Remembering Rae Fleming

By Ian McKechnie

Rae Fleming reading the Advocate in August 2021. Photo: Angie Jeon.

In the fall of 1998, I happened to run into David MacKay at a funeral. Over tea and salmon sandwiches, he told me that in 1946, he and his brother were cycling from their parents’ farm in Thorah Township, west of Argyle. They stopped at my parents’ store for two bottles of pop at a nickel each. They went outside to drink it and my father joined them…

– Rae Fleming in General Stores of Canada

Someone sharing a story about the experiences of ordinary people, over the simple elements of tea and salmon sandwiches at something so common as a funeral reception. Such occasions generated and inspired much of Rae Fleming’s writing over the course of nearly half a century.

Fleming passed away recently, aged 77. His death leaves an enormous void in not only the local heritage community, but also in the world of public history both in Ontario and across Canada.

Born on May 17 1944, Fleming was the younger of two children born to Victor and Myrtle Fleming. In 1937, some years before Rae came into the world, Mr. and Mrs. Fleming purchased the general store in Argyle, Ontario. It had been around since the 1880s, but the Flemings turned it into an institution. To this day, many longtime residents can recall the charmingly cluttered aisles at the Argyle store, the mountains of used tires outside, and the seemingly endless stream of stories told by customers.

The stories stuck with Rae Fleming, who went on to enjoy a long career as a professional storyteller himself, both in academia and writing. He earned a B.A. from the University of Toronto, and in 1975 published his first major work, Eldon Connections, which documented the pioneering families of Eldon Township. (As a youngster, I enjoyed flipping through the pages of our family’s copy of Eldon Connections; being especially interested in the chapter about my own maternal ancestors – the McQuarries, who lived on the 3rd Concession of Eldon.)

Rae Fleming: Scholar & Public Historian

Fleming went on to author numerous other books, including The Railway King of Canada, a biography of Sir William MacKenzie, the Kirkfield-born contractor who made his money in transcontinental railway construction. Published in 1991, this biography had its origins in Fleming’s doctoral thesis, which in 1988 earned him a Ph.D. in Canadian history from the University of Saskatchewan.

From 1979 through 1994, Fleming worked as a sessional lecturer at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Winnipeg, Trent University, and Ryerson University. His academic work took him abroad, and he was a Visiting Fellow in the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. He later turned his attention to writing full-time – and write he did, with articles appearing in numerous magazines and academic journals through the 1990s and into the current century.

I was privileged to know Rae as my student at Trent, back in the 1970s, shortly before he embarked on his graduate degree at the University of Saskatchewan,” says Dr. John Wadland, Professor Emeritus of Canadian Studies. “He was a born storyteller, and in his published writing revelled in making sure Canada knew that important figures like Sir William MacKenzie and Premier Leslie Frost came from the ‘hood. But he was just as interested in recounting the adventures of ‘Buttermilk Bill’ from Lorneville, or assessing the literary merits of Dennis Patrick Sears’ The Lark in The Clear Air.”

Apart from speaking and writing professionally, Fleming was an active volunteer in the world of cultural heritage. He was Vice-President for the Association of Canadian Clubs, a judge at Historica Fair events, and a longtime member, donor, and volunteer with the Ontario Historical Society.

Rae was deeply admired and respected for his scholarship and support of local and public history,” writes Rob Leverty, Executive Director of the OHS. Dr. John Carter, an historian with the OHS, concurs with Leverty, pointing to Fleming’s active involvement as a charter member of the Beaverton Thorah Eldon Historical Society as an example of his commitment to the art of practising public history in small rural communities. “Rae was a meticulous researcher and also my good friend,” says Carter. For his biography of MacKenzie, Fleming was awarded the OHS Fred Landon Award for Best Book on Ontario’s Regional History, in 1992. He went on to edit two issues of the OHS’s Ontario History in 2003 and 2004, and also contributed book reviews to the journal.

Tom Mohr, who served as President of the Victoria County Historical Society in 2015-2016, knew Fleming even before relocating to the area in 2008. “My fondest memories of Rae include lunch in his warm little house in Argyle, a splendid repast which featured a freshly baked loaf of sourdough bread, and a bowl of home-made squash soup (with just a hint of cardamom),” Mohr recalls. Like Wadland, Mohr concurs that Fleming “was a storyteller whose prose, even when illuminating the broader histories of the Province and the Nation, still reflected his experience as a son of the Kawartha Lakes.”

Rae Fleming: Swimmer, Singer, and Supportive Friend

When he wasn’t busy on the speaker’s circuit, or seated in front of a computer composing his next book, article, or letter to the editor of the Globe & Mail, Fleming relished physical activity. He enjoyed walking, and was an extremely avid swimmer. For a number of years, he swam across Lake Couchiching in support of Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, in Orillia. In 2013, Fleming was the oldest participating swimmer, and raised $1,600 for the hospital. George Pineau remembers Fleming asking him about six years ago to spot him from a canoe as he made the annual 4 kilometre crossing. “He had spent most of the winter months training at the Rec Centre pool [in Lindsay] to take on the challenge,” Pineau recalls. “By mid-summer he was ready. He entered the water around 9:00 AM and was finished by noon. This was a challenge he talked about repeating this summer.”

