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Quebec radio and television star and new McGill student Michelle Tisseyre, 83, is a little worried when it comes to writing papers and exams. She even spent two days at a workshop on study methods. "There's a format for a term paper and a format for an exam. I'm going to have to find out what they are," she says. Going back to school to finish a degree she started more than 65 years ago will take some getting used to.
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris
Tisseyre began her studies at McGill in 1935 and left after a year to get married and live in the Laurentians with her husband. "My dad rendered me a great service when he encouraged me to go to university, but I only went to McGill for one year. One thing I got out of it was that I learned to do research and fend for myself."
In 1941, when her husband went to war, Tisseyre needed to find a job. A friend suggested she apply to work at the CBC since male journalists were heading overseas as war correspondents.
The flawlessly bilingual Tisseyre passed the audition and went to work in a newsroom where she was the only woman. Her male colleagues were supportive. "I was 23 and I had a young son and they felt sorry for me so they tried to make things easy for me," she says of her male colleagues. "They knew my husband was at war."
It was a macho news director who put his foot down. There was no way he was going to have a woman doing newscasts. The station's director general overruled him. He had heard Tisseyre on the air and was impressed with her work.
In 1942, she became the first woman to do the 15-minute "grand journal" newscast. She took almost a year off in 1944 and went to Mexico where her mother lived. "That's where the Spanish came in handy which I learned at McGill." She returned to Montreal and joined the international service of Radio-Canada.
Tisseyre got her start in television in 1953, a year after the Radio-Canada network hit the airwaves, with her own show, Rendez-vous avec Michelle. "My career exploded because that's what happened with television," the pioneering woman says.
Music-Hall, which ran from 1955 to 1960 and featured big French stars, aired opposite The Ed Sullivan Show. Tisseyre recalls telling Ed Sullivan that she was sorry she couldn't see his show anymore. "He told me, why don't you stop infiltrating me every Sunday night at 8 p.m.?" she laughs. "We beat Ed Sullivan horribly because our audience was so excited to see these stars," she recalls.
Tisseyre's growing popularity as a television show host gave her a taste of what it was like to be a star. "I couldn't go out the door without someone rushing over to get my autograph. At that time you had to always be impeccable whenever you left the house, so it was a pain."
She praises her late husband, publisher Pierre Tisseyre, for his influence on her career. "I think my husband gave me confidence. He was so encouraging."
In the early 1970s, the couple founded La Collection des deux Solitudes (after the Hugh MacLennan book The Two Solitudes) to publish in French the work of such novelists as Robertson Davies, Morley Callaghan, Margaret Laurence and W.O. Mitchell.
Michelle threw herself into the work, translating some of the works herself. "Unfortunately, it wasn't the right time," she recalls. "It was a time of intense nationalism." The project only lasted a few years, but netted Tisseyre the Canada Council Award in translation in 1974.
Having enjoyed a remarkable career that resulted in both celebrity and critical acclaim, why would somebody want to return to the university studies they abandoned more than six decades ago?
A thirst for knowledge and a desire to be around young people spurred the mother of four, grandmother of 21 and great-grandmother of nine to go back to school. "I thought I would be looked at as an oddity because I have very white hair," says the lively and affable Tisseyre.
Much to her surprise, classmates have accepted her as just another student. "I felt right at home, really. Especially since nobody really ogled or looked at me as though I was strange." Tisseyre is currently taking courses in Italian, Renaissance history and music.
She hopes to finish her degree in three and a half years. When the going gets rough, at least she'll have a grandchild, enrolled at McGill in Russian studies, with whom to commiserate about, well, the miseries of homework, papers and exams.