author: Janet Davies / photos: Graham Davies
Our hometown heroes come from all different walks of life. There are philanthropists, caregivers, role models and visionaries. But they all have one common characteristic: the willingness to work for the common good within our communities. Each of their contributions trickle down the hills and streams and into the valleys of our landscape, forming a watershed of care and service that feeds the hearts and souls of the people whom they touch.
For nine years Will Ryan did the décor for the hospital gala. “And I loved it,” he told me as we sat down to tea. “Now I’m co-chair. That’s co-chair you must note, with Louise Stevenson. It’s a good fit because I need adult supervision.”
Will is a kidder, but he takes his role seriously. “When a chair makes decisions that are,” he paused, “not appreciated by everyone, you have to ensure everybody knows why. They don’t have to agree, but they have to understand.” He made big eyes and said, “Ooh I’m getting philosophical. But good governance is so important, especially with volunteers. Volunteering is supposed to be fun. It’s no fun if the rules keep changing or nobody’s in charge.” He poured the tea.
“Governance is about ethics, too. Clear procedures, everything transparent and accounted for, especially with fundraising at this level.” He paused and stirred his tea. “I think it’s good that business ethics are becoming more scrutinized don’t you?” Then as two little dogs, an operatic rescued terrier and his adored “sub-standard” poodle, danced excitedly around our feet, he lightened right up.
“I’ve always been a great volunteer. My father was very involved with the United Appeal. As a child I came second in collections for the Humane Society. I was beat out by a blind man with a seeing-eye dog in front of Creeds.” I agreed that was an unbeatable combo. “I was only six and very disappointed, but our neighbours made sure I won the next year,” he recalled with absolutely no shame. Will is still delightfully unabashed about pulling strings for a good cause. He gets people onboard.
“Volunteering gives you a connection to the community,” he offered. “Some part of human nature really needs that, and religion is not for everybody. When we’re gone, we’re gone, but our good acts live on.”
When his parents died, this exuberant man used his inherited furniture to seed a yearly auction for the ACO (Architectural Conservancy Ontario) that is now in its seventh year. Still involved, he dreams of the auction funding a biannual ACO exhibition to add to its house and garden tours. He thinks big, and the Northumberland Hills Hospital Foundation benefits from his hubris.
“I joined the gala in its second year and it seemed to me the effort was higher than the return. We needed a bigger room, so we moved to the LIUNA Local 183 Training Centre in Cobourg, a unionized trades school.” It worked. They doubled, then tripled their money. This year’s event in November was in an even bigger room at the new Cobourg Community Centre. “We’ll never rival the Sick Kids gala, they have the Eatons and all those huge cheques, but we are the most profitable gala outside Toronto,” he said. “We’ve raised $1.2 million in ten years.”
“To raise money you have to do more than put out your hand. The gala is a good party. People love an excuse to get dolled up, and we’re seeing younger people every year. People know our fundraising pays for specific equipment, sophisticated equipment that is making Northumberland an important hospital.”
The gutsy little six-year old lives on inside Will Ryan. “Of course we sold out again this year. It was terrific.”
How did I get involved with Prince Edward Arts Council? Hmm. I just wasn’t looking where I was going,” Wayne McNulty says with a grin. “Don, my partner was already working a little with them, and we went to a meeting in 1999 where they were discussing ways to revitalize and move forward. I rather innocently suggested artists themselves could get more involved.” One can imagine all heads turning towards him, a light growing in the eyes of the weary executives. “Suddenly I found myself in the lead,” he laughs. “Suddenly I was the chair.”
The Arts Council was founded in 1979 and after 20 years it was getting tired. Wayne was instrumental in reorganizing it, making it stronger, more active, more diverse. He was a founding member of the Jazz Festival in 2001 and an instigator of the Music Festival in 2004. As a photographer, The Eastern Ontario Photography Show, also known as CLIC, launched in Picton in 2011 is particularly dear to his heart.
When he enthusiastically fell into the Arts Council chair in 1999, the summer Art in the County show, featuring local artists, was PECAC’s only regular event. Now six big annual events come under its umbrella attracting thousands of visitors to the County.
Wayne McNulty’s artistic vision can be seen in the luminous photography in his art book Infinite Horizons, a collaboration with poet Louise O’Donnell, yet despite his talent and influence, he is unassuming, almost shy, and wears accolades lightly. Of his recent Contribution to the Arts award he says, “I just happened to be there,” then concedes, “but I forget sometimes how hard we all worked to make things happen. When I see a list of our accomplishments, I guess I’m impressed, too.”
He tells me names of people he worked with, but in amongst his praise for others I heard evidence of his tenacity.
