Father Greg MacLeod: Growing Up In Sydney Mines

In 2009, Richard Keshen, now professor emeritus at Cape Breton University, interviewed Father Greg MacLeod as part of a series of interviews with key figures in the history of the university. Keshen and MacLeod, who was 73 at the time, had a wide-ranging discussion which Keshen later divided into five sections. The first section, “Growing up in Sydney Mines,” is reprinted below. MacLeod died last week at the age of 81.

Greg MacLeod (photo courtesy of Richard Keshen)

Greg MacLeod at his home on the Esplanade, in Sydney. (Photo courtesy of Richard Keshen)

Richard Keshen: I’d first like to go back to your childhood in Sydney Mines. I know you grew up in a big family. What was it like growing up in Sydney Mines?

Greg MacLeod: There were nine in our family, and my father died when I was seven. He worked in a coal mine. I was the third youngest. So my mother was a widow with no income. We didn’t think of ourselves as poor. Somehow the word wasn’t used as such. But in today’s terms we certainly were poor because my mother made all our clothes and cooked all our food and it was always a struggle just to survive. That would have been in the 1940s.

You know, each of us had to look after ourselves. I sold newspapers, soda pop and did all sorts of things like that. I lent money to my brothers, if they wanted to go to a dance. I used to trade comic books. I learned how to do business at an early age. Maybe it was these experiences that led me to respect entrepreneurial talent! I find that many social reformers, and left-wing thinkers, do not.

I was no good at sports. I can only see out of one eye and I couldn’t play hockey or baseball. I tried to play these things but I just wasn’t good.

RK: You were a good runner though. I remember you raced.

GM: Yes, I was a very fast runner. But mining towns were macho cultures and if you couldn’t play hockey or baseball, you were kind of pushed aside. You weren’t picked for teams. The thing I was good at was school work. In my own mind, I made a decision. Since I was no good at baseball or hockey, and since I enjoyed school work, I’d focus on that—an unusual focus in our town.

We didn’t have books in our home, but my mother read newspapers and she had a very quick mind. She only had a Grade 9 education, but she had amazing recall of anything she read. I had five older brothers and sisters, and I would read their school textbooks.

We didn’t have a library in the school. But I loved to read. The teachers called me ‘spellbound.’ When I’d read, I’d forget everything around me. All through school, I always led my class. And that was at least something I could excel at.

RK: When it came to university, did you have any models?

GM: Nobody in my family went to university. None of my aunts or uncles. So this was something new. It was my decision. I saved up money selling beer bottles and stuff like that so I could pay my own way. And after my junior matriculation (Grade 11), I decided to go to Xavier College in Sydney [the predecessor of CBU].

RK: That was in the early ’50s?

GM: Yes, that would have been about 1953.

RK: Xavier College had just started then?

GM: It started in 1950. Actually, I think it’s a good thing to shorten your time in school. But, I must say, I had wonderful teachers in high school, the Notre Dame Sisters. I always remember algebra. This nun said that there are two ways you can remember formulas. You can just memorize them or you can derive them yourself. But to be a good student, you should derive the formulas yourself. Don’t rely on your memory to do mathematics; work it out for yourself. This was a real lesson to me, and not just in mathematics.

The nuns were also very strict on reading and writing. So I had a very good high school education. In fact, I think I learned more from those nuns than I did during my BA in university. And in the school, we had practice in public speaking, formed a credit union in the class and a Red Cross group. We took turns being president, secretary, and treasurer.

In the town, as I grew older, I became aware of poverty and unemployment and mines closing. You learned there were needy people and rich people. And from high school on, I had the idea I wanted to do something in my life about poverty and inequality.


Note: You can read the entire interview here: A Life of Commitment Lived GraciouslyThe Spectator would like to thank Richard Keshen for permission to reproduce this discussion.