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'A stupendous person': Friends laud Julie Payette, Canada's next GG

July 13, 2017 11:28 PM
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'A stupendous person': Friends laud Julie Payette, Canada's next GG

Generous, attentive, she invited prof to her choir concert, took crew of Space Shuttle Endeavour to Habs game

Graeme Hirst couldn't figure out why Julie Payette, a computer engineering graduate student sitting in the front row of his computational linguistics class, was always frowning at him during his lectures.

"I found that very disconcerting," said Hirst, the University of Toronto computer science professor who co-supervised Payette's master's thesis in 1990.

Hirst was so unsettled he asked a colleague about Payette's facial expression.

The response he got: "It's because she's thinking so hard. It's nothing to do with you. She's really, really concentrating."

That keen focus helped Payette reach heights few do, and now she can add yet another achievement to her packed curriculum vitae: the former astronaut was named Canada's next governor general on Thursday.

Payette's skills, dedication and attention to detail were touted by friends and former colleagues in interviews with CBC News — not to mention her generosity, her linguistic dexterity (she speaks six languages) and her love of hockey.

Payette is the fourth woman to be named Canada's governor general, a role that has alternated between an anglophone and a francophone Canadian since Vincent Massey was appointed in 1952.

Julie Payette changes equipment that regulates the charging and discharging of batteries in the Russian-built Zarya control module of the international space station in this image made from television Monday, May 31, 1999. (AP Photo/NASA TV)

Julie Payette was born in 1963 and grew up in Montreal's Ahuntsic neighbourhood.

She went to Collège Mont-Saint-Louis and Collège Régina-Assumpta, both private schools, and was selected to attend the prestigious United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, where she earned an International Baccalaureate in 1982.

By the time Payette applied to UWC Atlantic College, at 17, she had already known for years that she wanted to be an astronaut.

Benoît Charlebois, who served with Payette on the board of directors of Canada's UWC school, Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, in 2011 and 2012, recounts a story Payette shared with UWC alumni about her interview by the Quebec selection committee to attend Atlantic College.

At some point in that interview, Charlebois said, she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

He said Payette had been mesmerized by images of the Apollo mission when she was still in elementary school, and she said she wanted to be an astronaut.

"The interviewer said, 'Well, you know, that that's quite unlikely,' and she said, 'Well, it would be even more unlikely if I wasn't trying,'" said Charlebois.

A mere 12 years later, in 1992, Payette was selected to be an astronaut by the Canadian Space Agency.

Payette's father was an engineer, and she followed in his footsteps, graduating from McGill University with an electrical engineering degree in 1986 and earning her master's of applied science in computer engineering from the University of Toronto in 1990.

Payette didn't take no for an answer, according to U of T's Hirst, who says he figured it out "more or less the first day I met her."

Astronaut Julie Payette carries the Olympic torch in Montreal, on Sunday, June 20, 2004 to celebrate the 2004 Games in Athens. (Francois Roy/Canadian Press)

She attended Hirst's computer science class, although he pointed out that she didn't know the programming languages that she needed for the course.

"Her answer to that was simply, well, she'll do the necessary background work and learn those languages and take the course, thank you very much," Hirst says. "And she did."

Payette's master's thesis focused on computational linguistics, and she built a program that critiques texts in English, her second language.

"She put in her own thesis as inputs into the program she developed with Professor Hirst, and then it output all of the criticism of how she wrote her thesis," said Michael Stumm, Payette's thesis co-supervisor.

"It was one of the delights of my life," said Stumm, who still teaches computer engineering at U of T. "She's a stupendous person."

"She's a very gracious, kind of people-oriented person. And I guess that's what a governor general has to be, apart from anything else," said Hirst.

Hirst remembers when Payette was singing with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir in Toronto and invited Hirst and his wife to a concert.

The seats weren't great, and Payette noticed that from the stage. At the intermission, she arranged for them to be re-seated.

Mark Polansky, a former U.S. astronaut and the one-time commander of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, worked with Payette on her second mission to the International Space Station.

Polanksy said that he grew up in New Jersey and was a huge hockey fan, cheering for the New York Rangers while Payette was passionate about the Montreal Canadiens.

"She got to fly a jersey of Rocket Richard's, and during one our post-flights, when we did get the crew to come to Canada, she had made arrangements [for us] to go to the Bell Centre and see a game," Polansky told CBC News.

Polanksy said that the Canadiens didn't win that night, but fans at the Bell Centre were "going crazy, anyway."

"It was truly an out-of-this-world experience to get to go see the Canadiens and return Rocket Richard's Jersey," he said.

Polansky said he was "really thrilled and ecstatic" about her appointment.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau is a former astronaut himself, and he was on the committee that selected Payette to become an astronaut in 1992.

"We recognized at that time that this was somebody with tremendous talent," he said.

"She was somebody who radiated confidence, who had a very impressive CV already at that time, somebody who was a very good communicator in both official languages."

Garneau called Payette a "Renaissance woman," with her musical skills and ease in six languages.

"We worked in Houston together as astronauts ... and we also saw each other socially," he said. "She's just a great person and someone who is a lot of fun to be with."

In 2008, Payette told the French-language edition of Chatelaine magazine that she makes her own spaghetti sauce, and despite the time Garneau spent with Payette in Houston, he said he never got a chance to sample it.

"It's going to be a little bit difficult for me to go knocking on the door at Rideau Hall and say, 'Hi Julie, can I taste some of that tomato sauce?'" he quipped.

Also read: NASA’s record-breaking spacewoman retires as astronaut


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