Lifetimes: Stephen Todd was ‘surrounded by music’

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Musician, teacher, motocross rider and mad scientist, the labels speak of a multi-talented man with a strong sense of humor.

Stephen Todd was born on June 25, 1952 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a country that would have a profound impact throughout his life, especially in music. A founding member of the Celtic bands Failte and Thorne ‘n’ the Sides, Stephen was well known in the local Celtic and folk music community as a vocalist and superb bodhran player. He has performed with legendary Chieftains, John Allan Cameron and Michael Burgess, and taught bodhran at the Sound Factory Music School in Waterloo.

“I remember my dad being surrounded by music,” his daughter Sarah Todd said. “He always had his own studio with all kinds of guitars.”

She remembers traditional kitchen parties held in the family home, jam sessions where fellow musicians would show up and just play. Sarah also remembers her father’s “floor-to-ceiling” record collection and the summer music festivals he performed at.

Stephen was nine years old when his parents and younger sister, Sharon, immigrated to Canada, settling first in northern Ontario, where an uncle lived. They then moved to the Waterloo Region, where her father, Harry Todd, worked servicing industrial sewing machines. Mom, Della, worked as a seamstress.

Although Stephen eventually became a teacher, it was not his first choice. A college geography major, he dropped out before graduating and landed a job with the Grand River Conservation Authority, a role that fueled his love of the outdoors. After realizing it might not be the best career option, he returned to college, earning a degree at Wilfrid Laurier University in 1974, then a teacher’s college at ‘McMaster University.

“It was meant to be,” said his wife, Ellen McIntosh, a retired educator. “He was an amazing teacher because of the way he communicated with the kids.”

Stephen was always one to tweak the system if it increased his students’ achievement and love of learning.

“He was a real person, but not necessarily a follower of the lesson plan,” Ellen said. “We had to do them (plans), but if it started snowing outside, they all came out.

“He bought old machine parts and brought them into the classroom for the students to disassemble.”

His son, Cameron Todd, remembered the many short road trips he took with his father, trips disguised as “errands” always leading to somewhere new and interesting.

“He turned the simplest things into adventures,” Cameron said in a tribute. “We took a trip to Ireland and took a motorcycle trip.” The trip was meant to instill “pride in our heritage,” Cameron added.

At one point, Ellen and Stephen had talked about moving to Northern Ireland.

“He missed it terribly; he was homesick,” she said. “Music was a big part of that.”

In a 1997 Record article, Stephen told a journalist: “Celtic music is never dead, (because it) is constantly evolving.

He also told the Record, musically, that he was a late bloomer. Raised in a musical family, it wasn’t until he returned to Northern Ireland in 1990 and bought a bodhran that he took up traditional music.

In the 1980s, Stephen co-hosted two Irish-themed shows for CKWR FM98.5, further spreading his love for all things Celtic.

Ellen and Stephen were divorced when they met. They married in 1985 and had two children, Cameron and Shannon. Sarah was from Stephen’s first marriage.

Besides music, other passions animate Stephen. He was very competitive and in motocross racing he was unstoppable.

A member of KW Cycle Sport, Stephen thrived on the competitive nature of the sport, often with riders decades younger. He also designed and helped build tracks.

In class, Stephen was softer, more caring. He began his career teaching elementary school, then after retiring with Ellen, they taught New Canadians and Continuing Education. He also joined Mad Science, where he adopted the persona of Professor Spark, entertaining and educating children with the wonders of science and engineering for a decade.

Mark Dangel is owner of the Hamilton/Kitchener Mad Science franchise and said Stephen brings “a great passion for educating children in a unique way that has helped them learn”.

Mark particularly enjoyed Stephen’s weekly visits when they sat down and discussed everything from politics to music. “He was an incredible asset to Mad Science.”

Shannon Todd remembers her father’s unique influence: “The three of us look at the world a little differently.

His father made friends with people from all walks of life. He never judged, preferring to make real connections.

“People flocked to him,” Shannon said.

After being diagnosed with cancer in July 2019, the couple moved to Hamilton. Stephen passed away on May 27, 2020, and as St. Patrick’s Day approaches this week, his influence is still felt by all who knew him.

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