Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

What my Uncle Joe taught me, and you

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Ask anyone who were the most influential people in their lives and the list that comes back invariably includes a teacher.

My list includes a teacher, although I never sat in one of his classrooms or heard him give a lecture.

His name was Joseph Flood. He was my uncle -- Uncle Joe -- two words that were rarely uttered in the Flood clan without also saying "and Aunt Bonny."

"Uncle Joe and Aunt Bonny" -- they were as inseparable in our minds as they were in their 54 years of married life.

One of my earliest memories is of Uncle Joe. Well, not him, actually, but his car. It was a tiny little black thing that smelled of leather and had little lighted wings that popped out of the doorposts to signal turns.

I know today that it must have been a British car, a Vauxhall, perhaps, but back then it was magical and unforgettable. I can't say how old I was but I remember he parked in front of a house with a wrought iron fence that was taller than I was.

My next memory of Uncle Joe also had to do with a car. Our family did not own one. But early one summer day, Uncle Joe came by and picked up my parents and siblings and drove us to West Hawk Lake, where his family was vacationing in tents. There were other branches of the clan there and many of my "bestest" cousins.

I had never before been to a beach, let alone a lake. It was wonderful and fun.

It was also when I first realized how thoughtful, kind and generous Uncle Joe and Aunt Bonny were.

They were always thinking of others and doing whatever they could to help, encourage, inspire or comfort anyone who came to their attention.

The Floods are Catholics and I've always considered Uncle Joe and Aunt Bonnie to be Saint Floods.

My eldest sister was an excellent student from the day she was born, hard working and determined. Uncle Joe was her mentor. She was the first person I knew who went to university, and she followed Uncle Joe and Aunt Bonny (they met in normal school) into teaching.

I, on the other hand, was a terrible student. Easily distracted, a day dreamer whose reports cards invariably said "Gerald could do so much better if he simply applied himself."

But I didn't. School bored me. I did well in English courses, not because I tried but because I enjoyed reading the books. I did OK at history for much the same reason, and I would pass math because it made sense, not because I applied myself.

The rest? Don't ask.

I dropped out in Grade 10, and went in an out of high school for the next six years. Always, however, I knew I wanted to follow my sister to university.

And so I would take a course here at night school, there at summer school, put in a full year where most of my energies went into student council and organizing fun stuff like rock and roll events.

It was during this period of drift that Uncle Joe took me under his wing and changed my life. He did it in such a casual and benign way that I didn't notice.

He was taking a course at the University of Manitoba on Saturdays. I can't recall what job I was holding at the time, but I remember that I was taking biology and getting nowhere.

He suggested, in that casual way that, if I wished, he could pick me up at home on Saturday mornings and take me to the university, where he showed me where I could study in the library.

Every Saturday was the same. He would leave me in the library and then join me after his class and we would work away at one of the big tables -- he on his course, me on the biology text.

I think that being in the company of my peer group, but not being a peer as I was not a student, must have played a part in what happened.

But mostly it happened because I had been dropped at a study table with a text book and note paper with nothing else to do. It forced me to finally "apply" myself to study.

And what did I find? I found that biology was actually pretty darn interesting, and the parts that were not, the dull stuff, you had to simply commit to memory by rote and move on.

As the weeks went by, I became excited by the process and looked forward to beavering away at the table with Uncle Joe.

And then I realized that what I was learning was how to learn, something that I had not until that late moment in my young life learned before. I realized that while it wasn't easy, it wasn't that hard either. I went to university, did quite well, and have used throughout my life the lesson I learned at a reading table with my Uncle Joe.

He died early Wednesday with Bonny and his children present. He was 85.

As I said, Joe Flood was a teacher and eventually a principal at Prince Edward, Munro and Morris Place schools in East Kildonan.

There are thousands and thousands of grownups today who knew him in their youth and never forgot him. I know because it happens so often that on hearing my name they ask if I'm related to Joe Flood.

I'm sure, too, that those thousands, like me, received something precious from Uncle Joe -- he taught us to learn, a gift that keeps on giving.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2009 b4

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