Rae Fleming speaks at the grand opening of the Olde Gaol Museum, May 2011, while then-Mayor Ric McGee and MPP Rick Johnson look on. Photo: Tom Mohr.

Fleming’s interests also extended to singing, and for ten years he served on the executive of the College Community Choir. Interviewed by the Advocate ahead of the choir’s 40th anniversary in 2019, Fleming described his fondness for music by quoting from former CBC music producer, Neil Crory: “singing is a chance for my soul to dance.” Donna Dingman, the choir’s current President, remembers Fleming as a very engaged, very giving member of the choir. “He was passionate about music, he loved music,” she says. “He always volunteered to be interviewed by local media ahead of our concerts, and he was very gracious in promoting the choir.”

Fleming was also remembered for being a gracious and hospitable friend. “Some might not have been privileged to witness the compassionate component of academic Rae,” observes longtime Lindsay resident, Valmay Barkey. “In addition to the care and attention he gave his dinner guests, Rae was a wonderful support to me during my husband’s Parkinson’s journey. Every week, for almost a year, he picked Art up for his Durham Café luncheon rendezvous with former LCVI teacher colleagues, thereby giving me a caregiver break and Art delightful, much enjoyed companionship and conversation.”

Rae Fleming: The Legacy

Fleming himself could be a fairly private person, but his voluminous writing and indisputably distinct storytelling style enjoyed a wide audience – whether it was friends around the lunch table at the Durham Café or fellow scholars in the university seminar room.

I will never forget his interest in the subject matter of that fourth year seminar where he allowed that the assigned readings and conversations about them had ‘left footprints on our snows,’ a lovely phrase I’ve never forgotten, and one, I believe, that describes, quite richly, Rae’s personal legacy,” says Dr. Wadland. Asked to elaborate on this, Wadland says “Rae meant that each of us had benefited from the experience of our being and learning together.”

Fleming certainly left footprints on my snows. Already an avid reader of his books, I met him, for the first time as I recall, at a great-aunt’s funeral reception when I was fourteen. We became acquainted, and our paths crossed on multiple occasions – in his Argyle driveway (after my mother and I stopped by the old store for a snack while tidying up the family plots in the nearby cemetery); at meetings of the Lindsay Canadian Club; and over the Globe & Mail at the Lindsay Public Library. When a surprise party was organized for my twenty-fifth birthday, Fleming showed up bearing a loaf of homemade sourdough bread and a signed copy of his 2010 magnum opus, Peter Gzowski: A Biography.

Fleming invited me to contribute to his last two books – Looking For Old Victoria County (2017) and More Intriguing and Unusual Things About Old Victoria County (2021) – and was working on yet another at the time of his death. In 2021, I was honoured when he agreed to write a Foreword for my own book, It’s All Relative: 170 Years of McQuarrie Memories – a publication that had its genesis in my reading Eldon Connections all those years before. Things had come full circle.

Interviewed in 2019, Fleming said that he was discouraged by how instant communications had made the art of quiet meditation much more difficult. “Slow down!” he exclaimed, attributing much of our culture’s fixation on speed to the technology pioneered by Sir William MacKenzie, whom Fleming had profiled three decades before. “I’m still living in a slower age,” he admitted.

Through his written legacy, Rae Fleming forged a link between that slower age and our own. “Rae leaves us too soon, with much business left unfinished,” reflects Tom Mohr. “As he said himself, ‘There are so many untold stories in the old county.’ I’ll miss him.”

11 Comments

  1. Debbie MARINEAU says:

    Thankyou Ian McKecknie for capturing a sweet glimpse of Dr Rae Fleming’s life and accomplishments. I thoroughly enjoyed it ! Deb Marineau Kirkfield

  2. Barb Fleming says:

    Lovely tribute to Rae, Ian. Well said.
    Barb Fleming

  3. Donna Dingman says:

    Thank you for telling us Rae’s story.

  4. Sharron Walker says:

    Well done, Ian! Thank you!

  5. John Alton says:

    Thank you Ian for a well researched article. Rae would be proud.

  6. Anne Robertson says:

    You are an excellent story teller yourself,Ian.Your memories of Rae are heart- felt.

  7. Dave Valentine says:

    Thank you so much for such a complete and interesting biography on Rae Fleming. I’d completely lost track of him since his early years as a writer. Odd to think there were connections all along, from the sixties when as County Engineer I occasionally had small bills to pay to the store (and the blacksmith across the corner in Argyle), then to think of him as a visiting fellow at the University of Edinburgh where I earned a degree in1989.
    Still reading at eight years older than his sad passing I may still have time to catch up on some of his work.
    Thank you again!
    Dave Valentine

    • Roderick Benns says:

      Hi Dave, we’d like to publish your letter in the next print edition of the Advocate. What community do you live in please?

  8. Sylvia Priestley-Brown says:

    Appreciate your articulating the essence of Rae Fleming – his deep interest in people past and present, which informed all his storytelling. Thank you.

  9. Herb Furniss says:

    I will always miss Rae. I knew him since he was public school age.
    He was the epitomy of good conversation and will always be missed.
    Being a guest at his table was always an experience.
    Herb Furniss

    • Roderick Benns says:

      Hi Herb,

      We’d like to publish your letter in the next print edition of the Advocate. What community do you live in please? Thank you.

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