Tribute to Colin Everett

Colin Everett died of a rare neurodegenerative disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he first developed about 5 years before his death in June 2011. The sad irony is that this disease attacked the motor part of his brain but left the cognitive part as good as it always was (which was very very good). In his last few months his speech became very difficult to understand, which must have been very frustrating for him as such an excellent communicator.

Colin was a renaissance man. He could do just about anything. He was very good with his hands and also very good with his brain. With his hands he built musical instruments, such as rackets, lutes and harps, and some were exquisitely made – one of his lutes is in the collection of the Museum of Civilisation.

With his hands he also loved to mess around fixing his cars – he had about 5 of them – but the attitude was different. Colin saw cars as simply a means of transport and he was totally uninterested in the status aspect. So he painted his cars with a hardware store paint roller, as that did the job cheaply and easily. For his lutes the appearance was important; for his cars it was not. From the sublime to the ridiculous. This was the practical side of Colin. I can well understand the embarrassment that his daughter Alexandra must have felt when her teenage peers saw her driven up to school in an old jalopy painted with a roller. One day she will look back at this and have a good laugh.

Colin came from a family with minimal education; he ended up with a doctorate in physical chemistry and became an outstanding teacher. Colin was an Ideas Man. He loved to discuss ideas. Conversation with Colin was always stimulating and enjoyable. He listened to the Ideas program on CBC Radio One every day. He had Radio One on all day, in the house or even when working under his cars. He put in a lot of time with his two daughters stimulating them to think critically about ideas – he would bring newspaper articles to the dinner table and then trigger discussions with them of the articles.

A few weeks before he died I helped Colin put together his last tax return, which was quite complicated. I made some mistakes – he immediately corrected them. When it finally went off to the accountant and came back he looked at it and then made corrections to the accountant’s work. He then made a comment. It took me a couple of minutes to decipher what he was trying to say, but I finally got it. He said “I can still think”. It was true, and we both knew it.

Colin was very musical. He invested a lot of time and energy in the musical education of Stephanie and Alexandra. An example is the series of harps which he made for Alex, and the harp and singing lessons he insisted that she take. The results speak for themselves – Alexandra has become a very talented young musician. She will have these skills for the rest of her life. Of course she inherited a lot of her musicality from Lillian also, and she will thank both parents for it.

Colin’s teaching:  I joined Algonquin College in the fall of 1969, and showed up for work a couple of weeks before classes began. About one day before classes started Colin walked in the door. He looked like one of the Beatles, with hair down to his shoulders. He had just come back from Cuba, which in those days was a weird Communist country. No Transat tourist flights there in those days. He was very hip and very cool.

I watched Colin teach over nearly 30 years. He was one of the best teachers I have ever seen. I learned a lot from him. He was first and foremost imaginative. He developed a glassblowing film for his students to preview before they came into his lab – this was well before other people began to make videos. He took the disorganised first year chemistry course and completely revamped it. He recognised that this course was given to students in a number of other non-chemistry programs, so he firstly put together a handbook with partial notes in it, to make their note-taking easier. Students were introduced to chemistry with Tom Lehrer singing the Periodic Table. The octet rule was introduced by the McGarrigle sisters singing “Just a Little Atom of Chlorine”. He developed a number of popular demonstrations. The most memorable was the Explosions demo, which he used to illustrate the gas laws. He took a large paint can with a candle in it, turned the lights out, and then blew into the can a teaspoonful of plant dust. There was a tremendous WHOOMP and the lid blew off with a huge sheet of flame – a wonderful example of a silo dust explosion. He filled small test tubes with solid carbon dioxide and capped them with heavy rubber pipette bulbs, and set them in racks around the room. As the dry ice sublimed the gas pressure built until at random intervals the rubber bulbs gave way and punctuated his lecture with frequent loud explosions, causing great hilarity because of their unpredictability in timing. He even made explosions with water. He illustrated nuclear fission chain reactions with a dozen linked mousetraps nailed to a board, and which he set off by throwing a piece of chalk at a trap. He illustrated states of matter with liquid nitrogen, freezing balloons and then smashing them.

Colin was rigorous in his teaching. He insisted on high standards in his physical chemistry course and he was prepared to put in time with individual students to help them attain these standards.

Colin was Rational Man. He had no time for organised religion and he was true to this to the end. He had no time for status-seeking. He was frugal. He had a very good bullshit detector, and he had no time for cant. He was incisive in any discussion and always got straight to the point. In part because of this he was elected as Chair of the Academic Council back in the 70’s, a body representing faculty. He was widely respected and managed debates and discussions in a very fair and balanced way.

Colin was one of the most articulate people I have ever met, both spoken and written. I recall his writing to the Dean over the campus landscaping, and will always remember his referral to the “stunted aesthetic goals” of those who designed the campus. On another occasion during a public meeting with a senior College administrator I recall him telling her that she was an idiot, but he did it so nicely that she did not take offence. He knew how to choose his words carefully, and they were always the right ones.

Colin’s imagination was not just limited to his teaching. Colin’s parties were legendary, with lots of (often ribald) singing, Renaissance and Latin music, and dressing up in costume.  A good example of the pythonesque flavour of his humour was his Musical Ride gig with Leo Heistek in which they dressed up as Mounties on cardboard horses, with a tape recorder playing martial music from a backpack, and they busked on Sparks Street and for business groups. It was hilarious.  They even obtained a government grant to go to Malaysia and represent Canada in a busking event.

Colin’s protracted illness was difficult for him, as he knew how it would end. Special tribute should be paid to Carol, who also knew what was coming but stood by him and moved in with him and helped him in every way. Many people have said that she is a saint. It’s true.

Colin Everett impacted many people in his life. His memory will live on in the minds of many of his students, fellow-musicians and friends. He was a memorable man.

Malcolm Zander

September 2011