My birthday gift? Learning how storytelling shapes me

My media pass – now cancelled.

I gave myself a special birthday gift as I turned 51 years old.  

I left my job and accepted a buyout.  A “voluntary departure,” as it was called by Metroland, owner of The Waterloo Region Record

To me, it was a “self-administered layoff” from 30 years of journalism. My dream job was leaving me, so I decided to leave it first. Freedom, right?

One problem:  I had no fallback plan.  So for a reliable guy who’s always sought stability and comfort – I’m a stick-in-the-mud Taurus, after all – 2016 was kind of a freaky year.

No worries, I thought. I never seriously considered falling into a mid-life crisis, although the thought of a buying little red convertible sounds sweet. I already like riding motorcycles and gawking at airplanes.

Instead, of panicking – well, at least not panicking too much – I thought about how I got to age 51. Who am I? How have I handled challenges over the years?

It was clear to me I got to where I am by asking questions and sharing stories.

My farm story

I grew up on a farm just south of Hamilton.  Up on the Mountain, if you know the area.  The farm is just east of the country crossroads of Elfrida, where Highways 20, 53 and 56 meet.

The Swayze farm, at Elfrida, near Hamilton, Ontario.

I used to attend the little red-brick Elfrida United Church in the village. It was just across the highway from an Esso gasoline station and a Voyageur restaurant where truckers and school buses always stopped.  

Today, Hamilton is overrunning the place: townhouses are on marching across farm fields. The little church closed and was converted into a restaurant. Beside the former church are liquor and beer stores.  My fire-and-brimstone, teetotaling Methodist grandmother must be spinning in her grave in the Swayze Family Cemetery, nearby on Highway 56. 

The Swayze Family cemetery, Highway 56, south of Hamilton, Ont.

When I stand where I expect to be buried, I see superstores emblazoned with names like Wal-Mart, Canadian Tire and Fortinos. I always think “There goes the neighbourhood.”

But if I turn to the right, I see the farm where I worked in the fields every summer. Everybody pitched in working in the fields.  I remember how money was tight.  My mom made many of the clothes my little brother and I wore to public school.  My dad milked cattle morning and night, every day of the year. I remember no holiday trips when I was young.

Self-reliance grows

Farm life made me self-reliant. I watched my dad repair equipment in the fields, pour concrete around the barns and fix the roof of a century-old farmhouse.  I watched my mother make quilts and wedding dresses to earn a little extra money. I’m not a half-bad cook: she taught me well. 

I devoured history books as a kid – and still do when I make the time as an adult. How-to books are now my go-to reading as an adult. Storytelling teaches me how to design things, build things and repair things.

My love of photography landed me a job in a camera store at age 16. I was researching and writing after school, too, making a few bucks selling photos and stories to aviation magazines in England and the United States.

In high school, I was thinking about going to university and earning an engineering degree.  I dreamed about designing things and building things.  Then I ran square into my nemesis: three math courses in Grade 13. I worked hard to pass them all and barely scraped through to pass algebra. That experience prompted me to scrap any plans for a math-laden career, such as engineering. 

Journalism is the way

Instead, I studied Journalism at Conestoga College in Kitchener. All the while, I continued working at camera stores to help pay my bills while in school. I graduated with honours in 1986 and started working at a little business magazine in Guelph.

Kevin Swayze media card 1987
Kevin Swayze’s 1987 media card while working at the Cambridge Reporter newspaper.

A year later, I landed a job at the Cambridge Daily Reporter. I liked getting paid to chase fire trucks and ask people questions. I also learned how to apply my rudementary math skills to explain city budgets and tax increases. I learned to use questions and storytelling so numbers made sense to me and my readers.

Redheads

Along the way, I fell for a redhead in Hespeler. Christine and I were blessed with three children: Ben, Alison and Theresa.  Then life got complicated and I learned how resilient I am.

Christine was diagnosed with cancer in June 2003.  The Reporter closed three months later, as her chemotherapy continued.  I landed work at The Record a few months after that. Christine beat back her cancer by late 2004, but it returned in summer 2005. I cared for her at home so our children kids had every moment they could with their mom, before she died on Boxing Day 2005.

I raised three kids on my own. Kids never complained about my cooking that I remember.

I continued volunteering at the Cambridge YMCA as a fitness instructor, too. I still volunteer at the Y today.

Cambridge YMCA, 250 Hespeler Road, Cambridge.

Four years ago, I met Kim.  She is a redhead. I am a lucky man.

Today, we live just off Blair Road in Cambridge, Ontario. My children are all – more or less – launched from the house, working or at university. Kim’s son, Adam, is a bit younger and spends every other week with us as he nears his teen years.

There’s also two dogs, and a minimum of three cats at the house any given day.

Looking back over how I got here, all this storytelling to myself is comforting. I’m not too worried about bailing on my job before it bailed on me.  And to be honest, I kind of liked not working most of spring, summer and fall of 2016, after I left newspapers behind.

In between sending out resumes in 2016, I did a little freelance writing, too. I felt like I was a teenager again, telling and selling stories.

Public speaking is storytelling

I joined Cambridge Toastmasters after I left the Record. I have my dad’s ability to talk with anyone, anytime.  I’m also not bad at applying my storytelling skills to writing speeches and delivering presentations.

I also started volunteering with the Mill Race Folk Festival in 2016. I stared by taking care of publicity and later joined the board. I put my storytelling experience to work while applying for private and government grants to help pay for the free-admission community music event on the Civic Holiday Weekend in August.

Sorting out signs at the 2016 Mill Race Festival of Traditional Folk Music, in Cambridge, Ont.

By the end of the 2026, I landed a 10-week gig as a communications officer at McMaster University.  A good start to a new career, perhaps?

Maybe that’s the birthday gift I gave myself that year. The confidence to seek out a new future. I’ll let you know how it goes.

This is the text of an icebreaker speech project presented at Cambridge Toastmasters Jan. 5, 2017.