Photo by John Ulan
On a wall in the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, Israel, 10,000 kilometres from Alberta, is a 1950s black and white photo of smiling schoolchildren. Visiting the museum in 1990, Elexis and Eric Schloss discovered that the photo, an image of early western Canadian Jewry, showed the tiny synagogue school that Elexis attended as a child in Medicine Hat, Alta.
Today, the couple sits beneath another image — a five-metre-wide painting of the Fathers of Confederation, hung high in the lounge of the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald in downtown Edmonton.
This space is a familiar one for Eric, who spent countless Sundays here as a child. His parents, owners of Lawrence’s department store in Camrose, Alta., made buying trips to Edmonton every week and visited sample rooms throughout this hotel. Eric and his brother would wait for their parents in the library-style lounge, its oak shelves filled with books, where they read comics and stared at the giant painting. When they got bored, the boys would run around the hotel. Before long they knew everyone — and even started bringing their dog.
“I feel like I grew up in this room,” Eric says over a lunch of soup and sandwiches.
What began in the hotel library reading Bomba: the Jungle Boy, The Hardy Boys and classic comics like Batman, Superman and Captain Marvel turned into an enduring passion for books and collecting. Today, he’s a noted bibliophile whose collection numbers in the tens of thousands and focuses on modern literature, history, military and Judaica, including a true first Dutch edition of Anne Frank’s diary.
Whether his weekly childhood visits with the Fathers of Confederation had anything to do with it, Eric’s interest in Canadian history and literature also runs deep. It was Henry Kreisel, a University of Alberta English professor and author, who stirred that interest when Eric was a student. After graduating with a BA in history in 1959, Eric went into medicine (he maintains a dermatology and skin pathology practice in Edmonton), but Kreisel’s influence — and Eric’s love of books — kept him connected to the arts.
Elexis remembers when they were first married how she, as an artist and designer (she later spent 20 years as chief of design at Maclab Enterprises), was drawn to the rich colours and textures of the hardcover books Eric brought home. So she decided to remove their dust jackets. “I thought there was going to be a divorce,” she says, smiling. Fortunately, the valuable jackets were still in the garage. She laughs at another memory: of weighing down homemade gravlax — salmon cured with sugar and spices — with a few of Eric’s first-edition books. “He came home that night and found the books in the fridge.”
Next to Elexis’s exuberant personality — today she’s wearing bright yellow Doc Martens high-top boots with a bulldog painted on the toe — Eric can appear quiet and reserved. Yet their shared sense of humour and welcoming nature are quickly apparent, warming up the atmosphere of even this formal hotel on a chilly day.
Eric may be reserved, but he speaks passionately about the growth of Canadian literature. In addition to donating more than 40,000 books to University of Alberta Libraries and supporting annual lectureships in human rights and the Holocaust, the Schlosses established the Canadian Literature Centre in the Faculty of Arts in 2006, the only national bilingual literature centre in Canada. It serves as a research hub for the CanLit community and also features a well-known annual lecture series named in Kreisel’s honour. Speakers have included heavyweight authors like Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden and Lawrence Hill. Eric sees the centre’s potential to be an axis for global research and information on Canadian literature, and he hopes for more support and expansion in the future.
Elexis and Eric, who will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, have two grown children and two grandchildren. They also have a houseful of dogs, including a German shepherd they found in the bulrushes by the side of the road and named, appropriately, Moses.
The couple is determined to make a difference both at home and in the world. Travel usually involves charity, and wherever they visit, they find ways to support the local community. They have volunteered in Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and twice in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.
Last year, the Schlosses visited Rwanda, a country rebuilding after the horrific 1994 genocide. Eric, a clinical professor at UAlberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, teaches doctors and treats patients in the hospitals and orphanages, while Elexis uses art to teach children about HIV and bullying. Working with Rwanda’s first lady, Elexis created a comic book featuring a superhero called ARV, or Antiretroviral, who fights misperception about HIV. She spent time in the classroom as well, discussing the book and showing students how to cartoon. Drawing circles in the air in the lounge, she demonstrates her method. “I’ve even taught it to Eric!”
“We really, really believe in giving back,” says Elexis. “You know the expression ‘Much is given, much is expected’? I’m sure God’s in heaven shaking his head saying, ‘OK, I get it already, you’re grateful!’ ”
This conviction has made them citizens of the world and also strengthened their commitment to home. In Edmonton, they have been involved in programs supporting the homeless, children in poverty, abuse victims, the hospice movement, Aboriginal Peoples and immigrant communities. Elexis is a founder of Sorrentino’s Compassion House, a housing and support program for women undergoing breast cancer treatment, and is a part-time honorary citizenship judge who has given the oath to more than 2,000 new Canadians. The couple have been honoured for their contributions with multiple Queen’s Jubilee medals and Elexis’ investment in the Order of Canada in 2014.
The notion of a mitzvah, or good deed, is one both Eric and Elexis have spent much time contemplating. “We always struggle when we do something [philanthropic] because for it to really be a mitzvah you’re not supposed to tell anyone,” says Elexis. “On the other hand, you really have to be a leader in getting people to say ‘That’s a good idea! Let’s all do it.’ So we try to find a balance between the things we do. I think it’s important to raise the bar.”
The Schlosses draw on their own strong partnership to inspire others, through their volunteerism and philanthropy, to connect, give back and make change. Their pride in UAlberta runs deep — they have seen the university through the lens of its international impact and think it should be treated like a renewable resource. “In Hebrew we say l’dor va’dor: from the strength of one generation to the next,” says Elexis. “The university will only get stronger by getting stronger.”
The Canadian Literature Centre in the Faculty of Arts celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2016. The centre brings together researchers, authors, publishers, students, collectors and the reading public to promote the strength and diversity of Canada’s written cultures.
To learn more about how you can support the centre and its programs, contact Jane Potentier at 780-492-8060 or firstname.lastname@example.org.