CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVE
His name is Robert Stanfield, he’s from Truro, NS, and he grew up big in underwear
“Truro is a place of preeminent beauty, and when its blooming valley first burst on my view I thought of the words of St. John. 'I saw a new Heaven and a new earth.’ I have conversed with travelers who have been in England, in the United States, and in Canada, who all declared that they had scarcely ever seen a more lovely spot than the Village of Truro.” — The Memorials of the
Reverend John Sprott, in 1847
Robert Lome Stanfield was born here 67 years later — on April 11, 1914, to be precise — and by then the Village of Truro, no longer content to be merely a new Heaven and a new earth, was calling itself The Hub of the Province, and there were no fewer than 36 freight trains and 34 passenger trains running in and out of town every single day and, if you chose not to believe the local boosters on that particular point, well, then you could go right on down to “one of the costliest railroad stations of any town along the line of the Intercolonial Railway” and count the trains for yourself.
The railroad station was, as they say, some big; and the ICR had built it to last, out of the finest red sandstone. It had a dining room, a carved wooden counter of exceptional quality, an ample number of ice-cream chairs, plates of fruit and sugar buns under handsome glass bells, potted plants of the very best kind, gorgeous silver cash registers, a sufficiency of spittoons and, since a man had only to go five miles into the hills to kill all the moose he could haul home, the Truro railroad station also had no fewer than 17 mooseheads on the walls. It was a pretty good railroad station, all right, and Truro was a pretty good town in which to find oneself suddenly alive, and named Stanfield.
Bob Stanfield’s hometown made a statement about the people who lived there and the statement was that if men will only apply hard work, hard heads, horse sense and thrifty business practices they can arrange their corner of the world to suit themselves. / continued on page 70 Truro’s population amounted to about 7,000 souls in the years that Bob Stanfield was growing from infancy to boyhood, but it had as many house telephones as most towns of 10,000. It had its own street-lighting plant and 600 lights under the eternally beautiful elms and maples that brought midsummer shade to the people and the horses on its streets, and 152 of these lights were exceptionally handsome three-globe clusters of the sort you might see in London, England, or Paris, France.
You would say that such facts could scarcely have interested the boy Bob Stanfield. Little boys do not ponder the satisfactory state of municipal affairs. They do not go to bed at night, reminding themselves that the Truro town council consists of one mayor, and two councillors from each of three wards. And yet ... he was a Stanfield. He could not help but know that his father’s opinions mattered a lot to whatever mayor and whatever six councillors happened to be in office at any one time. Boys absorb some knowledge without ever trying.
Moreover, there’s just the plain old educational fact of small-town life. The essential economic and social and political information in a Truro, NS — the number of trains, the number ’of street lights, the number of black neighborhoods, the fact that just about everyone spoke English and only English, the facts that the Presbyterians outnumbered the Anglicans two to one and that there were only 400 Roman Catholics in the whole town, the fact that the 340 boys and girls who boarded at the provincial normal school spent $70,000 right here in Truro every year — these things were known to virtually everyone. They might intrude on you even if they did not fascinate you. They were like stories about the scandals of the local rich. Known.
Such information becomes a part of your sense of place because the town is yours in a way in which no city ever belongs to anyone and, when you step out your front door and close it firmly behind you and walk along Prince Street and all the way down to the railroad station, you still have not even left your house, not entirely, because the whole town is a kind of extension of the house. In Truro, this was particularly true if your name happened to be Stanfield.
