In Memoriam: Nelson Adams

In Memoriam: Nelson Adams

Walking by Massey’s Bibliography Room and College Presses in the Lower Library, one could never help but stop and linger long enough to read the latest printed offerings—a poster or a postcard, and many sizes between; each with a pithy or heady or funny quotation—neatly presented by Nelson Adams, our beloved College Printer, who died on September 20th. He was 77.

His personal favourite was “Perseverance”:

All the performances of the human art, at which we look with praise or wonder, are instances of the resistless force of perseverance…
—Samuel Johnson

Nelson also loved W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Christina Rossetti’s “When I am dead, my dearest,” and Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

And he was particularly delighted by:

Dinosaurs didn’t read. Now they’re extinct. Coincidence?

A Massey alumnus (JF, 1976-77), Nelson joined the college presses as a volunteer in the fall of 2012. He was then a retiree, formerly a typesetter and book designer at Coach House Press—where he helped produce the limited edition (three hundred copies) of Michael Ondaatje’s 1969 novel, The Man with Seven Toes.

For an account of Nelson’s career, see his profile in the “Rogues’ Gallery of the Canadian Book and Printing Arts,” on the Devil’s Artisan blog by the publisher Porcupine’s Quill. Forty years ago, Nelson hand-printed, on the Vandercook press at Coach House, the wedding invitations for Porcupine’s Quill publishers Elke and Tim Inkster—the type was black, 18 point Bembo, and, as Elke recalled, Nelson added an unexpected flourish: a tree of life ornament at the top, in green.

As recounted in A Meeting of Minds, The Massey College Story, by Judith Skelton Grant, Nelson began at Massey “by cleaning and distributing type from projects stretching back a decade or more, and after a period of adjustment he became the mainstay of the apprenticeship program, working with Elisa Tersigni and Chelsea Jeffery.”

“Working with Nelson was always stimulating, intense, focused—and somehow also peaceful, collaborative, and full of warmth and good humour,” said Chelsea Jeffery (JF, 2011-13), who was Assistant Librarian from 2013-15. “Over our years working side-by-side, he became one of my closest friends.”

“Before Nelson, there was no community,” said Elisa Tersigni (JF, 2011-15), Senior Printer Emerita. “People came and stayed because he created a space not only in which all felt welcome but also in which all could be the best version of themselves. He was a fountain of knowledge, a quick wit, a stern and stubborn manager, a warm and thoughtful friend, a gentle and nurturing mentor, and a quiet champion of his students. He is loved and will be missed by the many whom he touched so deeply.”

Amy Coté (JF, 2014-19), now the Senior Printer, worked with Nelson for the past five years—years that she considers “the keenest pleasure of my time at Massey College.”

“He was a legend of the Canadian book world, brimming with knowledge and stories, but also a patient teacher and valued friend,” she said. “I used to storm into the bib room frenzied, or grumpy, or anxious, or sad, and he would always know exactly what to say to put things in perspective. Sometimes it was a gruff but gentle kick in the pants (I usually needed it); much more often a kind word or a quiet place to think. I learned so many things from Nelson. Most of them were superficially about printing, but they translate pretty well to life. To share just a few of Nelson’s best lessons: never pick up something heavy without knowing where you’re going to put it down; rushing through a task rarely saves you time in the long run; don’t put everything you know on the page; just because you think you know it doesn’t mean there isn’t still something to learn.”

Following in Nelson’s tradition, one of Amy’s printed offerings was:

NEVER retract
NEVER explain
NEVER apologize
Just get things done and let them howl.
—Nellie McClung

Nelson approved, and it’s still pinned to the bulletin board.

Joel Vaughan, a doctoral student in the Book History & Print Culture program at the University of Toronto, who had been apprenticing under Nelson since 2015, recalled that he liked to invoke John Milton, “asking us to speak with the volume of ‘a bee’s industrious murmur’.” Another of Nelson’s go-to aphorisms (perhaps paraphrasing from Immanuel Kant) was: “The eye is the sovereign taste of judgement.”

“Nelson was a stickler for conservative, clean and unobstructed prints,” Joel said. “Any kind of weird or novel proposals went through him for approval, and they’d raise an eyebrow but get a reluctant thumbs-up. He encouraged us to give these things a go so we wouldn’t have to take his word for granted that they wouldn’t work—we’d have EXPERIENCED them not working, and would make a different choice in the future. To his pleasure, though, he wasn’t always right: Sam Bellinger’s Canada 150 prints were wacky and some of his favourites (to his surprise). It seemed like he enjoyed those moments of being proven wrong. Mostly, though, his gut was in the right.”

“Nelson was like my grandpa/teacher/mentor/uncle all rolled together,” said Veronica Litt, who was an apprentice in the Book History & Print Culture program over the last three years. She recalled that, depending on the day, Nelson would demand that she watch YouTube with him in the office or insist that she listen to him recite Samuel Johnson. “Whenever we teased him about being old-fashioned, he’d remind us about how ‘woke’ he was getting,” she said. “He was so important to me.”

One day in 2016, Randy McLeod, professor emeritus in the department of English, looked in on “Nelson’s nest” and received an invitation to investigate.

“He invited me to come in and look around and then—I guess he thought I was OK—to come back and get involved.  My research interest for many years had centered on typography and printing—I’m an analytical bibliographer—but (blush) I had spent no time in composition and printing.  Once I had rolled up my sleeves, put on my apron, and got my hands dirty, I understood much better what I had been talking about all these years.  My coming-of-age project at Massey was an octavo booklet printed with Hebrew wooden types.  Difficult!!  In the colophon, I planned to thank Nelson and Stephen Sword for their ‘tutelage’.  Nelson, seeing the proof, was having none of it.  ‘Tutelage’ would have to go.  He was very humble.  In a card I sent him in hospital last week, I sprang the word on him again.  A last laugh.  He could take it in, I suppose, and get my mischief, but might be too weak to deny me this time. Or maybe he would simply accept now that I looked up to him, that I loved my teacher.”

“Oh, Nelson, thank you.  What a treasure you were.  Under your owl-wing, we fledged and launched our very practical flights of fancy.”

Nelson is survived by his partner, P.J. MacDougall, his sons, Spencer and Alex, and his sister, Sandra Adams.