By John Mather
That can’t be Sheldon Levy’s car. This can’t be his driveway. The most powerful man at Ryerson can’t drive a silver Toyota Corolla. My girlfriend drives a Corolla.
Yet sure enough, marching through knee-high snow, his face glowing red from the cold, the president emerges with shovel in hand. He’s been clearing off the back deck of his cottage in the town of Marmora and Lake where he’s one of its 4,000 residents.
“You’re from the Eyeopener?” he says, smiling at myself and Jamie, the photographer. “Welcome to my cottage.”
This is where the big-city university president prefers to spend his free time, two hours east of Toronto, a kilometre from Crowe Lake in the Canadian Shield. These nine acres are his fortress of solitude. And, for whatever reason, Sheldon has agreed to spend the afternoon with us and show us his laid-back alter-ego,
Sheldo: the Country Cottager.
Sheldon didn’t exactly invite the Eyeopener to his summerhouse. We asked if we could visit over the holidays and, to our surprise, he said sure. His assistant arranged for us to meet him on Dec. 21, the Friday before Christmas. We had no idea what to expect. In fact, after inviting us inside, he asks Jamie and I what we want to do, and we both turn to each other for an answer.
“Uh….” And so he suggests we start with lunch. If he weren’t the President of Ryerson, Sheldon would be a chef. Not a very good one, he admits, but a passionate one.
“I’m only average at it, but I love it nonetheless.” After making two hot chocolates, he boils the “best corned beef in the world,” flown in from Montreal. He then sliced “the best” rye bread and served “the best” olives before pulling out a tub of President’s Choice chocolate fudge brownie ice cream stating without irony, “This isn’t the world’s best.”
At home, Sheldon is not the bumbling visionary with the toothy smile I know from campus.
The president is at ease. He even utters the odd curse. His distinct drawl, which delivers quasi-coherent, media-savvy thoughts during the newspaper’s usual early-morning meetings, is quick and delivers points with clarity. He’s resting on the couch, dressed comfortably in jeans and a denim Harley Davidson shirt, no shoes. I find it odd that Sheldon is here alone, so I ask where his family is.
He explains that his partner, Tracey, a public school teacher, is coming up tomorrow with her children.
His kids will come to the cottage after spending Christmas at their mother’s. As for what holiday Sheldon celebrates, he jokes: “You name it, we’ve got it.” One child is Catholic, another is Protestant and the president was raised Jewish. He says the cottage is the perfect place to host his multi-family, multi-faith Christmas.
The main house is a gorgeous wood construction; a cozy, stove-heated getaway ripped from the pages of Cottage Life. Guests enter the house through a massive 6.5-foot by 6-foot door. It’s decorated in a minimalist fashion and Sheldon’s bedroom is surprisingly tiny, having only a bed and two night tables. The main floor is a wide-open space with an ideal kitchen for an amateur chef.
A Christmas tree stands tall near the dining table. Close to the patio doors is the large flat-screen TV that satisfies Sheldon’s film addiction.
His favourite is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Outside, four scrap-metal sheds surround the cottage. “He kept on building the suckers,” Sheldon says about the previous owner, who made metal siding and eavestroughs.
The metalworker sold the house, shacks and all, three years ago because he could actually see neighbouring houses through the forest. Sheldon chuckles at this, “It’s like the urbanization of Marmora; I can almost hit a golf ball to my neighbours house.”
In fact, properties are so spread out that the area is prone to break-ins. In November, thieves pried open Sheldon’s patio door with a crowbar.
They nabbed a TV, a DVD player and a computer. By the time Sheldon discovered the mess, police had already arrested the robbers for breaking into 20 cottages.
The thieves had been using Sheldon’s subwoofer as a car stereo. Sheldon admits he isn’t surprised it happened, but still found it upsetting.
The cottage is meant to be his refuge from the big city. It’s here, he says, he can sit and do 12 straight hours of work, no interruption.
He can watch birds, movies and the gauge on his wood-stove (to prevent fires). And for fun, he can ride his all-terrain-vehicle.
After lunch, Sheldon offers me a ride on his Polaris 500cc. I struggle to straddle my legs behind his back as he starts up the red monster.
We travel five metres before getting stuck. Sheldon revs the engine and the thick rubber shoots snow up beside us.
He reverses and hits the gas again. The debris from the tires turns brown from the mud and grass.
“I think it’s the added weight in the back,” Sheldon says tactfully. I hop off and push.
Sheldon keeps on giving the ATV gas, and after it starts moving again, he offers me the chance to drive. I can’t refuse. And just when I feel this is too bizarre, Sheldon begins to straddle me.
Hoping over my back I hear him mutter: “Oh god, what I wouldn’t do for the newspapers. This is nuts.” With that, I rev the ATV and it stutters out of his driveway and to the open road.
We don’t wear helmets. I feel like a rebel; like Easy Rider, except with one big red ATV, 30 years in age difference, and the president’s crotch straddling my back.
Sheldon takes over after I stall the ATV by the lake. He drives a lot faster than I do and takes tighter turns.
This free-wheeler can’t be the same man who drives that Corolla. And he’s not.
Sheldon explained earlier that the car in the driveway is a loaner. His brand new Toyota Highlander is in the shop after an old woman rear-ended him “on it’s first tank of gas.”