“Bob was not an unusual boy in any way,” his third and youngest brother
said half a century later. His name is Gordon D. Stanfield but everyone calls him Pete. His voice is flat, dry, both assertive and quavering. It is uncannily similar to Bob’s radio voice, and he clearly did not want to grant an interview' about their boyhood together. “He grew' up normally ... He generally didn’t drag his kid brother along . . . [The interview] can’t help my brother in any way politically ...” Not an unusual boy in any way. He grew up normally. They all tell you the same thing. They’re middleaged men now, guys with paunches and shiny heads of their own, and they’ve got jobs in car lots or tourist offices or soap companies and they, too, have been gone from Truro for a long time, and their own sons are already older than they were themselves in the time they knocked around with Bob Stanfield. They all say he was “likable.” He was “more or less of a reserved type.” Once you got to know him, and that did take a while, he was( “an exceedingly fine fellow.” He was not wildly popular but he was certainly “a nice fellow to be with.” He was good at hockey, good at English rugby, good at swimming, pretty good at tennis, pretty good at paddling a canoe. He was a good trader of postage stamps, a good lover of Duke Ellington and, by the time he was 13 or 14, he was already a good guy to play cards with at a summer cottage. He preferred his friends to pay their poker debts. Bob Stanfield was “a fine, good, solid kid,” and that’s all. If the farmhouse was good enough for Bob’s father, it was good enough for anyone. “There was no side to Frank Stanfield,” recalls one old Tory. “There was never a Stanfield yet that was a snob. That was their secret in politics. They were all so damn natural the people had to vote for them.”
Nobody recalls much more about him. One fellow does remember that he and Bob and some other guys used to sneak out at night and silently push a neighbor’s car down the street. Then, they’d turn on the engine and go for clandestine joy rides, and those nights were the closest Bob ever came to a life of crime. They do not prove much, except that once, in a forgotten summer, people left their cars out all night with the keys in the ignition.
Another guy remembers that Bob Stanfield, even as a boy, w'as “an awful stickler for the truth. With Bob, everything had to be straight and right.” On occasion he also had a hot temper but, among the Stanfields, there w'as nothing unusual in that. “You know,” recalls a rnan who was once their neighbor, “you’d walk past their house at the dinner hour and, my God, you could hear them fighting all the way out on the street, and Bob’s voice right in there with the rest of them . . . I’ve seen him put a couple of real good lickins’ on Pete, too.”
Bob was the third of four sons (he has an older sister as well). The first two were destined to take over the family business and he apparently sensed at an early age that, if he were going to excel, he would have to do it in ways his brothers had not considered. He became the town’s most distinguished bookworm in short pants. His family called him The Professor, and an old school teacher recalls that by the time Bob reached grade nine he already had so firm a grasp of political history that his teachers, halfkidding, would say, “There goes the next Prime Minister of Canada.” (The old teacher is a Tory.) He was studious, quiet, but not shy. Composed. Every teacher should have one.
A housewife who was born in Truro, and now finds herself drifting down to her sixties in southern Ontario, recalls that she had “a terrific crush” on Bob and, not only that, so did “half the other girls in the school.” He had dark hair and sensitive eyes. A Stanfield-watcher, of whom there are many in Truro, says Bob was “perhaps the most considerate of the lot.” He was not the sort who puts pigtails in inkwells. He was athletic, brilliant, thoughtful. And rich. Every little girl should have one, too.
The Stanfields were rich but they were also careful. They did not blow their money on trips to Europe. In the summers of his earliest boyhood, Bob’s family would leave the mansion in Truro and go to live in a plain old farmhouse on a hill outside town. The place had an outhouse, and a wallbox phone with a crank. There was no running water, no electricity, and nothing much for small boys to do but dam the brook, trim the trees, pick wild berries, fetch the milk from the real farm farther down the hill, and pretend to help the farmer with his chores.
The Lieutenant - Governor of Nova Scotia, the Honorable Frank Stanfield, died in his sleep in a black and early hour of Friday, September 25, 1931, and thereby startled not only his immediate loved ones (including his fourth child, Bob, 17) but also virtually everyone else who called the little province home. His death was not appropriate. ‘Tm just beginning to live, my lad,” he’d told a newspaperman only a few days before he stopped living. He was only 59. He’d been King George V’s official representative in Nova Scotia for less than a year. He died of a heart attack in the big bed at Government House, which was (and still is) right downtown in Halifax and, a funny thing, he’d been home in Truro only the day before, only a few hours before, and if you’d run into him then, if you’d seen him striding along under the great elms of Prince Street the way he always used to — with a bouquet of late-summer roses swinging in his right hand — well, the last thing that would ever have crossed your mind would have been the death of Frank Stanfield. He looked that well. That night, the Thursday night, he caught an evening train back to Halifax, a city which Truro people have had various good reasons to distrust for more than 200 years.
