Obituary of John Cairns
In loving memory of John ('Chon') Cairns, who passed away on the 14th of May 2014, surrounded by family, poetry, and song. John was born in Galt, Ontario, the eldest of three sons of Hugh and Lily (Crawford) Cairns, Scottish immigrants of modest schooling but formidable self-education. His childhood, shaped by the Great Depression, was a happy time, about which he often reminisced in later life. In his book My Life as a Kid, he described hockey games on frozen ponds, getting up at 5 am to deliver 3 newspaper routes by bicycle, and pitching for the Galt baseball team in the provincial finals. Graduating from Galt Collegiate Institute in 1938, John worked briefly as a bank teller before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in September of 1941, inspired by radio coverage of the Battle of Britain. He served, until September 1945, primarily in India and Burma as a radar technician for Coastal and Transport Commands. The war years, marked by their sense of purpose, sacrifice and camaraderie in the face of adversity, strongly influenced his global outlook and lasting determination to make a positive impact in the world. Following the war, a veteran's scholarship allowed John to attend the University of Western Ontario where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1951, being made a member of the Honour Society for outstanding extracurricular activities and academic achievements. As editor of the Folio, he published Alice Munro's first three short stories. While at university, he fell in love with the artistically talented Beverley Woolmer. They were married on October 25, 1951, sailing immediately to Tanganyika, East Africa, where John worked for six years as a District Officer and Commissioner, one of the few Canadians in the British Administrative Service, while Beverley organized the export of local carvings. Those days in East Africa were among the happiest in John and Beverley's life, and saw the birth of daughters Sandra and Lisa, postings in Kilwa, Mikindani, Morogoro and Dar Es Salaam, and long safari journeys to remote tribal villages. John's experiences in East Africa were distilled in his book Bush and Boma: The Life of a District Officer, illustrated by Beverley and published in 1958. Returning to Canada, John taught high school for two years while earning a Master of Arts degree at the University of Western Ontario and a teaching degree. In 1962, with newly born twin daughters Eva and Stephanie in tow, the family set forth for Africa again where John was advisor to the Government of Eastern Nigeria under a Canadian External Aid program. There he introduced programs for educational reform in primary, secondary and teacher training levels in Eastern Nigeria and served as a team leader for re-designing the English language education of Cameroon. Son Graeme was born in 1964, when the family was on leave in Canada. In 1966 the family returned to Canada where John was responsible for adult education programs for aboriginal peoples throughout the North West Territories under the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. The family moved to Paris, France in 1968 when John became Director of UNESCO's Experimental World Literacy program. John's work at UNESCO was characterized by travel to every corner of the world, Cold War political intrigue, and the development of ground-breaking literacy programs. He was particularly proud of his work on functional literacy and education for women. In 1972 he was appointed Secretary General for the Third International Conference on Adult Education in Tokyo, Japan. Wanting to return the family to its Canadian roots, John joined the University of Guelph in 1974, serving until 1986 as Director of the Centre for International Programs. He initiated approximately 100 international projects, developing the University of Guelph as a leader in Canada for international development programs. At home, John and Beverley undertook the hands-on restoration of a heritage stone house in the village of Elora, with a wild flower garden that has been captured by many artists. Twin grandchildren Allegra and Riel joined the household. After retirement from the University of Guelph, John was active as an international consultant into his mid-eighties, working in a broad array of international settings. As monitor of CIDA's Canada/China Management Education program from 1989 to 1995, he contributed significantly to the introduction of modern management education by China's leading universities and that country's move towards a free market economy. John entered the last years of his life with characteristic energy. Springs were spent tending the garden in Elora and enjoying gin and tonic on the front porch; summers chopping wood, putting on new roofs and taking daily morning baths in the icy stream waters at Berkenfels, the family cottage in Quebec. Fall and winter days were spent by the window watching birds at the feeder, and evenings reading by the fire. He returned to visit Mikindani, and took journeys to enjoy the rugged landscapes of the Scottish moors and the Yukon. He visited children and grandchildren scattered in China, the Yukon, Western Canada and Europe. During this time John wrote My Life as a Kid and made final revisions to an unpublished novel set in post-colonial East Africa. John received the first World University Service of Canada's Lewis Perinbam Award in International Development in 1986. In 2004 he was inducted into the Galt Collegiate Institute Stairway of Excellence and the Cambridge Hall of Fame. In April of 2014 John suffered a fall, followed by illness and surgery. Developing postoperative pneumonia, he was unable to recover. As one son-in-law said, they don't make many like 'Chon' anymore: a man who took safari-length hikes well into his 80s, could build a stone wall, re-roof a house, recite reams of poetry, and who gave the gift of education to lives across the globe. A lover of great literature, rugged scenery, an honest day's work, Celtic music evenings, gin and tonic and a good apple pie, he described his life as "a great adventure and something worthwhile". We will miss John's wisdom, jokes and poetry. Our memories of him will keep all of us on a better course. John was predeceased by his brother Jim, and is survived by his brother Alan, wife Beverley, five children (Sandra; Lisa (Woody); Stephanie (Eric); Eva (David); and Graeme), six grandchildren (Allegra; Riel (Melissa); Rowan; Sebastian; Logan; and Anders) and three great grandchildren (Isaac; Calian; and Kwaya).