The best reader a columnist could have (National Post, July 06, 2005)

This column, approximately my 100th, marks my second anniversary of weekly contribution to the National Post. Happy contemplation of this milestone was cut short, though, by distressing parallel news of the untimely death, at age 71, of my "friend," Robert Sauve of Ottawa, whose obituary appeared in last Saturday's Post.

I say "friend" in quotation marks because I never actually met Robert and likely never would have. And I say "parallel" because Robert -- or Bob as he soon became -- was my column's very first, then most frequent, and eventually most cherished "fellow traveller."

Bob and I enjoyed an Internet-facilitated sub-category of friendship, that of high-frequency e-conversationalists. Bob was my "ideal reader." It's fair to say I have been writing over the past two years "for" him, subliminally projecting Bob's expectations of logic, style and topicality as the standard I strive for in my weekly column.

Some columnists don't include an e-address; some do, but don't always reply to reader feedback. When I made the decision to include my e-mail address, I committed myself to answering every e-mail I received, however cursorily.

Generally my responses are, in terms of their engagement and candour, a reflection of a reader's tone (rational or obsessive), corrections (trivial or meaningful), and/or observations (helpful or irrelevant). I have replied to the full gamut of reader responses, from blush-making praise ("You're too kind!") to obscenity-laden denunciation ("What an angry young man you are!"). None have been as consistently, but unsentimentally supportive, constructive, entertaining and robustly commonsensical as Bob's always were.

Bob was warm and encouraging, but he never flattered for its own sake. He was a critical, but fair reader, an astute and discriminating "noticer." When he praised, it was for a specific reason. Sometimes he would single out words or phrases or even complete sentences that he found stylistically and thematically felicitous. Almost invariably they were the very ones I was secretly proud to have thought up. Greater reward hath no writer than proof of an attentive reader's respect.

Conversely, when he disagreed with me, he would say so -- and why -- in no uncertain terms, always cordially and usually with humour, but also a feisty determination to show me the error of my ways. His points were well taken, for he was not only intelligent and articulate, he never commented on any subject he hadn't personally researched.

An engineer by profession, Bob was a student of human events by preference. He obtained a master's degree in history at the age of 56. On Quebec nationalism, for example, his knowledge was encyclopedic, and on Judaism impressive (Bob considered himself un juif manque; he deeply admired Israel's extraordinary history and tenacious grip on survival).

Bob loved to debate. As his daughter Susan Sauve Meyer wrote in a eulogy she kindly shared with me, "Disputation was arguably his favourite leisure activity ... and nothing enraged him more than those who presumed to exercise authority without being able to give good reasons in defense of their actions."

Bob's e-mails were a kind of mentorship. Unlike many other intellectuals I have encountered in this job, Bob wore his erudition lightly but confidently, with no hidden agenda. He wasn't shopping a particular ideology; he didn't resent my privilege in having a public platform for my views; he never implied that he could do my job better, or sought one through me. Bob took me seriously in a disinterested way, a welcome fillip to my fragile confidence in those anxiety-charged early days.

Bob's true passion was the role played by moral values and social justice throughout the chronicles of human endeavour. His letters to the editor on ethical and political issues appeared with frequency in the Post and Ottawa Citizen, always with a cogent point expressed succinctly, but with the astringent touch of an eminently rational man chronically exasperated by the great lack of reason around him.

I am grateful to Bob's wife and children (he often wrote of them with tremendous pride) for permission to say goodbye to Bob in this paradoxically both private and public way. It is the least, but in my position also the most I can do to honour the memory of this fine man.
© National Post 2005