Frank Stanfield was tall and his shoulders were square. He had a rugged sort of physical grace. His cheekbones were high, and the long slope of his cheeks drew down the corners of his mouth in that faint and involuntary expression of hauteur that’s so familiar in the face of Bob Stanfield. His face was heavier than Bob’s is now and, at the time of his death, he had a rich crop of white hair. Newspaper eulogists described his features as “aquiline.” They said, too, that “he never asked for advice; he gave it and, if he were in a position of authority, insisted that his opinion be followed.”
Frank Stanfield was strong, that was why his death seemed so incorrect. Everyone said he was strong. Strong-minded. There are a lot of old men in Truro who remember him yet, 41 years later, and they’re still saying he was strong. “Well, yes, Frank Stanfield could be hellish outspoken at times,” recalls a man in his eighties. “Yes, he could be abrupt. He could swear. God save us, it didn’t matter what, he’d come out with the damnedest things, and whatever he told you, you did!" Yes. Well then, sir, would you say that Robert Stanfield’s father was a domineering man? “I would not say, sir, that he was an unfairly domineering man.”
Charles Stanfield, 61, Bob’s older brother, simply advises that “Dad always knew where he was going, and went that way.” It was Frank, with his brother John, who turned his father’s knitting mill into an immensely successful and world-famous underwear empire. That was shortly after the turn of the century. Today, Charles is vice-president of the empire (his nephew Thomas is president) and, on a wall in his huge, brown, plainly furnished office on the second floor of the mill, there’s a solemn group photograph. It was taken more than half a century ago when Charles was a little boy and Bob was scarcely more than a tot, and it shows The Men Behind Stanfield’s Unshrinkable Underwear. They’re in their Sunday best and they plainly know where they are going, and intend to go that way.
Preston Wilcox, a retired gentleman who went to work for the Stanfield trust company in Truro some time before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, says that Frank Stanfield was “rather what you would call a stern man. He ran the show, there was no doubt about that. We all called him ‘The Governor.’ I remember he’d put mottos up for his employees, and he’d sign them himself. One said, ‘Don’t guess. Think. And Know.’ He was a real individualist I guess you’d call him. He was a fellow who just did things as he chose to.”
The Governor was a mediocre orator, his sons were mediocre orators and, clearly, oratory is not everything in life. Nor even in politics. Frank Stanfield disliked making speeches and he particularly disliked making speeches about Frank Stanfield. He would not talk to the press about himself (“His more intimate fancies and adventures,” a Halifax newspaper observed, “were kept to himself”) and, in this respect, he was very much like his own father, Charles, who so loathed personal publicity that he refused even to be photographed. There are many respects in which Charles, if he were alive in 1972, might recognize his grandson Bob. And Frank Stanfield would know the stubbornly reticent attitudes inside the bony head of the middle-aged man he last saw as a teen-aged boy during the deep Depression in the lost summer of '31. Every son, whether he likes it or not, is a chip off the old block.
Life around the Stanfield house during Bob’s childhood was not so solemn and dark as descriptions of The Governor might suggest. Father definitely let everyone know that he knew best, but he was not entirely an oppressor. And, although it was not the Stanfield style to throw expensive parties for adults, there were often a lot of neighborhood kids hanging around the place.
The house itself, which stood on the site of what is now Keddy’s Motor Inn (the Stanfield’s wrought iron fence still cuts across the front of the property), was one of the biggest wooden mansions in Truro, but it was not an extravagant display of the wealth that everyone in town knew the Stanfields to possess. It had a circular driveway out front, a fourth-story turret, a bit of gingerbread embroidery, and a lot of dark wood inside. It also had manicured lawns, lush flower beds, one of the biggest private libraries in town, a stock of classical music on records, and a tennis court that doubled as a hockey rink in winter. The Stanfield house had one other extraordinary advantage over other houses. Her name was Sarah Emma Thomas Stanfield. The Governor’s wife.
