A. The Invitation!
Things done by halves are never done right."
This favourite expression of my dad's, which he learned at the knee of his own dad, was one he often repeated. It obviously made an impression upon his colleague Ross Roy, who worked with my dad for many years and became a family friend. Ross had a vision of creating an annual event to honour Peter's memory, and last year's wonderful 1st Annual Peter Burgener Memorial Charity Concert in November 2015 was the result of all his work.
Now it's 2016, and we're doing this again!
Coming up on November 3rd, 2016, it's a musical extravaganza featuring venerable Canadian troubadour Barney Bentall and the Cariboo Express. Seems like a good fit for this event, since the star-studded ensemble includes Matt Masters, one of Peter's four kids (i.e. my brother!).
Consider yourself invited.
my dad, Peter Burgener
May 18th, 1950 - November 29th, 2014
I wanted to help spread the word about this year's event, which takes place on Thursday, November 3rd, at Studio Bell, Calgary's incredible new National Music Centre. (So: HERE is the place you can order your tickets!)
Here are two things I can tell you. One: My dad would have loved this show. And two: this will be a fun evening, whether or not you've ever heard of my dad. But in case you're interested in the "why" behind the event, the person who inspired Ross and the rest of the team to make this happen, I thought I'd write a little bit about my dad and who he was.
Let me confess. I actually wrote this whole thing (it's kind of long) last year, with the idea of helping to promote the first concert. But I didn't post it. It was a tough year, and maybe it still felt a bit too soon. Anyway, though, I'll post it now. It's all still true.
B. The story about my dad
Because we didn't move in the same circles, my relationship with him was confined, I guess you could say, to the personal connection between us. That feels a bit easier to write about, and indeed, this post has turned into something of a personal essay. I'm surprised at how much there is in here about music. Anyway, here are a few glimpses, drawn from this personal view of his life, and from bits and pieces of old pictures and comic strips I have been able to dig up, in the hopes that it might inspire you to come out to the show and join in the celebration of who he was.
Where are you going, little one, little one?
My dad was born in Toronto and grew up in what's now Mississauga. He came from a family of entrepreneurs. He was the middle son, the artsy one in a family of scientists. Although he looks so scholarly in this class photo, he didn't love school. He once boasted to me that he'd gotten 78% in a first-year university class (Greek and Roman History) despite having hardly attended it. I was appalled because I was a nerdy young student who never skipped classes and would have died if I'd only gotten 78% on anything.
Actually, finding out about my dad's irreverence towards school was a bit eye-opening for me. His standards were so high, I'd always assumed he'd have been a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of scholar himself. But academia wasn't his path or his passion.
He went to the University of Toronto, where I later went, too. He famously told me about a professor who showed him the crowning achievement of his academic career: a little leaflet squished between two other books on a shelf, according to dad. It apparently contained the solution to a long- unanswered minor literary mystery. Dad wasn't impressed.
He left after first year to travel around Europe. This was where he got the idea that architecture was the field from which he could learn the most, since it seemed to him to touch and encompass so many other fields of study. He came back to get his B.Arch from U of T, under the tuition of (among others) the charismatic lecturer Peter Pragnell, who warned his new students that the course would force them to "abandon all their cherished beliefs." This kind of challenge was more along the lines of what dad wanted.
Dad went to Calgary for a job interview in 1975 or 76, and called my mom from a pay phone to tell her he'd been offered a job with a local firm. And so we moved to Calgary in 1976. Dad started his own firm a couple of years after that, which went through various incarnations before becoming BKDI (now Zeidler BKDI). I worked at his office a few different times, including around 1994 when I took this picture. Dad had grown up loving the folk singers of Toronto's Yorkville hippie scene, and although his taste in music took a turn in the "country" direction when he came out west, his guitar was always there.
Music, Part 1
And my childhood was filled with folk songs, a surprising number of which I discovered, when I started to dig those songs up to sing to my own kids, had come to my dad courtesy of the Kingston Trio. They were a cover band who were famous for popularizing folk music for urban white kids like my dad. He must really have liked them, because I found out later that so many of the versions of those songs that my dad had sung to us, were covers of their covers.
He put himself through architecture school in part by working as a janitor, and I had visions of operatic cleaning sprees based on the janitorial theme song he sang to us when describing this era of his life.
I'm the singing janitor
I janit all the day
I'm the singing janitor
I'll sweep all your troubles away!
Did he write it? (Was it the Kingston Trio?)
"What became much harder..."
The boom-and-bust atmosphere pervaded my childhood, but somehow it still seemed like a peaceful happy household. Bedtime stories about the adventures of "Pietro" (the supposed friend of my dad's youth who was the hero of many dangerous, romantic tales), church on Sundays, family dinners every evening (which I think of in awe these days, while trying to get hot food timed right for serving to only four, not six, people), and neighbourhood gatherings like community fairs and Christmas carolling parties. In fact, one of my first paintings was this one of my dad in full Victorian gear striding down Scarboro Avenue with a bunch of singing neighbours.
I was driven to distraction by his habit of informing participants of the plan after it was already happening. He always seemed astonished when I'd complain about this pattern. He believed so deeply in the outcomes he was aiming for, that it wouldn't occur to him that someone might take issue with mere logistical details.
Even more maddening, though, was that dad’s schemes were usually so good that you ended up supporting the plan and choosing to overlook the single-minded implementation method.
Things seemed so easy to him. Everything seemed possible. No wonder he got frustrated when others saw obstacles that didn’t exist for him. He finally got his eyes checked around the age of 60. He’d been concerned that one eye wasn’t seeing as well as it always had. The doctor told him that his bad eye had gone down to 20/20. Dad couldn't believe this reduced standard was what most people considered the best case scenario. I think that’s how he saw the whole thing.
"As You Are"
My dad loved his own parents deeply. For their 65th wedding anniversary in 2003, he had the Calgary Herald print a newspaper front page to bring to their celebration in Toronto. “Important dignitaries gather to celebrate Burgener anniversary,” the headline read. I always thought that said so much about my dad. He wanted to honour his parents, and “important dignitaries” was what he picked. Not, “Burgener marriage sets record for the deepest love of the century,” or “Burgener couple surrounded by dear friends and family on happy occasion,” or "A good time was had by all."
I sometimes thought public recognition was my dad's measure of success. He loved being in the newspaper (and even contributed a column to the Calgary Herald for several years). He was featured on a billboard advertising the then-new Banker's Hall downtown shopping centre. He'd achieved notoriety by participating in the "Polar Bear Dip" (a jump into a freezing river to raise money for charity) in the buff. The billboard, which said simply, "As you are," poked fun at my dad's apparent reputation as a local nudist. The first time I saw it, I also happened to be with my dad, and driving a car. Needless to say, I swerved, and some words of astonishment escaped my lips - to my dad's amusement.
He loved to frame things, wrap things, present them, display them. I think this was his way of honouring them. Another song that often came to mind when I thought of him was the Tom Waits tune that goes, "I love you baby, and I always will... ever since I put your picture in a frame."
Dad with his mom in around 1981, and with his dad (then 96) in 2013.
It did seem as though everyone knew my dad. His colleague Ross joked in his eulogy, “Sometimes I introduced Peter to someone new, but that hardly every happened, since he knew everybody already.”
I can't tell you about all the ways in which my dad contributed to his city. He was part of so many boards, committees, volunteer groups, charity organizations, networking associations, mentorship programs. Often, these were places he could nurture professional connections. But just as often, he gave his time simply because he cared about helping, about creating good outcomes, about seeing the big picture for what a city or a community could be, just for its own sake. His concern for, and commitment to, his community, is something I am trying to instill in my own kids.
Music, Part 2
I asked my dad what songs he would like. “I’ll walk in the rain,” he replied instantly. The chords of John Denver’s tune came up from who knows where they had lurked for thirty odd years. Some of those songs, I hadn't heard or thought of for decades, but they all came back.
When my dad was sick, I asked my brother John one time if he could think of any songs dad would like to hear. "Isn't there a song that starts, “I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song,” I asked. “He used to sing that all the time. But that’s all I can recall.” “That’s Simon and Garfunkel,” John remembered. I Googled it that night, and shivered to hear the echoes of my dad’s remembered voice coming out of my computer speakers:
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
That’s all there is.
Peaceful tunes like these seemed to take his mind off the train wreck his body was in. And sometimes they were the only gifts I could give him. One time, fighting pain, confusion, frustration, exhaustion, he started to rail against nothing in particular, and once started, he couldn’t stop. In the middle of it, I just sat down at the piano and started to play the melody: "Where are you going, little one, little one..." A tune he'd loved since he heard Harry Belafonte sing it in his youth, maybe when he (so the story goes) worked as an usher at one of Toronto's famous old music halls (I can't remember which one). Instantly, he grew silent. When I turned around, tears were slipping down his face. The anger had vanished.
"Where are you going..."
This melody was featured in an ad I remember watching as a kid. It will make you cry, too.
That's all there is
We got the phone call. There was just time to acknowledge the news and decide that we would just stay. The workshop started, and I went into the deep listening zone that I seem to go into when I am recording a talk.
I heard the the presenter speaking, but suddenly noticed that in the background of my mind somewhere, I was hearing Simon and Garfunkel softly singing:
Hello, hello, hello, hello.
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…
That’s all there is.
I had been working for about ten minutes when I realized I'd just drawn my dad. I drew my brothers and myself around him, hardly registering that that's what I was doing. I drew for about seven hours. That line, hello, hello, hello, hello... echoed through my head the entire time. It was certainly one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had. But it was also nice to be surrounded by good people, doing the work I want to be doing, and having a quiet space in my mind for a whole day, to start to come to terms with the loss of a person who'd been there my entire life.
hello, hello, hello, hello
goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
that's all there is
and the leaves that are green
turn to brown.
Parts of this essay may sound critical of my dad. I guess they are. He was a complicated person and we had a complicated relationship. I'm proud that, despite some fundamentally different values, we never stopped trying to reassure each other that we loved and respected each other deeply... even if we didn't always understand that that was what we were doing, at the time.
We never stopped trying to get through to each other. We railed at each other when we couldn't. We laughed, usually at funny old family stories that I fear I will have no one left to share with, now. And we cried over the same old songs.
Important dignitaries gathered to attend my dad’s funeral. That made me smile.
This concert in my dad’s memory, though, isn’t about important dignitaries. It’s for the friends and colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances, who touched my dad’s life and were touched by his. It’s also for people who never met or knew my dad, but who love their city and want to make something happen here that will leave a meaningful legacy… even if their particular legacy happens to be a little book stuck between two others on a shelf. It’s for music lovers and supporters of good causes. It’s for me. And I hope it’s for you!