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Remembering John

All of us at West Coast Editorial Associates grieve the loss of Victoria editor John Eerkes-Medrano, who died unexpectedly on June 15, 2015. I delivered these remarks at his memorial on June 26. Thank you to his family for including us in the service.

John was big. He stood 6 foot 2. That’s not unusually tall for a man, especially one of Dutch heritage, but the world of editors is largely a world of women, so John towered over most of us.

He towered over us in other ways too. John was a big name. I don’t just mean that he had a big name, double-barrelled and all; he also was a big name in Canadian editing. I, like so many editors, knew John first by reputation, until I moved to the west coast and finally met him in person. Every one of my colleagues, so it seemed, had heard of John Eerkes-Medrano. He was a big-league editor. When I interviewed him earlier this year for West Coast Editor, the interview went on to become the blog’s most popular post ever, with well over 400 views. John’s following was, and is, big.

John was a big book editor, big in the sense of being at the top of everyone’s list. Publishers like Douglas & McIntyre, Greystone, and Sono Nis sought him out. Copyeditors, like my partner Ruth Wilson, loved getting manuscripts that he’d worked on first. No matter how busy they were, they’d say yes to a project if John had been the substantive editor. As Nancy Flight of Greystone Books puts it, “We always knew a book was in good hands with John as the editor, and he quickly became a favourite of many authors.”

Authors longed to work with John partly because he was excellent, and partly because he was inspirational. When John asked Roy Miki, a Governor General’s Award winner, to sign a book of his that John had edited, Miki went one better and inscribed a poem to John on the title page. Says author Samuel Thomas Martin, whose novel John had just finished editing before he died, “A writer who has a good editor will not let go of that editor because he knows that editor, like no other reader, can truly bless his work: make it better. John was that kind of angel. Fierce, gentle, demanding, keen-eyed.”

These are not random tributes to John’s talent. He was so gifted an editor that he won Canada’s Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence not once but twice, something no one else has ever done.

John’s influence on the editing profession in this country was, not surprisingly, big. In the 1980s, he was an early member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, even hosting meetings at his house in Toronto. He was for a time vice-president of the association, and he served on the national executive through most of the eighties. Recalls Heather Ebbs, also on the national executive then, “John’s was the voice of reason, of gentleness, of kind humour.”

John’s imprint grew larger when, after moving west, he helped create PEAVI, the Professional Editors Association of Vancouver Island. Editors on the Island, he believed, should band together, and they did, building networks and often lasting friendships. It’s no stretch to say that John was a giant among Island editors. So many were mentored by him and inspired by him, and enjoyed his company at meetings and workshops and editorial lunches. Says Fran Aitkens from PEAVI, “He was a dear man and, as one of the founding members, helped make PEAVI the great association it is now.”

Another big thing about John was his smile. I know you are all picturing it now. With that smile came an outsized sense of humour. Vancouver’s Barbara Pulling met John 17 years ago, when they both taught in the book editing immersion program at Simon Fraser University. They ended up rooming together in a student townhouse, along with Rick Archbold, another editor-teacher. Barbara recalls, “Neither Rick nor I knew [John] at that point. He made us laugh so hard. I can remember almost rolling off the couch at some of his stories.” My partner Georgina Montgomery, who knew John for over 20 years, has similar memories. “Who can’t think of John,” she says, “and not see that ready smile and hear his great laugh?”

But all these traits aside, the biggest thing about John, for editors at least, was his generosity. That word, generosity, appears over and over in the tributes that have poured in to his memorial book, and to editors’ listservs and Facebook pages.

John was unstintingly generous with advice and encouragement for his colleagues. Sarah Weber, an editor who lived near him, says it this way: “He was a wonderful and generous person, a humble man of great knowledge, which he shared with anyone who asked for his help in editorial matters.”

Even editors who never met John found themselves at the receiving end of his willingness to share. Across Canada he was valued for the humour and wisdom he brought to online chat forums and email correspondence. When Sandy Newton, from Cupids, Newfoundland, won the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence in 2012, the first person to email her congratulations was John. They didn’t even know each other. He’d seen a tweet about the award and looked up Sandy’s email address. “I thought that was amazingly sweet and generous of him,” Sandy says. “His reaching out inspires me and reminds me of the huge difference that kindness and generosity of spirit can make to people.”

John was a big man, in so many ways. And when a man that big leaves this world, he leaves behind an immense hole. All of us in this chapel feel that hole. Since the first, shocking news of John’s death, which for me and many other editors came on the heels of having seen him just one day earlier at the editing conference in Toronto, that hole has grown wider and deeper as we’ve tried to reimagine our world without him in it.

