You know when you’re away from town and someone important in your life dies suddenly (or not), everyone who knows about that relationship wants you to know, but no one wants to tell you. I would like to tell you all that I have great friends, several of whom contacted me yesterday to tell me about the death of one of my former bosses, a lovely man named Denis.

I met Denis in 2002, when he was my boss’ boss. In one of those unique career experiences, I replaced my boss who was on an extended leave right after I started, which gave me the opportunity to work very closely with Denis in a very intense time period. You see, I worked as the senior communicator for Customs, and it was the lead up to the first anniversary of 9/11, a time when both Canada and the US wanted to demonstrate the progress made on securing borders against terrorism while still maintaining the free and secure flow of trade and people. Expectations were high, and I knew, well, nothing. I made so many mistakes that first summer, causing me to regularly ask Denis and his boss if they were thinking about firing me. I would have fired me.

But they didn’t. In fact, Denis asked me what I wanted to do with my life (I was only 27, and a very high pay level for that age at that time in the public service). I told him I wasn’t sure about staying in the public service, but that if I did I wanted to be the Clerk, the top public servant in the country. He executed a perfect double take. If he’d been drinking, it would have been a spit take. But to his credit, after that, he was totally supportive of my drive to succeed. Within a year of starting there, I got a promotion and qualified for a job at a level even higher. I also got a tuition contract – you see, there was a lot of talk about how senior executives with an MBA would be looked at more favourably because they were also COOs of very large programs. Denis pitched his boss on paying for my MBA, a contract was signed, and I was committed to staying there for another three years. Denis and his boss referred to it as “the early golden handcuffs”. If I couldn’t move around like other public servants, they could actually have a succession plan involving me.

One day, I showed up at work and Denis called me into his office. “Kerry, he said, I’m giving you a new job.” I didn’t understand. Yes, the clients were a bit crazy, but I loved working on national security files. I loved Customs. I asked why, and he said he was opening up a new position in his office, an executive assistant. He wanted it to be me. I asked what I’d be doing and he said he hadn’t figured that out yet.

It took me years to understand what had happened. Denis knew that my job was about to be moved to a new government Department, one that wouldn’t have the money for my tuition and wouldn’t be able to honour my tuition contract. He just couldn’t tell me, because that would break a confidence. I was so devastated, I was virtually non-functioning for months. He never told me why he’d moved my job. He never told me he was disappointed in my lack of work in the new job. He just encouraged me to get involved in this or that. He encouraged me to learn more about the department I worked in, the people in my branch, the things that were important to them. He basically pointed me in the direction of one of those important lessons in the workplace: how you fit in, instead of stand out.

Denis was a master of fitting in, with small acts of personal kindness that truly made him stand out to those around him. I asked Denis if I could leave work early one day, because I needed to get the keys to my new house. Because of my age, Denis assumed it was my first house, and called me into his office early that day to give me a pep talk about what it meant to own a house, and how you’d only get your first keys once, and how I should treasure the moment. He gave me a housewarming gift (what, i totally can’t remember, but I remember welling up at his thoughtfulness) and I took it and actually hugged him. Denis wasn’t much of a hugger (neither am I) but he muddled through.

Denis had to run a job competition for a new job in our organization, one which just about everyone thought I was going to win because I was basically doing the job at a lower level. When I didn’t get through the initial screening, I went into his office in tears. He was crushed – he’d asked HR not to send the email until he could talk to me about the process and why I wasn’t going to move to the interview phase. I was devastated, and so was he, and more importantly to me, he told me why he was upset and what I should do. Not that I should fight the system, but that I should wait a while, get the job I’d qualified for earlier, learn how to be a great people manager, and move up from there.

Sure enough, that’s what happened. I left Denis and went to work for a different manager who had a very different style. I played the game. I managed like Denis did – I listened to my employees, helped them where I could, and gave the “can’t help you” shrug when I couldn’t help. Most importantly, I listened. Denis was a great listener. It didn’t matter who was talking to him, he listened. I had an admin assistant who was one of the more brilliant people I’ve worked with. He desperately wanted to work in Communications. He went to Denis with some ideas, and Denis listened to him and gave him a project that would give him the experience he needed to compete for a communications job. That admin assistant is about 30 seconds and a university degree away from being a communications executive, 6 years later.

Denis listened to women who were collapsed in his office in tears. He listened to his employees when they said there was a morale problem. He heard what was happening around him. His listening, even when he couldn’t do anything about it, made him human.

You know what else made him human? His ability to be totally okay with his flaws and to use humour in the workplace. Denis once told me that, as an executive, I would periodically wake up and realize that I could not go to work, not even for a minute, without going postal. And when that happened I should call in sick, go to Montreal and spend $1000 on jazz CDs. I hate jazz, but Denis loved it. There was nothing he loved more than going to Montreal with his wife and listening to great music and finding obscure CDs. When Denis took his pre-retirement course they told him he needed to get hobbies, so he took some yoga classes. One day, I opened up some kind of employee bulletin and saw a picture of Denis doing a headstand in his office, his tie squared away, tucked into his shirt. When we had a family that we were sponsoring for a christmas that didn’t have a fridge or anywhere near enough beds, Denis proposed a Dance Dance Revolution competition between himself and a colleague, with donations being raised throughout. He had no fear that he didn’t know what he was doing. He just did it.

Denis also loved his wife, his amour. Date night with his wife was the only thing that could consistently pry Denis out of his office in a timely manner. He’d go to the local Italian shop for fresh pasta, sauce, and crusty bread at lunch and bolt out of there before 5pm. He rarely spoke of her at work, but when he did, the love he felt for her shone through his face, in his smile, his anecdotes, and his eyes.

Denis taught me the importance of fitting in, how it is critical to your employees that you listen to them, how you can raise morale by allowing yourself to look a bit foolish, and the importance of finding what it is that you love and holding on to it, whether it be the love of your life, an art form, a food, or whatever floats your boat. He was a gentleman of the old school, with perfect suits and ties (a legacy of his childhood as the son of a haberdasher), perfect manners, and a lovely gentleness to him. He felt things, and people meant something to him.

Denis retired four years ago. I’ve only been to three retirement shindigs, and Denis’ was the first. I cried. A lot. But I saw him fairly frequently afterwards – he was working periodically delivering training I sent people on, and I saw him downtown a fair bit. He always had his Starbucks in hand, a jaunty hat on his head, and a big smile on his face. I joked about how retired people are so happy. He told me he was very busy but happy to be retired because he didn’t have to work if he didn’t want to.

Denis died on Wednesday. I didn’t know he’d been sick, though I did know he’d had a lot of health problems in the past. I saw him on the street this past June I think. He looked pleased and surprised to see me, as always. He kissed me on both cheeks and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was going to have to lay off a bunch of people and how it was killing me. He nodded sagely, shrugged a bit as if to not let the truth of that situation affect his state of mind, and told me to take care of myself. He looked happy.

I don’t know if there will be a funeral for him, but if there is I know that a lot of my former colleagues will be in attendance. I’m not the only person whose life was touched by Denis in a positive way, and I know they’ll want to show their respect and admiration for him in person. I wish I could be there, but since I can’t, this is my eulogy.

Denis, you were a great boss, a great man, and a great mentor. Even when I was mad at you, I knew you had my best interests at heart. I’ll miss you. Thank you for being, well, you.

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