were two," says R.H. Thomson, actor and current host of the CBC program Man Alive, as
he starts to talk about his remarkable teachers, "but one of them truly stands
N. Roy Clifton taught geography at Richmond Hill High School in the late 50s and
60s, although Thomson never took geography from him.
But, continues Thomson, "He taught me by the kind of person he was. He taught me
by what he expected of students. He taught me by being unafraid to push into areas where
Clifton ran the drama club and the library. "He was just a teacher who did
things," says Thomson. "He raised money to put up lights in the auditorium. He
got together a group of interested students and they rented the local cinema once a month
to show Hungarian films, Brazilian films, Russian films, films from around the world. Now,
this was Cold War time ... brush-cuts, large chrome bumpers and over-sized cars.
"You didnt go near him if you wanted any social points. He was apt to have
you in a drama class in your stocking feet in the gymnasium moving spontaneously to music.
In the 60s, this was not done."
Although he had an interest in drama, Thomson claims his theatrical ambition was to be
an usher in Stratford. He got onto the stage at Stratford, and other stages, as well as
film and television screens. Thomson was Jasper Dale in the Road to Avonlea series and has
played people as different as Hamlet, Dr. Fred Banting and Charlie Grant.
He remembers, "I was not drawn to the drama club, he cornered me. His technique
was to catch you between classes on the stairs and say, Will you be in the
play? But Ive got to get to class, Im going to be late.
Will you be in the play? But Ive got to get to class, Im
going to be late. Will you be in the play? Yeah, Ill be in
According to Thomson, Clifton was an extraordinary man who had an independence of
vision. "He reached out in a very conformist society," Thomson explains.
"He was always teaching you, not through a text book and not through sitting in rows
in a room, but you were learning in a deeper way. He encouraged you to think, he
encouraged you to be utterly independent. He encouraged you to follow your impulses. He
encouraged you to be disciplined at the same time, which is a fascinating combination, and
he encouraged you not to be afraid of whoever you are."
It wasnt until they were nearing the end of high school that Thomson and his
friends discovered that this conservatively dressed man was a Quaker and a vegetarian. He
wrote poetry and had been a barrister and a pacifist during the war. "That just
rattled our brains," Thomson remembers. "What was he doing in the gymnasium in
stocking-feet moving to Bartok?"
Zenn Z. Zelenyj gave Thomson a love of mathematics. "Zelenyj was a very
button-down East European man with a thick accent. He also had an unspoken respect for
young minds. He hovers there in my memory as a person who was very valuable to me and
Im not clear why. But Ive had a love of mathematics ever since and a love of
that kind of inquiry. For me, mathematics is not about mathematical operations, its
about perceiving levels of reality that can only be reflected to you through these
abstract signs. It is very hard to put those realities into words but you can deal in
these symbols. And he started to open those avenues up for me.
"I dont know how he did it, except that he was there, he was patient, he
gave of his time," says Thomson, who earned a degree in science and physics before
going to theatre school. "Like Clifton, he cracked things open in you."
Thomson concludes, "I think if there is anything in common from those two people,
it is something of their essences as individuals that meant a great deal to me. Ill
never forget them."