Mrs. Stanfield was born in Truro of Welsh and Irish descent. She was not a famous beauty but her photographs indicate she was far from homely and, more important, that she was a woman of remarkable warmth. She knew how to put people at ease. She was highly aware politically and, as Senator Fred Blois of Truro says, such women may have “great influence on any man’s political future. I think she had a great many of the attributes of Bob’s present wife.”
“What a lovely and gracious woman she was,” says an ancient Tory. She was, says the former premier of Nova Scotia, G. I. Smith, a delightful charming lady, a very, very nice delightful person. She was, says the Stanfield’s retired chauffeur Aubrey Borden, a lovely woman, a wonderful person. You could sit right down at a table with her, and talk about your troubles and, Borden says, “I can’t ever remember meeting another woman of her standard.” She was, says her son Charles, “a little bit of a thing,” but the music, the books, the reading programs for the children, the color and lightness of life at the house on Prince Street were all due to her gentle and powerful influence.
The Stanfields were loyal adherents and discreet benefactors at St. John’s Church, the first Anglican church built of stone in all of Nova Scotia, but Mrs. Stanfield had broader Christian interests as well. On assorted missions to help the poor, Senator Blois recalls, she’d visit places “I’d be afraid to go into.” She gave money to Zion Baptist Church, the black congregation to which her chauffeur adhered; she gave money to good causes and hard-pressed individuals; she was up to her concerned ears in Red Cross and Salvation Army work; she backed various politicians with hard cash; and, along with her husband, she had the knack of “going calling.” The Stanfields, despite their awkwardness on a platform, were beautifully comfortable while chatting in someone’s barnyard and, on many a golden Sunday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Stanfield would be miles away from town, up in the hills, paying their casual respects to families they had not seen for a while.
People in the Twenties seldom thought of women as politicians but, in the years in which Bob Stanfield was growing up gracefully in Truro, his mother may just have been the finest natural politician in Colchester County. She’s been dead for nearly a decade but, even now, you can’t find even a Grit who’ll bad-mouth Sarah Emma Thomas Stanfield.
The Stanfields are all Tories and, therefore, any good Grit will tell you that they’re a bunch of cheap skates who sit on their wealth and never do a damn thing for the town that’s helped line their pockets. Any good Tory, on the other hand, will tell you that the Stanfields are too modest to erect public edifices in honor of themselves but that every last one of them has performed hundreds of secret good deeds for impoverished widows, destitute old men, starving children. The truth is that the Tories are partly right, which is one reason why the voters invariably reject even exceptionally gifted Grit candidates in favor of Stanfield men.
The Stanfields are secretive about their good deeds. One does not advertise that one is an easy mark, and flaunting one’s wealth is not merely bad politics it is something even worse. Bad business. The wife of a Stanfield worker died suddenly in the Twenties. “She’s to have a first-class funeral,” Frank Stanfield told his plant manager. “I’ll pay for it but don’t you tell the undertaker. You just say you’re doing it yourself. If he knows it's me, he’ll soak us.” The widower would know, without being told, who had bought the funeral. That was enough. Charity need not be folly.
The Stanfields’ most effective charity, politically, was a part of their business. It grew out of a highly paternal regard for the well-being of their own workers. They bought flowers for employees’ funerals. They paid grocery bills, sick pay, rent, unofficial pensions. At the height of the Depression, Frank Stanfield Jr. achieved the relative miracle of avoiding mass layoffs. An early admirer of the Stanfield underwear factory referred to the 200 workers there as “a sea of happy faces.” They were also a sea of happy Stanfield voters, and they all had spouses, mothers, uncles, in-laws and friends, and these people too would have their day in the polling booth. Moreover, through the familyowned Acadia Trust Company, the Stanfields managed a lot of people’s investments and held a lot of people’s mortgages. It is unlikely that any family anywhere has ever managed to mix business, politics and charity more neatly than the Stanfields have.
