The Inside Agenda Blog

That Was a Great Funeral

by Steve Paikin Monday October 29, 2012

A bronze bust of Lincoln Alexander greeted guests at his Hamilton Place funeral on Friday.

“That was a great funeral.”

If I heard that once, I heard it a hundred times last Friday, as a couple of thousand admirers gathered at Hamilton Place to remember Lincoln Alexander.

The Hamilton-Wentworth Police Honour Guard carried Alexander's casket to centre stage.

Actually, I think Linc would have loved this event. There were great speeches. There was wonderful music. There were tearful moments. And there was a lot of laughter. Linc loved to laugh.

For a guy who’d been out of the “official” public eye for a long time, Linc still drew a heckuva crowd of both VIPs, and Mr. and Mrs. Everyday Hamilton.

There were the current and former governor general (David Johnston and Michaele Jean); a current and two former lieutenant-governors (David Onley, and Hilary Weston and Henry Jackman); the current premier and two former ones (Dalton McGuinty, and David Peterson and Bob Rae); and a former prime minister (Joe Clark, who gave Alexander his one and only cabinet job in 1979).

The current lieutenant-governor, David Onley, receives the flag and hat atop Alexander's casket.

Ellen Fairclough, Canada’s first-ever female cabinet minister, left politics as the member for Hamilton West in 1963. Five years later, Steel City Tories nominated Lincoln Alexander to carry the Conservative flag into the campaign. They would replace one trailblazer with another. Alexander would become the first-ever black MP despite a wave of Trudeaumania. And 11 years later, he would become the first black cabinet minister in Canadian history.

Before that, he was one of just five black lawyers in all of Ontario, after graduating from Osgoode Hall Law School.

Michael “Pinball” Clemons eulogized Alexander, recalling the pride he felt at meeting this impressive man in his vice-regal duds. Linc was his hero, in a group with his mother and Martin Luther King.

Former Argo legend Michael "Pinball" Clemons recalled the first time he saw Alexander.

"He was tall and as handsome as a human could be, with a torso as long as his confidence," Clemons recalled of his first meeting with Linc.

For a guy who had a hardscrabble upbringing, both in Toronto and Harlem, Alexander now finds four schools and one university hall (at Guelph, where he was the university’s longest-serving chancellor) named after him.

Alastair Summerlee, University of Guelph’s president, said Alexander had a special word of encouragement for every student whose hand he shook at convocation, but especially so for the black students.

“I’m relying on you,” he’d tell them, and everyone knew what he meant.

David Peterson eulogized Alexander, who was lieutenant-governor during Peterson's premiership.

Former premier David Peterson brought the house down with a hilarious story about Alexander’s first public event as lieutenant-governor.

“Prime Minister Brian Mulroney called me one day saying ‘I’ve got a new boss for you,’” Peterson recalled.

David Peterson, Ontario's premier from 1985-90.

Three days later, Alexander attended his first event in Stirling, which Peterson described as “not exactly the most multicultural place in Ontario. My guess is, they’d never seen a black man before in their lives.”

“The lieutenant-governor’s stretch, black limousine arrived at some farmer’s field,” Peterson continued.  “And out steps this tall black man in a $2,000 suit. He wades into this crowd of farmers in their overalls and boots, and without missing a beat, Linc looks at them all and says: ‘You’re my kind of people.’"

“And so began a love affair between Linc and the people of Ontario,” Peterson said.

Peterson also told the audience of nearly 2,000 inside Hamilton Place of a conversation he had with Alexander in 1990.

“I’m thinking of calling an (early) election,” Peterson told Linc.

“You sure you’ve thought that one through?” Alexander asked.

Peterson hadn’t. A few weeks later, the Liberals blew a 20-point lead and Bob Rae, then representing the NDP, became premier.

"Linc's name described what he did,” Peterson said. “He linked people together. He transmitted his affection like no one I've ever seen.”

"Linc was friends with the known and the unknown and valued their friendship regardless of their station in life," said former Hamilton police chief Colin Miller, during his eulogy. 

Alexander was a friend to the cops. In fact, the OPP headquarters in Orillia is named after him.

“We both had Jamaican roots,” said Margarett Best, one of several Ontario cabinet ministers in attendance. “So he was a real role model for me.”

Ironically, Alexander was born in Toronto but made a name for himself in Hamilton, because that’s where the woman he fell in love with lived. Yvonne, his first wife, was a Hamiltonian. She was as perfect and elegant in her vice-regal role as he was. They were married for half a century, until Yvonne died more than a decade ago.

Late in life, just a few years ago, Alexander became smitten with Marni Beal, a woman 30 years his junior. They were a delightful couple, sharing a love of music and fun. Marni thought it was nuts when Linc proposed marriage. The age gap was significant and he was already in his late 80s. In a video played at the funeral, Marni explained she looked for a sign on what to do.

“I started driving, and suddenly all the lights on the street I was on were perfectly synchronized -- all green. It was green lights as far as I could see. So I thought, okay, let’s do this.”

Family friends say without a doubt, Alexander’s life was extended beyond what he otherwise might have had thanks to Marni’s tender, loving care.

This was the first provincial state funeral since the one held for former premier John Robarts almost exactly thirty years ago (October 1982). Hard to think of a guy who deserved it more than Lincoln Alexander.