INVERNESS COUNTY: There are many ways to remember Jim St. Clair; teacher, historian, environmentalist, genealogist, author, volunteer, friend, and loved one.
On May 11, St. Clair died in hospital at the age of 90.
Born in Lynn, Massachusetts on Nov. 21, 1930, St. Clair graduated with undergraduate and master’s degrees from Harvard University.
St. Clair moved to Inverness County in 1971, and lived near the Mull River home his mother grew up in. His mother, Louise, was the daughter of Susan MacFarlane of Mull River and Clarence Otis Marsh of Massachusetts.
Rankin Family member Heather Rankin is a cousin of St. Clair. He also taught her at Mabou Consolidated High School and was a regular at their home.
“He was an extension of the family, but a very close friend to my mother,” she recalled. “When I think about it, in those early years when we were really just starting out, I think he probably had a huge influence on my mother’s confidence and encouraging us to partake in music and drama, and drawing, and all of the arts.”
Rankin said St. Clair had a direct influence on her as well.
“He came from the States, and he had an incredibly open mind, and he was free-thinking. Anything that went against the grain, he was interested in,” she recounted. “I just remember he would have friends come from the States and he would always bring them to the house. And they would always bring interesting records.”
Not just personal, Rankin said this is a loss for many people.
“Such a huge loss for the entire island. He had his fingers in all the pies,” Rankin said. “He was just a wonderful, kind person who recognized when people needed that extra hand.”
One reason, according to Rankin, is that St. Clair was a vocal promoter of Cape Breton’s unique culture.
“He was very proud of his roots, he was always very proud of his connection,” she noted. “He would have reminded us to be proud of our music and our history.”
When the Rankin Family won four JUNO Awards in 1994, St. Clair travelled to Toronto.
“He came along with my mom He came to the awards, and then he came to the celebration afterward,” Rankin recalled. “It was very important to the family. He was not an aggressive person, but he was influential in many ways.
“Any time anyone of us won an award, or was interviewed on the radio, or sang at a funeral, you would get a written note from him. It was always upbeat, encouraging, brief, but it would be, ‘hurrah for sharing your voice.’ He was so thoughtful.”
Former colleague Carol Chisholm taught English and Drama with St. Clair from 1975 to 1986.
“We found, very soon, that we had a very similar teaching style, and we’ve been on the same page ever since,” she said. “We remained really close friends. I think we had mutual respect for each other, both personally and professionally.”
Chisholm said he was an “entertaining and interesting” teacher, who treated all students equally.
“He had a razor-sharp intellect. He was academically brilliant. He was very well-versed on many subjects,” she said. “He was very generous with his knowledge, his time and his material possessions.
“He encouraged people to learn about themselves. He taught the whole person, not just the subject. Very astute psychologically, he could read people very well. He encouraged critical thinking; he wanted them to learn how to develop problem-solving skills.”
Bonding over their shared love of arts and culture, the two started the Inverness County Drama Festival, which eventually led to the formations of the Inverness County Centre for the Arts, as well as Strathspey Place Performing Arts Centre.
“Very creative, a facilitator, he got things going, he rolled the balls and that was true on the large projects we worked on together,” Chisholm noted. “There was a lot of togetherness in making those things happen.”
In 1986 St. Clair was named a professor at Cape Breton University.
Author of a children’s book in cooperation with the Nova Scotia Highland Village and of two books on Cape Breton houses and their occupants in partnership with Dr. Mary K. MacLeod, St. Clair was a board member of the Nova Scotia Highland Village for more than 20 years.
He worked closely with staff in the development of Roots Cape Breton in 1987 which computerized the search for genealogical information.
St. Clair was instrumental in founding the Iona Connection, an organization of heritage organizations and individuals on Cape Breton Island. He served as president and a member of the board for many years, and through his urging, the Iona Connection was reformed as a co-op and remains as such today with over 60 member organizations.
St. Clair was a member of the Board of Governors of Nova Scotia Museum and of the former Strait Area Regional Development Agency, as well as a number of other museological and cultural organizations.
A member of the Inverness Guysborough Presbytery of the United Church of Canada, St. Clair served the church in many capacities.
Through his “Then and Now” spot on CBC Cape Breton Information Morning, St. Clair told the world about Cape Breton and its people, and local newspapers carried his columns on Cape Breton history for many years.
He donated a portion of his family’s land to create the MacFarlane Woods Nature Reserve, and was part of the effort to preserve and move two buildings, including the Malagawatch Church, by barge on the Bras d’Or Lake.
“He spent his life travelling from one board meeting to another, establishing organizations to help promote the island, but to keep people reminded of our history, and our genealogy, the long struggles people had to go through to establish life there,” Rankin noted. “He put his time in, for sure, making things happen in the community.”
Chisholm said she will miss her friend.
“I certainly will treasure the memories that Jim and I had together,” Chisholm noted. “We went through good times together, we went through bad times together but I guess that’s what friendship is made of.”
In a press release issued on May 14, Municipality of the County of Inverness staff and council said they were “deeply saddened” to hear of St. Clair’s passing.
“Jim’s death is a great loss to all who knew him and to the municipality as a whole, and he leaves behind him a more knowledgeable and connected Inverness County due to his work,” the release stated.
The municipality noted how St. Clair had a life-long enthusiasm for genealogy and family history.
St. Clair researched many of the immigrant families of Cape Breton, people of many ethnic strains, and published in Mabou Pioneer II, histories of 50 families of the Mabou area.
Among countless other accomplishments, he was the long-time genealogy editor of the Inverness County Participaper, a culture and heritage periodical published by the municipality.
“The folks in his part of Cape Breton knew Jim as a dedicated friend, teacher, mentor, and storyteller,” the release added. “Researchers often came to his door looking for information on their ancestors, and found not only the facts, but the story behind the facts. These stories, told in a deep and warm voice, wove together local anecdotes and oral narratives with historical details of time and place, bringing the past alive for all who listened.”