Alexis Troubetzkoy. (Globe and Mail Update)
Educator. Author. Archivist. International humanitarian. Born March 6, 1934, in Clamart, France; died Jan. 22, 2017, in Toronto, of natural causes; aged 82.
School principals tend to spend 90 per cent of their attention on 10 per cent of their students. Alexis Troubetzkoy, my headmaster at Selwyn House boys high school in Montreal, would have told you that I was a member of that troublesome 10th. A descendant of Russian aristocracy, Alexis retained the formal, somewhat intimidating bearing of his czarist forebears. Yet I always found him to be humane when I was dispatched to his office. He had a habit of ending our meetings by providing me with a kind word that showed he still held out hope for me.
Disciplinary standards were different back in the 1980s, when Selwyn House still practised caning. In one school-wide assembly, one of the boys thought he would impress his friends by flipping Alexis the finger. Alexis caught him out of the corner of his eye, pointed to him, raised his voice and declared: “I will see you in my office once we’re done here.”
The boy went ashen, and spent the rest of the assembly in a state of nervous panic. Alexis, meanwhile, carried on his oration as if everything were normal. It was a sort of performance art, I later realized, meant to show us the wages of sin. It also taught me the enduring life lesson that one single, sharp display of strength and leadership can permanently affect the way a person is regarded.
After retiring from academic life, Alexis moved to Toronto, where he focused on his writing. One of his books was Arctic Obsession: The Lure of the Far North, published in 2011. A fluent Russian speaker, Alexis had mined the archives of his ancestral homeland for details of four 18th-century walrus hunters who’d spent years stranded on a remote Arctic island. At the time, I was working at a newspaper and always looking for new books to excerpt. It was only after I’d contacted the publisher that I noticed the author was once my headmaster.
Alexis and I began talking regularly, and he introduced me to his friends. I noticed that, even as an old man eating cream of carrot soup, Alexis was still a leader among men, guiding the conversation to current events and vacation plans – while sunnily steering his contemporaries away from the cranky fare you sometimes get from once-powerful men put out to pasture.
In time, I met Alexis’s wife, Helene, and other members of his family, and learned about the facets of his younger life that we schoolboys never saw: While Alexis could be an intimidating presence at Selwyn House, he was by all accounts a fun guy to have as a father. He loved nothing better than to play handyman and groundskeeper at his extended family’s backwoods property in the Laurentian mountains. Following his retirement in 1993, Alexis brought his humanitarian work to some of the most dangerous corners of the former Soviet Union. In one dramatic episode, while serving as the International Orthodox Christian Charities’ official Russian representative, he organized the effort to free two IOCC workers who’d been captured by Chechen bandits while delivering emergency relief supplies in Ingushetia.
I began meeting with Alexis in part because I was anxious to show my old headmaster that I had made something of life, and that his faith in me as a schoolboy had been justified. But in short order, I began appreciating these outings for their own sake. If I am half so active as Alexis – who kept writing books, engaging lovingly with friends and family, travelling the world and supporting important philanthropic causes until almost the last days of his life – I will count my last chapter as a success.
Jonathan Kay is a former student of Alexis’s.