It was 7am and a volleyball player was attempting to throw javelin.
I had never thrown before, neither had my coach. She was my gym teacher and had learned how to coach javelin from a book. The practice was not going well. I didn’t realize that a third person had joined us on the field until he greeted us. There was a newspaper tucked underneath his arm and he looked very old in the morning light. As he ambled closer I noticed the back brace and the small reading glasses perched at the end of his nose. He asked if I wanted help with my technique. I was skeptical, to say the least, but I knew I couldn’t get any worse. This older gentleman then walked me through the mechanics of throwing a javelin, critiqued my form and regaled me with stories from when he was younger. Out of the blue he asks me what my shoe size was. I will never forget what he said after I told him that my feet were size 13. “Wear three pairs socks when you compete” he began, “that way you’ll fit into my size 14 cleats”. I was utterly taken aback and managed to dumbly nod. As I walked back to school, the morning felt like it had been a fantastical dream. That is the story of how I first met Kent Womack.
The first thing I did was to Google “Kent Womack”. Only then did I truly realize how lucky I was. As I prepared to compete in my first Track and Field competition, Kent and I exchanged half a dozen emails discussing my preparation. After I missed qualifying for OFSAA by a couple meters, Kent offered to meet with me and discuss my plans for university. I had just accepted my offer of admissions from the University of Toronto to study Mathematics and was curious what his advice would be. On the day we scheduled to meet, I arrived 20 minutes early as per my usual. This proved helpful as Kent never told me which office in the Rotman building he had. It took me all 20 minutes to get to his office by trial and error. As I knocked on his office door, I suddenly realized I had no idea what we were going to talk about. I had prepared zero questions, done no research about him, save for a single google search and felt like a deer staring down the headlights of an 18 wheeler.
The door opened and a student brushed past me on her way out as I stepped into the room. Kent was bumbling around his desk, moving papers to-and-fro, in an effort to make sense of the piles that littered his desk. As I approached he stood bolt upright and greeted me like a friend who he hadn’t seen in a while. Before I could get a word out he began raving about this new espresso machine that he had recently acquired. It’s appeal came because of the fact that there was zero clean up to be done after each cup of coffee. He turned to me and with a grave expression, asked if I partook in espresso, as if my answer would change the course of history. With a grin I accepted, and as I set about preparing an espresso for each of us, I turned my gaze to the office I found myself in.
The bookcase caught my attention first, from floor to ceiling it filled an entire wall. Never before had I see a bookcase so packed with interesting reading material. Fiction and fantasy books, the sorts I grew up on, were absent and filling their place were thought provoking titles ranging from economics to behavioural psychology. Our conversation turned out to be equally eclectic, at one point we were both across the room at the electronic keyboard discussing jazz improvisation. At first I was taken aback at how verbose and interesting Kent was, which led me to wonder: why was he devoting so much time and energy to me? I never asked him, but I would like to think that he saw something in me, a kindred spirit or something of the sort.
Throughout our conversation, Kent would pull related reading material from his wall and stack it on his desk, all the while praising the book’s content. By the end of the 2 hour conversation, there was a sizeable stack of books staring back at me from his desk. He must have noticed my gaze as he said “Now, these may be my books… but that doesn’t mean I expect you to return them”. As he spoke Kent stamped the inside of each of the books with a message From the Library of Kent Womack. I left Rotman with an armful of books.
All of the advice he gave me was fantastic, and there is one sound byte which has really stuck with me. There are only so many hours in each day. It doesn’t tell you how to live your life, or even how to fill the 168 hours that constitutes a week. It’s a reminder to use each hour in a week wisely. To put in the time and effort now, so that it will pay off later in life.
My mother found out about Kent’s passing before I did. I found out through a text message from her. We attended the reception together. At the reception I listened to speech after speech about Kent’s life, all carrying the same message. Everything that I had seen in Kent, his generosity, caring, focus, intelligence, were all fractions of his true character. From the tales of others I learned of Kent’s determination that led him to leave a very lucrative job in favour of research in a field that was in it’s infancy. I heard about how he dropped everything and traveled to another country, just so he could be with a friend in need. Kent was so much more than I had imagined at the time. The small amount of time I spent with Kent, it couldn’t have exceeded 15 hours, has left such an impact with me.
I regret not reaching out to him more often. I regret not getting to know him better. I wish he didn’t have to leave us so soon.