But I would like to think not of the absence John’s death has brought, but of how, in his characteristic way, he has left behind a big, broad trail. From the Netherlands to Alberta, from the sprawl of Toronto, to the vast Arctic that drew him recently, to this Island he called home, John spread himself wide in life. He has done the same in death. Publishers and authors and editors from Newfoundland to Sooke to Iowa are mourning John’s loss, yet at the same time we are taking stock of all he left behind.

When you think of it, so much of John has stayed behind. His ideas and talents lie between the covers of stacks of books. His wise guidance continues to push the pens of grateful writers. And his inspiration and generosity, his mentorship and his friendship, burn bright in the hearts of his fellow editors.

This Post Has 13 Comments
  1. What a marvelously touching tribute, Frances. This is the first time I’ve read it, and I have tears in my eyes. Even though I didn’t really know John except through his reputation and through chat forums (I just just met him briefly in Toronto recently), it’s easy to see that you got right to the heart of who he was in your tribute. Thank you for helping to preserve his legacy.

  2. Even though I didn’t know John personally, his sudden death hit hard because I knew him by reputation, which over the past 40 years was huge. He was a superstar in the best sense of the word – a person of unusual talent, integrity, and presence. I wish I had known him, as the outpouring of tributes from the publishing community after his untimely and sudden death shows he was also much loved.
    This is a very fine remembrance address, Frances.

  3. Frances, this is an absolutely beautiful tribute to an amazing, inspiring man. You’ve captured perfectly what John meant to so many of us in the editing community. Thank you for representing us so eloquently at his service. My heart goes out to his family.

  4. This Friend speaks my mind. I was, like everyone else, shocked to hear of John’s death. I hold his family in the light through I know what will be difficult weeks and months ahead. I’d only seen John once or twice since he moved to BC, but I have many memories of John from the early years of FEAC. He was wise, he was funny, he was kind, he was a gentleman. We are called to let our lives speak. The many memories and tributes that have appeared since his death are expressions of how John’s life spoke to us. And yes, much of John has stayed behind. Our lives are richer for having known him. Frances’s last paragraph expresses what I am trying to say here. Our memories of “his inspiration and generosity, his mentorship and his friendship” can perhaps help us to let our lives speak.

  5. Frances, your words honoring John Eerkes-Medrano left me deeply moved. I greatly regret not having had an opportunity to meet him in person but will always remember his kindness and courtesy after my having posted a question on the EAC listserve. I sent my thanks to him and we exchanged a few emails afterward. His continued wise counsel, humor, and generosity of time and spirit, made me realize I had crossed paths, if only online, with a gentleman of elegant character. I believe his life went beyond the words of Maya Angelou. People will indeed remember what he said and what he did, and they’ll always remember how he made them feel. Surely this is immortality.

    1. You are all so generous to share your memories and thoughts of John. It speaks volumes of his character that he inspired such feelings in people, no matter how well or how long they knew him.

  6. Thank you Frances for this tribute. I was at a loss for words, and you have said it for me. I remember him so well, and regret that I didn’t get to Toronto to see him. Who knew it would be for the last time? I am glad he was able to make that trip to share stories and memories with people he loved and who loved him.

  7. Frances, what a wonderful tribute. I’ve known John through the EAC listserv, and marvelled at his wise advice. When I saw his picture, I realized that he sat next to me at one of the conference sessions. We both hurried on to our next sessions, but I wish now that I had introduced myself. His influence will certainly live on.

  8. Beautifully expressed, Frances. John was a mensch, as a friend and an editor. An inspiring model on both counts. Thanks too for that photo at the piano. What a lovely image to keep in our memory of him. All best, Jan

  9. Frances, what a splendid tribute, with such interesting details about John’s big and inspirational life.

  10. Very very shocking: I last saw Joh, too briefly, at the Creative Nonfiction Collective conference in Victoria last April. And the time before that was when he came to my reading at a small art gallery in Victoria: I was reading from the book that he worked on at the very end of my process with it – i.e. just before I submitted it to a publisher – and it was he who suggested its title: Prodigal Daughter. Even though the book had been for all intents and purposes already edited, he sent me 6 pages of single-spaced notes and ms pages feathered with sticky notes. I incorporated all his suggestions, he was so wise, and had such a capacious imagiantion that it could take in the whole world of my book (a travelogue/spiritual journey/reportage/memoir via Byzantium). I wish now I had asked him: how do you know all this? As we Ukrainians say: Eternal memory. Vichnaya pamiat.

  11. i only met John a few months ago and my first impression
    Was that of a man of intelligence..Beautiful tribute to him.

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