Crime writer Linwood Barclay recalls the high school architecture teacher who encouraged creativity, independence and strength of character.
By Richard Ouzounian
Photos: Markian Lozowchuk
Although Linwood Barclay is one of the masters of the modern thriller — with books like No Time for Goodbye holding readers spellbound around the world — there’s absolutely no question about “whodunit” when it comes to naming the teacher who holds the most special place in his life.
“It’s John Boxtel,” says Barclay emphatically. “He made all the difference to me.”
Barclay sits in the well-appointed and comfortable home in Oakville, Ont., that he shares with his wife of many years, Neetha (a retired OCT), and thinks back to the time in the late ’60s and early ’70s that he spent at Fenelon Falls Secondary School in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board.
“My father was a professional illustrator and I was always interested in drawing cars and sketching things, so it was only natural that I took John’s drafting class — but I wound up getting more than a teacher,” says Barclay, a former Toronto Star columnist. “He was a mentor, a friend, and later on, a father figure to me.”
The Dutch-born Boxtel was a building technologist in the Netherlands before immigrating to Canada in 1954 at the age of 24.
“Holland was too cramped and too narrow for me,” Boxtel recalls on the phone from his home near Napanee, Ont. “I needed freedom and space, and I had to get away to find them.”
He studied first at the University of Toronto and then at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) before becoming an architecture teacher in 1967 at Fenelon Falls. The school, located in the Kawarthas, converted that year to combine academic and vocational studies — and the number of students suddenly doubled. “I think there were nearly 800 of them, many arriving from very small and remote communities,” says Boxtel.
But of the hundreds of students, there was one who stood out from the rest. “Linwood came into my class in 1968; he took architectural drawing. He was a nice kid, very polite, decent, obviously from a very good family,” an affectionate tone enters Boxtel’s voice. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but he was my favourite student. Even then you could tell he was special.”
It was a sort of mutual admiration society, because Barclay was drawn to Boxtel’s unique style, as a teacher and a male role model.
“John was an unconventional man,” laughs Barclay. “He wasn’t like any other teacher. He was irreverent, outspoken and an independent thinker. He’d wear things like a beaded necklace with a turtleneck and a sports jacket. Nobody else dressed like that. Not there, and not back then.”
Barclay reminisces nearly 50 years into the past, as he sets the scene. “He taught in a small room with 15 to 20 drafting tables crowded into it. There was a record player for us to listen to while we worked. John let us bring in our own music — stuff like Neil Young and Chicago — which he’d alternate with his, which was more eclectic: Dutch, classical, jazz, you name it.”
“Thanks to [Boxtel], I learned how to take charge of things — how to create order, how to make things right.”
Boxtel recalls Barclay’s talent as well. “He wanted to design and he was good at it. I can remember the last project he did. He was so far ahead of the others that I gave him something really difficult to design.”
Barclay remembers that assignment. “John tossed an assortment of cardboard medication boxes on a table, and grinned, as if to say, ‘You figure out what to do with these!’”
“I worked hard on it, arranged them all as a building and when I turned it in, John just looked at it and said ‘It’s perfect,’ and put it aside. I realize now that he was testing me. He wanted to see how I could find the extraordinary in the ordinary. That’s something I think back to every day that I write.”
These experiences provided a solid base for this one-of-a-kind relationship, but there were other elements that showed what a generous mentor Boxtel was.
Barclay’s older brother had suffered a mental breakdown during military service and was drifting around doing very little until Boxtel allowed him to join the class. “It gave him focus and purpose,” recalls Barclay.
“His brother was a free spirit, working on all kinds of things, at times without rhyme or reason. He was even translating The Odyssey from Greek into Russian,” Boxtel chuckles. “I gave him a place to do it.”
When Barclay’s father died in 1971, the teenager was left in charge of his family and the maintenance for Green Acres — their cottage and trailer park for vacationers. Unfortunately, none of them were well-suited to the amount of work required — so the Barclays turned to Boxtel for help.
“I did some work on the side, in the summer, to pay the bills,” says Boxtel. “I helped with the plumbing and other chores that weren’t getting done.”
“When I look at that period now, I wonder how I got through it,” Barclay observes tersely. “It was an awful time, but luckily John was there for me.”
Boxtel flashes back to the funeral: “I can only remember the two boys, their mother and me.” Barclay recalls his best friend and the friend’s mother being there, too, but admits that his teacher’s presence helped him get through that painful day.
“I’d like to think I was a great support for them,” says Boxtel tentatively. “I don’t know what his father was for Linwood but, once he was gone, I think I filled a certain gap in his life — as a kind of senior person.”
For Barclay, Boxtel represented something more than just maturity to him. “The great thing about John was that he was a very different kind of person. Exceptional. Charismatic. A very independent guy. It was that strength of character, that independence that I remember so strongly.”
And, Barclay needed that sense of self-sufficiency because, even at that early age, he had set his sights on being a writer, a storyteller, but lacked the support.
“You’d go into the guidance office at Fenelon Falls and there’d be pamphlets for welders, dairy farmers, things like that. But I guess there wasn’t a huge demand for screenwriters. I had to figure that out myself. That’s where John was helpful. He taught me how to be your own man.”
Both left the school at the same time to continue their education — Barclay at Trent University and Boxtel returning to OCA (now OCAD University).
They lost touch for over 40 years but when they met again recently, Barclay became choked with emotion: “We look slightly older now — but it awakened a ton of memories.”
“That period made me the person who I am, and John was a big part of that. Thanks to him, I learned how to take charge of things — how to create order, make things right.”
The secret pride of Barclay’s life is his model train empire, filling an entire room with a complex system winding through a perfectly detailed small Ontario town — maybe the Fenelon Falls of his youth.
“I like things to balance out,” admits Barclay when asked about the obsessive detail of his railway. “It’s true of the novels I write and of this model. I started figuring it out the day John gave me a pile of cardboard containers and expected me to make something special out of them.”
Barclay takes in this perfectly constructed miniature world and the shelves of bestselling novels in his office, and is suddenly transported back to his youth.
“Design. Order. Imagination. I learned them all from John Boxtel.”
In this department, notable Canadians honour the teachers who have made a difference in their lives and have successfully embraced the College’s Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession, which are care, respect, trust and integrity.