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COYNE, James Elliott
July 17, 1910 - October 12, 2012
James Elliott Coyne - scholar, lawyer, public servant, family man and practicing eccentric - was born July 17, 1910 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He lived through more than a century of unprecedented social and technological change (on his eighth birthday, Czar Nicholas II was assassinated), that stretched from the early days of manned flight to the exploration of Mars. Through it all, he maintained the same qualities of intellect and character, the same unwavering personal style (Oxford cloth shirt, grey flannels, burgundy vest and navy blue blazer), and the same unflappable good humour.
With his passing, Canada loses the last of a generation of great public servants. The son of James Bowes Coyne, a Manitoba Court of Appeal judge, and Edna Margaret Elliott, he was a graduate of the University of Manitoba and a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, he studied jurisprudence, captained the hockey team, toured Europe and met Albert Einstein. After practicing law with his father, he joined the research bureau of the Bank of Canada in 1938, then held a succession of increasingly important posts in the federal government, eventually becoming deputy governor of the Bank in 1950 and governor in 1955.
Through the first two decades of his working life, he maintained a disciplined routine of self-reliance, cooking, cleaning and taking long walks every day. He enjoyed collecting antique books and maps, and paintings of the Canadian landscape. In the summers he would return to Lake of the Woods, where he had learned to sail as a boy. He had friends, interests, a successful and challenging career, and was to all outward appearances a contented bachelor.
That was until the day he met Meribeth Stobie Riley, a young widow with three unusually lively small children; two more were to follow soon after. Within a few short years he went from being a single man in middle age to a father of five, from a life of peace and quiet contemplation to a life of clamour and domestic bedlam. He couldn't have been happier.
When circumstances brought him home to his beloved Winnipeg, he became what is now known as a stay-at-home Dad. He was a quiet and constant presence in our lives, who taught more by example than by lectures. Yet he was also an inexhaustible source of arcane knowledge, with endless patience for the questions of small children. He was the kind of father who actually knew why the sky was blue, and how old was the universe, and the names of all the trees. His greatest gift to us was the summers we spent at magical Lake of the Woods, where our family still gathers to this day.
Dad was a model of how to age gracefully, and was in excellent shape mentally and physically all through his first century. In his sixties he took up bridge, becoming a fixture of the Manitoba bridge scene and attaining the status of Silver Master. He walked an hour every day, and maintained a strict - if occasionally puzzling - health regime: brussel sprouts, blueberries, olive oil, and chocolate Revellos. He read widely - the origins of the universe, the science of the brain, mathematics - though he had a weakness for lurid murder mysteries and cryptic crosswords. He continued to follow economic and stock market developments closely, as well as current politics. Discussing legal issues with one of his grandchildren, a newly minted lawyer, he could toss off precedents from law books he would have last opened in the early 1930s. In his mid-90s, he was still driving to Florida.
He was a man of many contrasts. Though fundamentally shy and short on small talk, he had a natural empathy for others and the courtesy that went with it. He was a serious man, with a strong sense of duty, yet he had a dry, sometimes impish sense of humour.
At his 100th birthday celebration at Lake of the Woods, a social obligation he resisted as being "an awful lot of fuss", we had a chance to pay tribute to his many fine qualities: his kindness, his integrity, and his innate modesty. Dad sat in his chair, listening patiently, while his great-grandchildren leaned confidently on his knee and shared his cake.
Dad was a very lucky man, and knew it. He loved Winnipeg, and was honoured and touched to receive the Order of Manitoba in his last year. He lived at home with his wife till his final days, still following politics, still making his own breakfast, still able to get out and about, and with every hair he was born with.
He leaves behind his wife of fifty-five years Meribeth; his children Sanford Riley (and wife Debbie), Patrick (and wife Deborah), Nancy Riley (and husband Blake Murray), Susan and Andrew Coyne; as well as eleven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. The family would like to thank the fourth floor, Station 4 staff at Seven Oaks Hospital for their wonderful care and attention.
A celebration of his life will be held on Sunday, November 4 from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Manitoba Club, 194 Broadway, Winnipeg.
Published in National Post from Oct. 18 to Oct. 20, 2012
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