The first thing that struck me when I met former premier Beaton Tulk was this; his size was perhaps a bit at odds with his actual personality. There was a gruff bayman side to him certainly, and the man who sat down with me at first to discus his book, A Man of My Word, caused me pause when he almost barked; ‘I’m deaf, b’y, speak up!” twice when my opening questions fell – literally – on deaf ears.
I spoke up, and slowed down – as commanded – and our chat progressed more smoothly after that, though I admit I was left a little on edge. After our perfunctory “tell me about this book” chatter, I noticed his arms. Bruises. So many of them. Black, purple, angry bruises lined his arms. I couldn’t look away.
Defiance of the odds
“Cancer,” he said simply as he caught me looking. Tulk freely shared he had fought prostate cancer some 15 years ago and it was back and had metastasized into his bones. He had just come from treatment before meeting me at The Herald, he shared matter-of-factly. It may have been odd of me to do, but I touched his arm.
It’s a horrible question to ask someone, but the man who had once seemed so gruff and almost scary – and I don’t intimidate easily – seemed now quite mellow, so I asked him; “Are you fighting cancer, or….?” “I’m dying,” he said simply. “I could have months. A year. Who knows. I should be dead now, I think,” he said chuckling in the face of the odds against him.
The interview continued and the planned two-page feature turned into a two-part series. That was almost exactly a year ago.
I had the honour of sitting with this province’s seventh premier again a few months ago while compiling our 70 years of Confederation Premier edition of The Herald.
Listening to the tape again the morning of his death, Tulk was once again gruff right out of the gate, but, as before, the gentlemen quickly emerged. The soft, kind, generous, thoughtful man he was filled the next 24 minutes of tape.
Tulk spoke of how proud he was that, at the time, he had donated more than $3,500 to Kids Eat Smart Foundation from the proceeds of his book. “They tell me it’s a dollar a meal, so that’s 3,500 meals,” he said.
When asked about his role in the history of Confederation, he paused, speaking first of all the ‘honourable folk’ that held the job both before, and since.
He was reflective. “I say this unabashedly. Without Confederation, there’s a 90 per cent chance that Beaton Tulk would have never made the 8th floor. There’s a 90 per cent chance that Brian Tobin might have never made the 8th floor. There’s a chance that Brian Peckford would have never made the 8th floor, and the list goes on,” he began.
The reason is, without Confederation, and without Joey Smallwood “like him or lump him” having access to an education, particularity for rural folk like he and others, would have been simply too challenging. “Smallwood’s efforts to make sure that every person, or try to make sure as much as was humanly possible I guess, that if a person wanted to get an education, they could get an education, and thanks to those efforts, we had outport premiers, like myself.”
As they should be, the flags at this province’s legislature were lowered to half-mast in memory of the former Liberal premier. Premier Dwight Ball released a statement describing Tulk as a “political giant” devoted to his home province.
“His memoir is a great reflection of the man who wrote it – entertaining, honest, and larger than life,” Ball wrote of the book Tulk published last year. “It reveals how Beaton’s tremendous sense of humour, his passion for his province, and his loyalty helped him deal with diverse challenges, famous figures and unique circumstances.”
Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a message on social media, saying Tulk always put people first, whether he was working as a school principal, teacher or as premier. “We’ve lost a great Canadian, and a great Liberal — but his legacy will live on in his many contributions to Newfoundland and Labrador,” Trudeau’s message read.
Beautifully said, and all very true. But the greatest imprint left behind is always the more personal one, so while former premier Tulk will be remembered for many of his political battles and contributions, I’ll never forget the man who showed softness and openly shared his life – personal struggles and all – honestly and unabashedly with someone who had to be told – not once, but twice – to “speak up, b’y.”
Pam Pardy Ghent, The Herald’s Managing Editor, can be reached by emailing [email protected]