By Drew Halfnight
After 25 years serving street meat to hungry students, campus celebrity Ernie the Hot Dog Man is heading back to class.
“At 81, I’ll probably be the oldest student at Ryerson,” Ernie says, strolling past Lake Devo on his way to register at the Chang School. “I just want to have fun.”
Next semester, the legendary vendor will attend Computer I, a beginner’s computing class, though he adds: “I’m trying to get into philosophy, and if I don’t get into that, I’ll take Great Mysteries of the World.
“The reason I’m going to Ryerson is that they do more for the senior people than any university I know,” he says.
Ernie showered praise on the Chang school’s Life Institute, which offers daytime classes for students over 50.
Wearing a bright-red hoodie and a trendy camouflage cap, Ernie could be any Ryerson student, if it weren’t for his stoop and the cane he carries but says he doesn’t need.
A passerby’s face lights up when she sees Ernie, and she asks him for news.
“I’m doing all right for an old guy,” he chuckles. The octogenarian retired last year and is now living in a seniors’ residence in the Beaches. “I’m fighting for senior people now.”
Ever the activist, Ernie has instituted a Wednesday movie night for residents of his senior’s home.
His next plan is to visit David Miller to demand that the mayor do more for seniors in Toronto.
“These are the people who built this city. As they used to always say, ‘Ernie, you’re a pain in the ass.’”
Ernie has multiple claims to fame at Ryerson, not least of which that he worked 12-hour days for a quarter of a century at the northwest corner of Victoria and Gould.
He used to hold annual “hot dog bursary days” where all the proceeds from his sales would go to a bursary endowment fund, which eventually topped out at $26,000.
“If the mighty government can’t do it,” he says with a smile, “some poor little hot dog guy’s gotta do it.”
When Ernie retired, Ryerson professor Nelles Van Loon produced a cabaret musical about Ernie titled, creatively, “Hot Dog: the Musical.”
“One of these days we’re going to get it into theatres,” Ernie says. This won’t be the first time Ernie goes to university. He was enrolled in the University of Toronto’s electrical engineering program in the 1970s. Afterwards, he worked for a pioneering British fibre-optics company, a leading-edge technology at the time.
But Ernie tired quickly of the incessant air travel, and in the end decided, “I’ll go sell hot dogs, at least I’ll be my own man.”
Asked if he plans to patronize the new hot dog cart on his stomping grounds, he quipped, “I sold hot dogs, I never ate hot dogs — why would I start now?”
“I’ll just come and kiss babies and sign pictures and such,” he added.
Apart from the bursary, the musical and the memories, Ernie says there is one element missing form his legacy.
“Ryerson doesn’t have an official ghost,” he says. “One day when I’m long gone students will walk by at night and they’ll hear me saying,” and here he cups his hands to his mouth to make a spooky sound effect: “hoooooot doooooogs.”