Fireside Chats with Alan Davis
Columns / December 16, 2014
Brown paper packages tied up with string.
By Samantha Thompson
“Are we rolling Bob?” Alan Davis asks me as I turn on my recorder. “That’s a Bob Dylan quote,” he explains. “In the beginning of one quote he says, ‘Are we rolling Bob?’ and then he starts singing.”
Davis, the president of Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has been sitting down with us on a regular basis for almost a full semester, and we’ve covered a myriad of topics: what it’s like to be president, finding money for universities in a time when funding is constantly being cut, and open education. Today though, we’re taking a break from some of the more serious topics to talk about Christmas. On this topic, like so many others, Davis has a host of anecdotes that he’s able to captivatingly share in his talent as a storyteller.
When he was a student in England, he would come back home each winter for Christmas and get a job at the post office. He was joined by other returning students, who were all hired on as the extra staff. According to Davis, the other “posters” loved it because they had so many students around, and they were able to have lots of fun.
“So you’d be driving around delivering parcels,” says Davis, “and it’s quite wonderful if you’re on parcel delivery, [because] you know that this family has been waiting for the parcel and you get to deliver it–you feel a bit like Santa Claus.”
There were some packages that were evident through the packaging like the Pirelli calendar, which he describes as “this sort of Sports Illustrated, kind of cheesecake, calendar.”
“It would be sent out and you could tell it was the Pirelli calendar, and sometimes it fell open,” he says.
Perhaps the most comedic is that people would send bottles of whiskey through the mail, with sometimes disastrous results.
“People would literally send a bottle of whiskey in a piece of brown paper and wrap it up with a piece of string, and send it through the mail,” says Davis. “Sometimes, sadly the bottle would break. [But] you’d hang it up by the string on a coat hook and put a cup underneath, and you could get a nice shot out of that.”
“It tasted a bit cardboardy sometimes but you know, companies would be sending out bottles of whisky to all their clients–it’s crazy.”
Every year the students would return to the post office, and Davis says it would get cold so they’d go out caroling and then go to the pub. They gathered together year after year, and although he acknowledges that it probably only lasted three years, he says it “seemed like it went on forever.”
“The whole thing, from the time you came home for Christmas for about two weeks . . . it seemed like it was just like hard work and hard partying and by the time it came to Christmas Day you were just going to sleep through it anyway,” says Davis. “But you made some friendships for life there, [and] it was quite wonderful.”
This year, his Christmas will be quite different. Davis and his wife are going to Florida, something he used to do every winter when he lived in New York as the president of the State University of New York-Empire State College. From New York to Florida, says Davis, “It’s just a hop.”
“We’re going there for two weeks and I’m hoping to try and detach a bit from KPU,” he says. “Not reading mail all the time, and . . . if the place is burning down you can phone me but otherwise…”
They’re driving from Fort Meyers to a house they’ve rented. The house is beside a canal so you have to watch for alligators, according to Davis.
“You rent a little car so you can toodle around, and you can drive and you’ll be out at the beach . . . and there’s some islands and there’s some places where you can get a little ferry over to an island that has no vehicles,” he explains. “Really it’s just a beach and some facilities, and you can have an ice cream and sit on the beach. It is quite beautiful.”
Davis is determined to keep Florida low-key. When his wife suggested they find a hotel to eat Christmas dinner at, he quickly dissuaded her. “That means getting up, getting dressed, cleaning up, driving, sitting with a bunch of people I don’t know, eating Christmas dinner–it sounds awful!”
“I just don’t want to go out and sit and be waited on and all this sort of fake cheeriness,” he explains. “So I’m trying to define the parameters of what this is going to be like, which is very simple.”
Every year Davis does send out Christmas cards, to stay in touch with a lot of people back in England and around the world. However he’s trying to generally stay away from the festive aspects, because he’s gone to so many events that are celebrations in his role as president.
“It’s been a long semester of rubber chicken and different places all over the region and Vancouver,” he says. “. . . Hopefully I can find some space and time to just read and sit and stare at nature. That’s my Christmas.”
“I think next year if we did a traditional Christmas I would enjoy it a lot more,” he notes. “I think I’m at the age where every other year for everything [works well]–every other year for a birthday, every other year for Christmas.”
“I’m good for every other year right now, just ‘cause [of]…the pace of life.”