Bob Stanfield was not eager to become a professional politician but, unless he’d retreated to a holy temple in the highlands of Tibet, it is difficult to see how he could have avoided his destiny. From 1907 until now, for 65 consecutive years, there has not been a day that a Stanfield, or a Stanfield employee, or a Stanfield inlaw or, anyway, someone directly under the Stanfield influence has not held an elective office. In Stanfield country, no member of the family has ever been defeated in an election.
Gordon D. Stanfield was the youngest of the five children. He’s 56 now, an engineer, a successful businessman in his own right down in Dartmouth, NS, and once, not too long ago, he was heard to remark good-naturedly that nobody named Stanfield could ever tell him what to do any more. The remark may be apocryphal but it illustrates a truth: a refusal to let people tell you what to think is as true to the Stanfield family character as reticence is. Was The Governor a strong-minded man? “Well, you see,” Preston Wilcox replies, “they’re all strong-minded men . . . and Bob, he could make up his own mind all right, and you scratch him just where you hadn’t ought to and, boy, the sparks will fly!”
Wilcox recalls that Bob, when pressed, could be “very thorny.” Wilcox himself did some of the pressing because he worked for the Acadia Trust Company and, for a brief unhappy spell, so did Bob. Bob was 25 or 26 then. At Dalhousie University he’d majored in Political Science and Economics and won the Governor General’s gold medal for the highest academic standing in the class of ’36. He’d also graduated from the Harvard Law School. He had, as Wilcox concedes, the broadest outlook and the finest brains in the Stanfield family. He also detested life in the trust company that his family owned. It was pretty clear that, if he’d just hang on, he’d eventually wind up running the place but he disliked the work and he disliked the management, and one day, after a particularly nasty confrontation with the manager of the business, he walked out and did not come back. He was not sure where he was going but he knew he was his own man.
The sparks used to fly around the house a bit, too. Oh yes, Charles remembers, sure, “We’d argue to beat hell, mostly about sports, about hockey and baseball teams. Dad always followed the NHL and bigleague baseball.” At the mill in the daytime, at the trust company in the evening and at home on Prince Street, the meat and potatoes of Frank Stanfield’s incisive discourse were business and politics. If the dessert course was a hearty wrangle over, say, what the “lively ball” was doing to big-league pitching, one imagines that Mrs. Stanfield and her one daughter Kathryn (Kit) must occasionally have fled, screaming, to the sewing room.
Kit, incidentally, was the entire audience late on the night that Bob stalked around the living room with his shoes in his hands, declaiming about world affairs and banging his shoes on a table to drive home his points. Kit was 22, Bob was 16 and, before he was through, the whole family was wide awake. Even at that age, Bob had read more history than any other Stanfield had and, in whatever political debates raged within the family bosom, he usually stood as a minority of one against orthodox Toryism. “That Bob,” said his eldest brother Frank Jr., “he’s nothing but a damn Grit.”
He was not so much a Grit, however, as a rebel against the overwhelming forces of town and family that threatened his power to choose the direction of his own life. As far back as his days as a teen-aged counselor at a YMCA summer camp, there among the lore of the Micmacs, the smell of the spruce and the camaraderie of the cookout, young Bob Stanfield was trying to work out in words his own set of political beliefs.
Senator Blois remembers, “There was a time — it was after he finished Harvard, I think — some of us just wondered what his politics were going to be. He didn’t seem to have any set views. He’d get groups of young people together, all over Nova Scotia, just to meet and talk politics. He said he was going to study the policies of everyone, the Conservatives, the Liberais, the CCF.” How very strange. The CCF? Study their policies? For other Stanfields, it was enough to know that CCF stood for Cancel Canada’s Freedom.
Senator Blois — who has worked for the Tories in every election, federal and provincial, since 1911 — is pleased to remember that Bob Stanfield did finally decide that “the Conservative Party was the only one he could support.” Bob was well over 30 before he allowed the Conservative Party into his heart. He was living in Halifax by then. Years before, he had decided that whatever his future might be, it did not lie in the new Heaven and the new earth of Truro, Nova Scotia. ■