrating a great Canadian: Peter Herrndorf”

  1. Anne says:

    Beautifully put, Beth. Was wonderful to see you there last night, in that sea of famous people I’ve never met. (I did connect with a few Toronto Life pals afterwards, which was also wonderful.)

  2. Beth Kaplan says:

    Good to see you too, Anne. And yes, that sea of famous people indeed, including our former Governor General and at least one former Ontario Premier. More importantly, many great artists, attesting to the span of the lives Peter touched. Including ours.

  3. Susan Kastner says:

    Beauty of a tribute, dear Beth. How lovely that you were chosen to give it, so perfect a choice. We loved him, he and Eva figured large in Kastner lives and I shed tears not to have been at his celebration.

    • Beth Kaplan says:

      I’m very sorry you weren’t there, Susan. To clarify, however, I wasn’t chosen, I just wanted to write about the event which was so moving.

  4. Cilla Kent says:

    Peter and I were bitterly disappointed that we couldn’t be there to celebrate Peter and his fabulous family, in person: thanks, Covid!
    Grateful that there was the online option. Thank you.

  5. Beth Kaplan says:

    Glad you were able to attend remotely, Cilla. Hope you’re well.

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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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