Gary Wilson: The Beloved Librarian of Queen’s Law
Gary Wilson is not a librarian. Of course, he works for the Queen’s University Libraries, but officially he is a Reference Assistant: the person who catalogues items, checks out books, loans out power chargers and generally ensures that the library operates smoothly throughout the day. Gary may not be a librarian, but the library is a big part of his life. As he tells me when I meet him at the Grad Club on a rainy January evening, “Nothing in the library bothers me right? I don’t mind any job in the library… I just love working in the library.”
With his thin build and conservative dress – tucked-in, light coloured button ups and dark trousers and wire-framed glasses – Gary has the studious look of someone who belongs in a library; the only thing missing is a tweed jacket or a sweater vest. But where his appearance could suggest sternness and a steadfast adherence to the rules, you instead find a warm presence and the easy-going nature of a genial grandfather, something that comes across regardless of whether you talk to him for five minutes or fifty.
“I know my relationship with law students is very superficial – I’m just not part of that life and those rituals,” he says. “One thing I learned in philosophy was that you don’t care what type of person a shoemaker is, you’re more interested in what kind of job he does.”
That friendly demeanor has served Gary well over a long career with the Queen’s University Libraries, where he began working as a library technician in 1978. His time at the library was only interrupted by a foray into politics when he was elected as the Member of Provincial Parliament for Kingston and the Islands between 1990 and 1995; to this day, he remains the only NDP MPP in what has otherwise has been an unbroken stream of Conservative and Liberal representatives.
As Gary modestly puts it, “In a way, it [being MPP] affected my career more than I thought it would.” Although he had been long involved in union activities and with the NDP, becoming the NDP candidate for Kingston almost came down to a drawing of straws. “I wasn’t planning on running in the ’87 election [ the first time that Gary ran for MPP],” he says. The NDP national convention was happening in Montreal that year, and Gary went with his friends, who happened to be on the search committee for a local candidate.
As the group hung out in their hotel room, the question of candidates arose, Gary recalled. “I was watching TV, I forget what it was, and suddenly I sort of could hear them talking about having to get a candidate. The next thing I heard, it has to be someone in this room. Somebody in the room, well it couldn’t be me!” In the discussion that followed about who could be a suitable candidate, Gary put forth the idea of drawing straws “just to break the logjam”. “Just by suggesting, then I was a candidate,” he chuckled.
Gary placed 2nd in the 1987 Provincial Election, and ran again as the NDP candidate in 1990. During that election, he recalls residents telling him, “I can’t vote for the Liberals because of [David] Peterson (then Premier of Ontario) and I can’t vote for Goodchild (the Progressive Conservative candidate) because of Mulroney, so that leaves you guys – but I haven’t made up my mind yet.” Nonetheless, Gary ended up with 38% of the vote in a three-way split in 1990, ending up as a MPP in the first, and so far, only NDP government of Ontario.
Gary took a leave of absence from his library job – “they don’t guarantee your job. In my case, they didn’t want to give me A job” – after finding an exception in the policies that allowed university administrators to take a leave of absence to serve in public office. During his time in office, Gary served as the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Culture and Communications – “because I worked in the library” – and like many MPPs representing ridings outside of Toronto, constantly shuttled back and forth between Queen’s Park and Kingston.
Gary credits his political experience with improving his social skills – “that came from all the events I attended, which I didn’t mind”- but regrets not being able to spend more time with his daughters. “There was a gap there, I just can’t think of them at that age – one was born in ’79 – so they were young… I think it was hard on my two daughters to have to play around with the well-to-do kids with a dad during grade school and even high school who’s the MPP but with the NDP, and not the Liberals or the Conservatives, and had no connections to the power elites.” Gary credits his wife Olga for her steadfast support during that time.
When the Rae government was defeated by the Progressive Conservatives in 1995, Gary lost his seat to Liberal John Gerretsen, a former Mayor of Kingston (and later the Attorney General of Ontario). He went back to work for the library, first for Education, and later at the Lederman Law Library after being hired by May Chen and then Associate Dean Denis Marshall in 1998. For the next eighteen years, Gary would become a familiar presence at Lederman.
Gary clearly relishes the time he spent at the law library, and greatly admires the law students who he had an opportunity to interact with. “That’s one of those things I really appreciate about law students – their varied interests, capabilities and talents – it really rounds them out, and also the experience that they have. Not that I mind undergraduates, but they [law students] are easier to talk to, easier to chat with.”
The admiration is mutual. As Madeline Davis recalls when she took her sister – an incoming 1L at the time – on a tour of MacDonald Hall, “He was clearly in a rush, but he took the time to introduce himself to us and had a long chat about the law school, the campus, and activities in Kingston. I thought it was so nice of him to pause his day so he could talk to me and my sister and he seemed genuinely thrilled to be talking to a future student.” She added, “I couldn’t have planned a better encounter, or a better person to introduce her to the school and the faculty. It’s not been the same on the second floor or in the library without him.”
Indeed, Gary has not been at Lederman since November 2016, when he was transferred to the Stauffer Library. There are various reasons for the move: an ongoing reorganization of library services, budget cuts and staff attrition have all played roles. He now works in the back of Stauffer, and in his spare time continues to avidly keep up with tennis – we ended our chat early so that he could go catch the Australian Open – and takes care of his two young grandchildren, Gillian and Rory.
Though no longer active in politics, Gary also continues to strongly believe in fighting for progressive values. As he tells me, “That’s the thing about law students, you’re not really here to do that kind of stuff, you just have to be aware of it, but you’re obviously more interested I would think in full time work and where that takes you. But to me… because of the way we run our society, that it is important that we have an understanding of what people’s expectations or rights and responsibilities are – some way of agreeing that beyond ‘might means right’ which we know – but how we get there is a real challenge.”
At 70, Gary could have retired a few years ago, but he continues to soldier on. Part of it lies in his personal values, and especially his commitment to service. “We’re definitely working people,” he tells me, referring to himself and his wife, who spent many years working for the Queen’s Admissions Department. “That’s part of the reason I’m still at work by the way. I’ve got lots of things I would like to do… but it just feels inessential, or it’s not valuable to me in the way that working at the law library was. It was wonderful, so many parts of it.”
Jason Liang (3L) is Managing Editor of Juris Diction.