His authentic self: Unpacking Brian Carty’s knapsack

Students grieve for social work professor known for his deep belly laugh, love of music and inspiring, unorthodox teaching

A leather-bound journal lies on the table, pages waiting to be filled with students’ memories. Outside in the September sunshine, a group of social work students gather around Rosie the Bernese mountain therapy dog. In a classroom in Brian Mulroney Hall, four young women who will become social workers in a matter of months sit reminiscing about professor Brian Carty, sometimes laughing, sometimes speaking softly and pausing to reflect on the loss of a life that seemed to touch so many on this campus.

Brian Carty died on Sept. 26 from injuries suffered when the car he was driving collided with a moose. The 54-year-old Fredericton native graduated from Fredericton High School and completed his bachelor of social work at St. Thomas University and his masters at Carleton University. Carty was a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick and had handed in his dissertation a few weeks before his death. He worked as a counsellor in various positions in the Fredericton community and began teaching full time in the School of Social Work at STU in 2008.

Ask anyone who knew him, and they will say Carty was hardly ever without two things: a smile and his backpack.

Second-year social work student Chelsey Davidson will remember Brian Carty as “the self-care man.” (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

Kali O’Dell-Noël, second-year social work student

“He was the kind of person who when he walked into a room you knew he was there because he laughed, and his laugh was contagious and infectious. You could be having the worst possible day of your life and you heard him laugh, and you wanted to laugh, you wanted to know what was so funny,” said Kali O’Dell-Noël.

The most important thing about Carty, and why he made such a lasting impression, was that he knew his students like he knew his family, she said.

When she was having a rough first year, “Brian was one of the only people who was not afraid to push me to get what I needed out of the program.”

Jacqueline McKnight, second-year social work student

When she entered her practicum this spring, Jacqueline McKnight had a note above her desk that read, “What would Brian do?”

McKnight said she believes Brian was the catalyst for many young social workers to enter the field.

“There are people all the way to Victoria, B.C. right now that Brian had an impact on,” she said.

McKnight remembers Carty as someone who always went above and beyond in supporting his students and checking in with them, even when he didn’t have to.

“He read every single word of our disgustingly long assignments, he made comments. I went through them last night … It just affirms that what you’re doing, that you made the right choice, that you are prepared to do this and that someone has faith in you.”

Students mourned the passing of professor Brian Carty last week. Carty is remembered by students for his infectious laugh and unorthodox teaching methods. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

Chelsey Davidson, second-year social work student

Chelsea Davidson remembers Carty as “the self-care man” who would regularly make his students “unpack their knapsack,” which were check-ins designed to make students aware of the baggage or assumptions they bring into each situation.

“Self-care is so important and Brian really taught us that,” she said.

When they gathered in the courtyard to take their class grad photo the Thursday before he passed, Davidson said Carty was making jokes, saying “cheese” early to make them all laugh.

She also recalled how at the start of class he would sit, arrange his papers on the table, take a sip out of his Contigo mug and jingle the ice inside, smile and say, “Now I’m ready.”

“No matter where Brian was, he was always making people happy and you could feel his presence.”

Oliva Nelson, second-year social work student

Olivia Nelson recalls Carty’s unfailing sense of humour.

“I don’t think we ever went through a class without laughing,” she said, even when they had to cover heavy topics.

Brian Carty died on Sept. 26 from injuries suffered when the car he was driving collided with a moose. The 54-year-old Fredericton native graduated from Fredericton High School and completed his bachelor of social work at St. Thomas University and his masters at Carleton University. (Caitlin Dutt/AQ)

During one class last year, Carty came into the room and dropped a tent in the middle and gave everyone blindfolds. They had to build the tent without seeing, while Carty concocted a story about how they were lost in the woods and it was getting dark. He played the sound of wolves howling in the background when students became more frustrated with the task.

“He was laughing so hard the whole time,” Nelson said.

After it was over, Brian explained the purpose of the exercise was to show them the way they felt trying to set up a tent blindfolded is how many clients trying to access social services feel.

Nelson also said Carty “was good about pointing out your strengths that you didn’t see about yourself.”

Lisa Fairweather, second-year social work student

Lisa Fairweather said Carty would sometimes get a bad rap for being a hard-marker, but she always appreciated how he pushed her to work harder.

“He knew my whole life story and I am sure he knew the life stories of many of his students, shared tears, shared laughs.”

Denise Billings, first-year social work student

Denise Billings only had two classes with Carty before the accident. She said his death has been difficult for her and her classmates, but the support of the second-year students has helped them grieve.

“They made sure that we knew that is was okay to feel what we are feeling even in the short time that we had him,” she said.

Shanda White, second-year social work student

Shanda White remembers her final class with Carty last semester. He brought his guitar and sang “I Got You Babe” as a final goodbye and reminder to take care of each other.

“He started dancing in front of the computer so Tony [a student in the hospital skyping into class] could see him playing just as well as the rest of us that were in the room,” she said.

Carty was known on campus for his deep belly laugh, distinctive squeaky sneakers and his love of music. It wasn’t uncommon for him to bring a guitar into class and and sing his students a song he wrote about their lessons. He played in a quartet and was an avid supporter of the Harvest Jazz and Blues festival. Every year for graduation he would write and perform a special song to the class about what they learned in the program.

A group of social work students gather around Rosie the Bernese mountain therapy dog brought in by the university as part of the counseling services for students coping with the loss of Brian Carty. (Angela Bosse/AQ)

“It’s like it’s not real,” White said. “I’m waiting for him to come to graduation because it’s not sunk in that he’s not going to come back.”

White said she feels like it’s easier for the second-year students to cope with his death than it is for the first-years because they have so many lessons from Brian they can take with them.

But for the first-years, “Every Thursday that they go in that room they’re going to know that Brian is supposed to be teaching them and he’s not,” she said.

When White ran into Carty on the stairs in BMH during orientation week, she was so excited to see him she started crying and he gave her a hug.

“It was at the bottom of those stairs and now every time I walk down those stairs I think of him walking down the stairs and the hug.”

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