George Locke may have been dead 84 years, but he was man of the evening at the Royal York’s Library Bar preview

He’s ready for his close-up.

George Locke.

No matter that he has been dead 84 years.

Making the scene last week at a spiffy preview of the newly restored Library Bar, inside Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York, I turned my head upwards at one point to notice the dude keeping watch immediately over me, above the fireplace mantel nudged right next to my table for two. You could not miss the oil painting — not with the colossal ’stache on the guy. Not to mention, his hat game. And certainly not when properly introduced to the room by Edwin Frizzell, the general manager of the hotel, later in the eve.

Mr. Locke. Better known as the chief librarian in the city of Toronto from 1908 until his death in 1937 — and a transformational figure in the history of the city, back during the days we were known as Toronto the Good — his connection to the Royal York goes way back, we were told: he actually hand-selected the books for the original library found inside the Front Street grande dame, which opened in 1929.

Taking into account that a dead white guy is perhaps not the first thing one immediately envisions in terms of getting primo placement in a space like this in 2021 — his face being the first thing you will notice when you enter the posh drinking bolt — he is one dead white guy about whom I wanted to know more. And the more I researched, the more I became Team George.

The son of a Methodist preacher, born in Beamsville, Ont., in 1870, he graduated from Victoria College with a BA in classics and later did a stint at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of John Dewey (no, not that Dewey!), one of the most important scholars in America in the first half of the 20th century. Then: Harvard University, where he taught for two years. Then back to Chicago, where he joined the Department of Pedagogy as an instructor and, eventually, another professorial gig at McGill in Montreal.

By the time he landed in Toronto in his late 30s, taking up an offer to lead the Toronto Public Library, he had already arrived with fully realized ideas for a progressive library. And that he did achieve in the years that followed. He defended fiction’s right to be in the library (yes, there was a debate about this), created national story hours for children, wrote school textbooks and history books himself, proselytized warmly in general about education and was instrumental in putting non-English books into the library system (gathering materials in Russian, Yiddish, Italian and Lithuanian for new immigrants — daring at the time).

According to Margaret Penman, who wrote a book about the history of Toronto libraries (“A Century Of Service: Toronto Public Library, 1883-1983”), Locke’s greatest achievement was “the establishment of an integrated branch system … that provided for interrelated services in all parts of the city of Toronto.”

When he began, the library had five small branches and a staff of 26. By the end of his tenure in 1937, there was a new central library, 16 branches and a staff of 232, and Toronto’s public library system was recognized as one of the best in North America — planting the seeds for what it has become today: the world’s busiest, with 100 branches and 10 million books, movies and other items that can be borrowed, including at the branch that bears Locke’s name at Yonge and Lawrence.

Locke’s reputation as a visionary? So high, he later ascended to the presidency of the American Library Association.

For those of you are possibly wondering, women — who fill the popular image of librarians — were rarer then, especially in top positions. Until the 1950s, indeed, female librarians were not permitted to keep their jobs after they married.

Our man Locke, meanwhile, made a marriage himself worth writing home about — he wed Grace Isabel Moore, whose father, John T. Moore, was the man behind Moore Park, an upscale neighbourhood in these parts. The Lockes lived there, at 48 DeLisle Ave.

And now he has a new permanent residence here, in this haunt, in this hotel. Across from the mesh of humanity that regularly swims through Union Station. On the night of the Library Bar reboot, you couldn’t help but feel the old-school Canadian keeping guard as people drank away their lockdown PTSD over the “Bird Bath” martini the place is known for; as sophisticates leaned back on many of the new banquettes mounted in the place — part of a redesign that is a wonderful spruce-up without smudging away the heritage, or bones, of the spot.

Several people — as the evening wore on — even gingerly approached my table to get closer to the painting and snap some shots of the man of the hour. The “strong, straight-grained, sinewy Irish-Canadian,” as he was once described.

By George … I think he’s still got it.

Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance contributing columnist covering culture and society. Follow him on Twitter: @shinangovani

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