Jeff Edmunds: The Listener

Photography by Joseph Hammond

Jeff Edmunds
[A]s a group of York University students left the exam hall 35 years ago, curiously venturing into the real world, they went and drank their worries away. Sitting in a pub, with arts degrees under their belts, they asked each other the inevitable question: Well what are you going to do now?

Jeff Edmunds flew to Iceland. Icelandic Air was the cheapest route to Europe and since it was 1977, that’s where you went after a strict four years of studying. He went because travelling around Europe was a temptation too good to suppress and his career path was not yet set in any sort of stone at all. So he travelled to 16 European countries over the next three months deciding to let the rest sort itself out later.

A comfy office on Ryerson’s campus awaited him and now he is in his third decade of helping students within the School of Social Work. This year, he received the Ontario Public Service Emolyees Union’s Staff Star Award at Ryerson. The accolade recognizes the exceptional achievements of a OPSEU Ryerson staff member. “It was cool,” he says, “I’ve never won anything, I never have, and I probably never will again.”

He also says he was surprised, but it’s not surprising if you just look around his office. Its interior decorators were the forlorn students who spent time there seeking guidance. Most of what has been mounted on the walls are student gifts: pictures in frames, the tapestry beside his desk, the wooden turtle, and the caricature of him that you will see when heading to the doorway.

“I just got a nice gift from a graduating student today,” he says. He moves across the room, picks up a gift bag, and pulls out a patterned quilt. He says it’s from her home country and she will soon be leaving for Calgary. Sure, he won the Star Staff Award, but the growing collection in his office is an ongoing record of his appreciation here.

For over thirty years now he has watched campus life go through the changes. The campus has expanded significantly and the student population has obviously swelled. He was here during the pre-email era and gets andvremembers the days when he would get to know students from face-to-face conversations. But the job itself hasn’t changed that much he says. “Students are students. It’s still a hectic life there’s still a lot of pressure, financial pressure, family, and personal. The people change, but still the issues remain the same.”

Edmunds sits in his office, which faces Gerrard Street, to give students the needed care for their academic collisions – but he’s not going to brag about his efforts. “I get people that I’m listening to. They talk to me and then they thank me, and I don’t think I’ve done anything,” he says, “But it’s the listening. Listening is so important because it’s hard to find somebody depending on what your situation is.”

The second oldest of four, Edmunds has always been a people person. When asked what his favourite thing about Ryerson is, the answer seemed obvious. The students. It has always been about the connections that he makes with the souls who saunter from class to class in our own carved-out corner of downtown Toronto. That said, it does get tiring, and of course there is a home and a life away from his Gerrard Street office for when exhaustion hits.

He lives there with wife Carol… and Potter, Winchester, Margaret, and Sophie: their cats, whom they named after characters on their favourite TV show Mash. When he’s home, he’s probably reading, relaxing or exercising. And often he can be found shopping in some of Toronto’s second-hand stores – a pastime that has resulted in a closet stocked only with pre-loved outfits (even footwear he says, showing off his shiny leather shoes).

In his ten year scavenger hunt in and out of vintage shops, he has compiled a customized Jeff Edmunds closet, each item deliberately picked for his personal style. The cream coloured shirt and rust coloured vest that he currently wears are examples. His thick round-rim glasses are another.

Perhaps his Hugo Boss collection is the most brag worthy, though: he never pays much more than a twenty for one of the designer’s leather jackets. He’s a man who pays attention to what he likes and he also like bags, so he buys them. It’s as simple as that. He moves across the office and picks up the brown leather bag sitting on a chair just by the door. Real leather. Handmade. One dollar. He has learned the value of staying in tune with what he likes, and would never set foot in the stores that most other people go to. “I don’t like going to regular stores like a mall. God if I went to a mall I would die. They’re so boring.”

He has always focussed on his interests, deciding to let things fall in place around that. So far, it has worked. Perhaps this is what gives him authority to coach kids on campus trying to make their way out of an academic rut. He remembers what student life was like. “I had no clue. I was just out of high school. I was a dumb kid. I went to university, I was still dumb.” It’s a blunt confession but it’s this kind of honesty that sets him apart, earning the trust of Ryerson students while we shift from class to class baffled by our lack of intelligence after getting back essay marks and seeking to find a cure to this dumbness that seems to accompany our status as students.