The gentle voice and humorous anecdotes of Alex Mair, a man who loved Edmonton so much he couldn’t stop writing and talking about it, will be heard no more.
Author, broadcaster, historian, humorist and newspaper columnist, Mair slipped away Saturday afternoon, perhaps to finally visit some of the many famous characters of Edmonton history he spoke of so fervently and so often.
Mair died Saturday at the University Hospital of internal bleeding and organ failure after being admitted the day before. He would have turned 75 on Oct. 5.
“This city has lost an icon,” his wife, Vivienne Mair, said Sunday.
If there was one thing Mair should be remembered for, it was his gentle sense of humour, she said. “Someone once called him Gentle Ben, because he was like a big bear and his sense of humour was never hurtful. It was always soothing to the recipient,” Vivienne Mair said.
Alex Mair told his last story on CBC Radio Aug. 31.
He was scheduled to go on air last Friday, but called early in the week to bow out because of another commitment, said program host Peter Brown.
“I called him the storyteller because he was always so happy to be there and tell stories,” Brown said.
Mair also did a segment on CBC’s noon show for about three years about Alberta place names and their history.
Mair published five books in his lifetime and has another collection of Edmonton stories due out in November. His last book, Gateway City, was published last December. It topped the best-seller charts in Edmonton late last year and into the spring of this year.
Mair was born in Edmonton’s old Royal Alex Hospital in 1926. He wanted to be a writer early on, but was discouraged by his Scottish parents who wanted him to do something else to earn a decent living.
After earning a degree in civil engineering, he went to work for the city engineering department. It was there in the early 1950s that he wrote his first article on the problem of collapsing sewers in the sandy soils underneath the Highlands community.
He sold it to an engineering magazine for $25.
“He thought he had died and gone to heaven,” said his widow.
He continued writing stories and sending them to different magazines and they were always accepted. Mair then did marketing work for Inland Cement, before moving to NAIT where he helped establish the radio and television arts program. He left NAIT in 1982 and devoted his time to writing.
During the mid-1960s, he began daily humour segments on CBC Radio’s morning show, then broadcasting out of the Hotel Macdonald.
He also did a general interest column for The Edmonton Journal in the 1970s.
It was about this time current city councillor and former CBC broadcaster Larry Langley met Mair.
“Anytime we introduced him on radio, we introduced him as ‘the Mair of Edmonton,’ ” Langley recalled. “Alex liked that.”
Mair was a guy who cared very deeply about people, about his community and about those who went before him, Langley said.
“He was a very funny guy with low-key humour and a very quick wit. He just loved to tell stories,” he said.
Besides his continuing work with the CBC, Mair wrote a history column for Real Estate Weekly.
Mair is survived by his wife, three daughters and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Written by Jac MacDonald. Appeared in the Edmonton Journal, page B3, on September 17, 2001.
Road named after historian
Edmonton Journal, page B3, November 27, 2003
EDMONTON – A local historian known for weaving stories about the city’s past is now firmly part of Edmonton history himself, with a street named after him.
The Edmonton Historical Board has dedicated the stretch of 108th Avenue between 104th and 106th streets as Alex Mair Way in a ceremony. The street will still be referred to in addresses and signs as 108th Avenue, but will include signposts honouring Mair, who died in 2001 at age 74.
Mair of Edmonton’ remembered for humorous retelling of city tales: Throughout this week, meet some of the colourful characters who have made Edmonton a more interesting place to live during the city’s first 100 years.
‘MAIR OF EDMONTON’ REMEMBERED FOR HUMOROUS RETELLING OF CITY TALES
by Janet French, Edmonton Journal, page A17, October 10, 2004
Alex Mair said he feared he would only be remembered for “that damned landing pad.”
He was referring to St. Paul’s 1967 Centennial Project, which he designed — a landing pad for a potential extraterrestrial vehicle that, to date, has attracted only earthlings.
But the “Mair of Edmonton,” as he was often introduced on CBC Radio, is remembered for so much more — his gift of narration and his humorous retelling of tales from Edmonton’s past.
Mair didn’t get his start as a storyteller and a historian. He always wanted to write, but the pragmatism of his Scottish Presbyterian parents was overwhelming. “So you want to be a writer,” his father said. “But what will you do for a living?”
After graduating from what is now the Victoria School of Performing and Visual Arts, Mair went to the University of Alberta to study civil engineering and worked years for the city and with Inland Cement.
But Mair couldn’t keep his typing fingers at bay. In 1957, Mair freelanced his first humour piece to CBC Radio: A goofy account of his marching-band exploits gone horribly wrong.
Soon, he had a career in broadcasting, and also wrote columns for The Journal and Real Estate Weekly. Engineering then became his freelance work, including the landing pad. Eventually, NAIT’s administration asked him to kick off their radio and television arts program.
“There was a gradual swing from the slide rule to the typewriter,” Mair said. “I left NAIT in 1982 and have done nothing but writing ever since.”
In his later years, Mair wrote five books, including a manual on how to be a good master of ceremonies, and Gateway City, a compendium of tantalizing historical snacks from Edmonton’s past. Those who knew Mair said his storytelling was legendary because he recounted lost tales in a way anyone could digest.
Kathryn Ivany, Edmonton author and archivist, said people stopped what they were doing when Alex told a story.
“It didn’t matter how many times you had heard the story, you laughed every time because of the way Alex told it,” she said. “He had a rare gift for finding the humour in everyday life.”
Mair died in 2001 at the age of 74. At the time, he was working on a followup to Gateway City.
In 2003, the city honoured Mair by naming a section of 108th Avenue after him. Alex Mair Way can be found outside the Edmonton City Archives.