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Yesterday I had the great pleasure of meeting and filming the founding president of Trent University, Thomas Symmons, or Tom as he prefers, for a heritage tribute video that’s being put together for one of his colleagues.
Born in 1929, Tom is also an author and attended University of Toronto (B.A. 1951), Oxford (B.A. 1953, M.A. 1957), and Harvard University.
His old estate-like home nestled in the rolling hills on the outskirts of Peterborough, Ontario was so beautifully decorated and appeared so rich in history that it was hard not to feel immediately welcome from the moment I stepped inside the door. His wife gave us a quick tour of his library and study, both of which included many high-backed chairs, plaques and diplomas on the walls, pictures showing relations to the British Monarchy and even a letter from the Pope - he was very recently knighted by the Pope, even though (he was quick to point out) he isn’t Catholic. He serves as chairman, chair person and/or officer for more organisations than I can count and has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal honouring his significant contributions to Canada.
This is a man who is so accomplished and wise that even before he speaks a word, you understand his legacy and influence because it just emanates out of his every pore, and on top of that he’s remarkably humble about it all.
He shared many stories like the story of his father being shot down over France in WWI and meeting a Canadian nurse, who later became Tom’s mother. He recounted stories of having tea with the queen mother and after many cups she would always ask if he wanted a “nip of something else” – which usually meant gin! (Sounds like the queen mother knew how to have a good time! :P) He was even a guest at Charles and Diana’s wedding and has watched “the kids” Prince William and Harry grow up. He reminisced a bit about his relationship with the royal family and finally said, “Prince Charles is a deeply intelligent man.” – a nice comment from someone I feel is quite intelligent himself.
As part of the video interview I was shooting, we asked Tom to sit in one of his royal-esque chairs and read a book by the window overlooking his garden. We picked random books from different piles, put them by his side to let him flip through. As I was shooting, he perked up and said “How time flies! I’ve forgotten I wrote the forward to this novel…” And so there he was, reading his own words in an acclaimed book we chose at random off the shelf, one of hundreds if not thousands of books in his great house.
A still photograph wasn't planned, but I couldn't walk out of this place without one. I asked his permission and he said it wouldn't be a problem. I only had a few minutes with him as time was getting short and we had to shoot other subjects at a different location, so I acted fast – grabbed a flash and threw on a wide angle lens. My goal was to photograph him in what I felt was the most inspiring room in the house – his study – with all the books around him – and awards – over half of which aren’t even in the frame. I wanted to show the overwhelming amount of work this man has done and continues to do, and the “weight of it all” so to speak.
Physically he is clearly aging, but mentally… he’s as sharp as they come.
It was great to meet you, sir!