Portrait of the artist as a young man: Sketches of shirtless Stompin' Tom unveiled

·6 min read
The three figures on the left were based on sketches taken of Tom Connors when he was a student at Saint John Vocational School in the early 1950s.
The three figures on the left were based on sketches taken of Tom Connors when he was a student at Saint John Vocational School in the early 1950s.

(Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery)

It's hard enough to imagine Stompin' Tom Connors without his trademark black Stetson and cowboy boots.

How about as a bare-chested teenager, wearing very short athletic shorts and high-top sneakers?

Almost 70 years after Connors posed for Saint John artist Fred Ross, a sketch of the Canadian music icon is being revealed publicly for the first time by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

John Leroux, manager of collections and exhibitions for the gallery, said a donor has turned over several of Ross's early sketches, including one that features Connors "long before he put the Stompin' in his name."

The sketch became the basis for several characters in a mural that Ross painted at Saint John Vocational School in the 1950s, when Ross taught art there. It shows a young man wearing only high tops and what appears to be a swimsuit.

"At the time, he was just a poor high school student," said Leroux.

Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery

"That's it. He was just a person. He wasn't famous. He probably never would have assumed he was going to be famous. He probably thought he'd have a boring … difficult life.

"It's amazing. Here's this guy wearing his shorts in a mural."

Connors has written and recorded some of Canada's most iconic songs, including The Hockey Song, Sudbury Saturday Night, and Bud the Spud.

In 1996, he was made an officer of the Order of Canada, and in 1993, he declined to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

There was no question he was famous, and he had a love-hate relationship with fame.

But in his childhood hometown, and the high school he attended for two years, there's been very little — if any — recognition.

Courtesy of Canadians Songwriters Hall of Fame
Courtesy of Canadians Songwriters Hall of Fame

"I've been here 22 years and his name has never been mentioned," said Susan Thompson, the librarian at Harbour View High School, where Connors enrolled in 1950 when it was called Saint John Vocational School.

That was also the year he bought his first guitar.

"In the 22 years I've been here, nobody's ever celebrated anything in his memory, not even when he passed away … in 2013," said Thompson.

"He has never been really recognized in our school."

Thompson said she's known for many years that Connors was the model for the shirtless subjects in the mural — she said Ross himself told her that.

She's not sure why so little fuss has been made about her school's connection with such a national musical icon.

Principal Michael Butler isn't sure either.

"He really hasn't gotten his due," said Butler.

Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery

Nor has he been given his due from the city where he was born.

Charles Thomas Connors was born in Saint John on Feb. 9, 1936, to an unwed teenage mother. According to his autobiography, Before the Fame, he often lived hand-to-mouth as a youngster, hitchhiking with his mother from the age of three, begging on the street by the age of four.

By the time he was eight, he was taken away from his mother and placed in the care of Children's Aid. A year later, he was adopted by a family in Skinners Pond, P.E.I.

Connors ran away four years later to hitchhike across the country, surviving on odd jobs — on fishing boats, picking tobacco, as fry cook or grave digger — as he wandered from town to town

While many stories indicate that he continued his musical odyssey across the country, singing for his supper, he actually returned to Saint John in 1950 and enrolled that September at Saint John Vocational School, where students went to prepare for work life, rather than for continuing education at university.

Thompson was able to locate Connors's registration card, which lists his date of birth as Feb. 10, 1936, not Feb. 9 as is usually cited.

According to the card, both of his parents were alive, he lived at 29 Wellington Row, and he had transferred from school in Prince Edward Island, where he finished Grade 8 with a 93 per cent.

Thompson said she was "thrown for a loop" at his marks from P.E.I. because "he wasn't a good student" and he had a reputation as a "bad boy."

Although his registration document still exists, there is no other record of his time there.

Thompson said the school's first yearbook didn't come out until 1956, so the only pictures were of graduates. She said the monthly newsletters didn't include any mention of him in sports or musical activities.

Connors was enrolled in a "commercial" program, said Thompson, so his school path should not have crossed with Ross, the art teacher.

"Fred obviously recognized something in this guy," said Leroux.

Perhaps, he said, the charisma that would eventually take him to the national stage was apparent at that time.

Leroux said he's just glad for the opportunity to share the product of an unlikely intersection of a locally renowned artist with the future music star, while both were at Voc, as it was often called.

Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery

And the significance isn't lost on Leroux. After all, many poor families — and Connors's was poorer than most — did not have a camera.

So the sketches of a 14- or 15-year-old Connors are likely among the earliest.

"It's probably one of the oldest, if not the oldest," said Leroux.

Connors himself referred to the murals in his autobiography.

He wrote that "when the art department had been commissioned to paint [Humanistic Education] many years ago, it was I who had posed for all the male characters now seen holding their footballs, hockey sticks, basketballs and various other sports equipment. (The faces, however, had all been mercifully modified to give each character a semblance of good looks.)"

The sketch of Connors, along with several others from over the years, remained in Ross's personal collection until about 15 years ago, when they were purchased as a group by the donor, said Leroux.

Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery
Submitted by Beaverbrook Art Gallery

"This means they would have been all but hidden from public view."

They were offered to the Beaverbrook about a year and a half ago.

Leroux said he was going through the collection when he came across the sketch and instantly knew it was Connors — but not because the sketch is any kind of likeness to the Stetson-topped singer he would later become.

In a twist of fate, Leroux had actually written his master's thesis on the mural. He may have been one of the few people on the planet who could have made the connection so quickly.

He said the discovery is "of national importance."

"It talks about Saint John, this young man that went through some serious kind of economic and social catharsis at the time. But it talks about … the social history, the musical history, the artistic history, basically on so many levels, the cultural history of Canada and how it was really focused on Saint John at the time in so many ways."