A tribute to a friend: “Wayne was a party and I arrived late.”

February 4, 2021

Mark Austin, former chair of the SeedChange board of directors, writes a touching tribute to his friend, Wayne Roberts.

By Mark Austin

Wayne was a party and I arrived late. Having learned this week that he was 76 when he left us, I guess it was even later than I thought. On more than one occasion since becoming friends about 15 years ago (also the gap in our ages) he referred to us “guys our age.”

I never minded being lumped into a descriptor with Dr. Roberts because most flattered my standing beyond the actual, while understating his abundant achievements. He would introduce me as Atlantic Canada’s leading expert on whatever, leaving me to choose between the conversational paths of awkward denial or precarious pretense. He would call me Dr. Austin (untrue) not to mock me but himself. Comrades in the struggle are not ranked.

No doubt, within his huge sphere of colleagues and friends from decades of near-frenetic social activism many have similar tales. And now, in reflection and grief, I write not as someone in Wayne’s long-time or day-to-day inner circle; but as someone made to feel that way in those limited times we had together. His was a sincere presence—not a veneer of instant intimacy—but one available to sojourners on the same upward climb.

Around 2010 I was tasked with recruiting and interviewing Wayne for a position on the Board of USC Canada (now SeedChange). Then-executive director, Susie Walsh, had planted the seed with him but I was sceptical that this food movement star would have time for us. The book he did with Lori Stahlbrand and Rod MacRae (Real Food for a Change) was a manifesto for me. I can’t recall what we talked about for 30 minutes or so, but I remember we were winding down when it occurred to me that I hadn’t asked him about the Board. When I did, his quick response was “of course, when do I start?”

In the photograph below, Wayne is next to fellow-USC Board Director Mamadou Goita. What a gift to have encountered these two humans! As it turns out, that’s not Wayne’s real hair. The actual stuff was slightly lighter in colour (more of a flesh tone) and a tad thinner. I point this out not to foment scandal but as context for what I’m about to write and a photo below the below.

Being both an empath and fellow hair minimalist, at Wayne’s first USC Board meeting I assured him that our hotel selection was based entirely on the availability of volumizing shampoo. The quip endured far longer than either of our remnant strands: years and years of rinse and repeat. Apologies to all at USC who bore the duds with the suds lines for too long.

Some are said to be quick-witted and others cruelly deemed dim-witted. Wayne had his wit on a dimmer switch to keep the lumens in safe range (usually). Try as he would to not succumb to maturity, this man of many letters practiced restraint in our long productive meetings: listening, waiting, and speaking only in timely distilled missives of wisdom. And when he joked it was not to bask in attention but to create joy, which to him was a medium of enlightened action.

I anticipated time with Wayne like an approaching holiday—presents of laughter and friendship were imminent. One on one I always thought of him as the smartest guy in the room or certainly in the top two. Our conversations were about strategy, never about past glories, always in resolve toward something better. And there were always words of admiration for the USC family. Our governance job was to figure out how to be doctors when the patients were all so healthy.

The notepads: he would jot down concepts and phrases over a beer like his job was to take the minutes. My profundities could cover almost a whole post-it note. Later I’d hear him speak of “Mark’s labour theory of value” and feel pleased I had inspired.

I thought there would be more time. I hoped there would be more time for folks our age to get together as cohort clowns plotting revolution—or at least driving tiny silly electric cars in a parade of memory with others of that fine bunch. I miss what was and what won’t be.

A couple of weeks ago I sent this note to Wayne not knowing if he would see it, but knowing that he already knew it:

those times of earnest effort to better the plight of others, to muster ideas and resources that might nudge change — were attempts to show love, to share …and yet the beneficiaries are us …love and laughter and feeling right — you have given me treasures ..multiply this by the many in your spheres …you are a good soul, comrade …love to you

Earlier in December I sent him this: