A younger Andy Michaelson worked as a radio DJ and reporter at stations in Alberta and in British Columbia. In the 1960s, there was a moment that should help anyone to understand the man who came to be known as much for his voice, his interest in justice, his sense of humour, and his ease at troublemaking.
DJs, as you might expect, are supposed to play songs from the playlist, whether they like them or not. Andy was a guy, however, who was devoted to singers with strong, beautiful voices and he could not suffer the others.
“One of the songs, he considered to be just absolute trash. While he was on air, he said, ‘I’m to play this particular song and, oops… I accidentally dropped the record,’” reminisced his wife, Carol Fergusson, mimicking the man bringing the despised vinyl record down hard with both hands over his knee.
“He broke it to pieces,” she laughed. “That was classic Andy.”
Yes, that was Andy, a wonderful and wonderfully complicated man who died last week at the age of 71. Respectful, loyal and personable, he was the kind of guy who would strike up conversations with everyone on the block from the janitor to the king. It wasn’t simply to learn their names either. He was deeply interested in who they were as people.
The first time I ever had a beer with him, he greeted the server by name even though he hadn’t seen her in years. He remembered her and her children, and asked how they were doing in their sports. And he remembered everybody he met over all these many years he had on this planet.
And they would remember him too, for he was impossible to forget: barrel-chested, bearded, and full of joy and mirth.
Everyone who knew Andy knew his biting, wry sense of humour, none more so than Carol, his partner of almost 24 years.
Last fall, when the growth on his neck was determined to be stage 4 laryngeal cancer, they decided to approach his disease, his treatment, and his prognosis with the same aplomb that one might find on a bumper sticker.
“Even through the worst of the sickness he told people that his view was ‘shit happens.’ When he first got the diagnosis, he and I were going to sit holding hands and think about how we were going to handle it. We decided to go through it with a bad sense of humour. Some people may find it a little tasteless but we thought it was hilarious.”
Laughing through the pain was a key that just might have been a saving grace to them in these last few months. Andy had to develop his joy because of his lifelong struggle with depression and bipolar disorder. “As hard as he was on others, he was harder on himself,” she said.
In the online obituary, it says, “Andy worked very hard to keep the black dog at bay.” She called it “the bipolar roller coaster.” Maybe that was her way of showing him that she could make jokes with both halos and horns too.
Some people describe that humour as wicked. They discussed an appropriate urn for his ashes, and an ice cream tub was a strong candidate. He always liked to get a rise out of people, Carol suggested. She could give you better examples of how wicked their humour was, as much of it is unprintable in a family paper.
That kind of courtesy and respectfulness to others was important to Andy, no matter their religion, or culture, or anything else. He helped people when he saw that they were struggling, whether he knew them or not. He held doors open for women. He gave praise and boosted others as easy as breathing. He drew people out. If he liked you and saw the goodness in your heart, you had a golden friend. If you slipped in your manners, he would meet that discourtesy with his own version of justice. Sometimes that took the form of bar fights. Carol recalled him saying that the secret to winning a fight was being able to take more pain than the other guy.
Andy could indeed take a lot of pain but he burned a lot of bridges because of his struggles with people and conformity, she continued.
“When he was abrasive, most of the times he was intending to be abrasive because there was something that he felt needed to be said or he thought somebody was behaving inappropriately. He had certain standards of behaviour. He had high expectations of [civility]and how people should be treated. You knew if you were his friend or his wife, that there was absolutely no question that if you ever needed him, he would be there for you.”
He was a radio man. He was opinionated. He was a publicist. He was a poet. Last year, he was preparing to publish a book of his poetry, even having public readings lined up. But then the growth on his neck came and tried to take his voice away. That’s one way to pick a fight with a guy whose voice was his art, his tool of creation, and his weapon. Cutting his voicebox out wasn’t a viable option, so he chose radiation. That’s the scrapper’s way: go down fighting.
“Andy never looked for the easy way out,” she said. “He looked for what was right and what was just.”
As an aside, Carol said that Andy’s book is still something for people to look forward to.
He was in the Navy Reserves, even while he was in high school, and always showed appreciation to members of the military for their service to country and their fellow human beings. He was a wrestler. He was a skier, something that caused his knees to falter in the last years. He was a mouthpiece too, whether he was defending others who needed a big brother, writing opinion columns about social behaviours, or when he was the media representative for Alberta Justice. I couldn’t think of a better person for the job. He lived true to himself.
And so he broke records. Well… he broke at least one record but it was a bad one in his mind. One could say that the mould was broken with him too, that ferocious gentleman, that growling teddy bear. He was one of a kind.
His memorial service takes place Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. at the John Beedle Centre at the St. Albert Botanic Park on Sturgeon Road. Certainly, the birds will sing a bittersweet lament for their friend as poets read theirs. In lieu of flowers, Andy asked that donations instead be made to the Writers’ Guild of Alberta and Women in Need Growing Stronger (WINGS) of Providence.