Dave Godfrey was an award-winning author and publisher, a vintner, a father and a husband. Politically, he was a pundit at the community level and a critic in the municipal realm.
Saanich knew him for all of these reasons, and yet he managed various levels of privacy despite being such a public figure. It wasn’t until he passed away on June 21 – seven weeks shy of his 77th birthday – that the community learned he succumbed to stage four pancreatic cancer.
The diagnosis came just six weeks prior: that’s the way it goes with pancreatic cancer, the symptoms of which are dangerously evasive.
“He was a private man, when he decided not to run (again) for the (Cadboro Bay Residents Association) board of directors election in May, all he said was, ‘I’m not feeling that well,’” said CBRA president Eric Dahli. “That was it, and yet, ‘I’m not feeling that well’ was actually stage four cancer. He was always looking towards what we could do for the future of Saanich and Cadboro Bay.”
Politically, Godfrey was involved in the local scene, a prominent player behind the scenes of the most recent Saanich election, and a voice in the sewage debate. So are two thirds of his surviving family, as wife Ellen and son Samuel are active in the provincial theatre. Daughter Rebecca is a respected author and professor of creative writing at Columbia University.
“Dave was an idea man to the max, and had the energy of 10 men. He brought that to the (Cadboro residents association),” Dahli said.
He also brought it to his Godfrey-Brownell Vineyard in Duncan, where he regularly “out-worked young men” in the field, Ellen said.
From the time Ellen and Dave met at a Stanford University party in 1960, until very recently, Dave was in perfect health. He did, however, notice he was tired while working in the vineyard last year. In retrospect, Ellen suspects it was likely the cancer.
“He took no pills, he had low cholesterol and a strong heart,” she said. “We looked at (his ailments) with doctors. But with pancreatic cancer you (often) have no recognizable symptoms until it’s too late.”
The family is still in shock. The progression was so advanced, chemo only helped to minimize some of the pain. But it was too late for Dave, who was unable to eat.
“It’s hard to believe,” Ellen said.
His presence will be missed.
Godfrey’s love for the Cadboro Bay area stemmed from his childhood, when he would visit his grandparents and stay in their Samuel McClure-designed cottage, originally commissioned by Victoria pioneers Thornton and Elizabeth Fell in 1909.
That house was passed on to Dave’s uncle, Clifford Godfrey, a historical Saanich character whose influence helped shape Dave.
“(Clifford) grew his own vegetables, fished and sailed his own hand-built boat in Cadboro Bay, all this at a time when there weren’t a lot of houses along the beach front,” Rebecca said.
Dave’s parents moved to Ten Mile Point in 1974, and the Godfrey family followed soon after. By that time, Dave’s work had defined itself as the stuff of Canadian legend. Among his published works, The New Ancestors, won the Governor General’s Award for English language fiction in 1970. He co-created three publishing houses, the House of Anansi Press (1967) with writer Dennis Lee, which published early works by Margaret Atwood, Matt Cohen, Michael Ondaatje, Roch Carrier and more, as well as the New Press and Press Porcépic.
From 1977 to 1982, he chaired the University of Victoria creative writing department.
Through it all, he had an eye on the potential of digital communication, the Internet. He formed a (since defunct) company in the late 1980s that might have been the first provider of private internet access in Greater Victoria, if not B.C.
Dave was always ahead of his time, said UVic writing professor Lorna Crozier.
“We need more passionate Canadians, writers and intellectuals like him. He saw no contradiction with being a businessman and a novelist, with being an inventor of programs and a creator of stories. I hope his last years as a wine maker were as exciting to him as his years as a teacher and writer.”