“I persuaded Mark Rashotte, owner of Belleville’s Empire Theatre, to sponsor the first year of Jazz Festival. It was so exciting back then. You could have an idea and nurture it, then, whoosh, it would take off. We were unknown, we could try anything, we had no reputation to lose.” The no-reputation thing did not last long. The PEC Jazz Festival is today regarded as one of the best in Canada.
The Prince Edward County Music Festival grew out of Wayne’s discovery of Piano 6, a group of pianists with funding to play school concerts. He invited them to bring classical music to County schools and through that project he met Stéphane Lemelin, chamber musician and director of the school of music at University of Ottawa. Lemelin would become a champion and artistic director of the three-day festival that feeds the County’s hunger for chamber music.
Wayne is especially proud of the PECAC Student Art Award. “I really beat the bushes for sponsors for that. You have to sell an idea, and I believed wholeheartedly in that one.” He managed the bursary for six years and added a second student award in collaboration with the Kiwanis.
“It’s great to be recognized for what I’ve done, but truth is I’m taking it a bit easier now. I love my photography but I want to learn to draw, too and I’m doing a workshop with Claudia McCabe, a wonderful artist in Picton. My involvement in the arts community these days is more about just enjoying it.
“My time in the County has been one of continual discovery. It feels like if you want to do something here, you can. If you have an idea you can try it out. Of course you run the risk of getting stuck being the leader,” he laughs. “But it does feel like a place of possibilities – and some of those possibilities actually become reality.”
We didn’t catch up with Jeremiah Brown when he was in Cobourg this summer, still flying high from his magnificent silver medal performance in London. Before returning to B.C. where he now lives, Jeremiah tossed out a ball for the Blue Jays, dropped a puck for the Cobourg Cougars and caught up with his parents and all the local news.
“What can I say?” he told me on the phone. “It’s been fantastic, but it sure is nice to get back to normal – or as near normal as it gets.”
Astonishingly, the 26-year old only learned to row four years ago. Always ambitious, he set out to make the Olympic team and, despite falling in the water a lot and risking hypothermia as he trained year-round, he made it.
On his lively blog, he challenges Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve real mastery in any field. I asked him about that and he sighed, “He has amazing, bold ideas. But I don’t like absolute statements, especially if they tell me I can’t do something. I did it in less time.” I could almost hear him shrug, 4,500 km away.
Jeremiah Brown is a remarkable athlete and a hometown hero to the people of Cobourg and Port Hope. He was born in Port Hope. “I was a teenager when we moved to Cobourg, but I always call it my home base,” he said. “I guess those are formative years, high school and everything.” He was knocked out by the hero’s welcome he received. “There seems to be more pride amongst citizens of a small town when one of their guys does well,” he mused. “Maybe because they feel more involved, more personally connected. I went to university in Hamilton, but I don’t think they’re claiming me for their own.”
As his fantastic fast-paced year glides to the finish, what will he do now? “It was easy to do nothing for a little while,” he laughed. “After pushing your body so hard, it’s like a release from a physical prison.” Now he’s back to working out every day to stay in ready-to-go condition. “When you place in the top four, you get a Maintenance Card from Sports Canada to tide you over as you mentally and physically relax before preparing for the next thing. I have tendonitis in my fingers, but anybody in high performance sports gets stuff like that. You just manage it.”
Having attained his physical goal of rowing to an Olympic medal, Jeremiah is taking on new challenges. “I’m going to learn to speak German; my mother is German,” he said. “And I’m going to do speaking engagements,” then he laughed, “for whatever audiences will have me.” He’s done a lot of impromptu speaking since the Olympics and likes it. “People seem genuinely interested, and everybody wants to know about different things, the physical stuff and the mental preparation. I’ve been moved by the feedback, and I want to do more of it.”
He’s off again, putting his all into something new, this time it’s communicating, sharing and inspiring. Judging by his record, Jeremiah Brown will nail it.
Dr. John Oyston loves his land, though he might say it’s not really his. “Oh I paid good money for it, but as the Indians say, we are really only stewards of the land.”
This year, John received an Oak Ridges Moraine Hero award for turning a hayfield back into a tall grass prairie on what was once the Rice Lake Plains. He planted his prairie in 2008, together with 2,500 trees, all indigenous to Ontario. One, called a Kentucky Coffee Bean tree, has seeds that once had to pass through the digestive system of a mammoth before they could germinate. He swears to this, but adds that he sandpapers the tough seed husk, unlike some who use battery acid to mimic a mammoth’s juices. I learned a lot from this engaging man as we walked his land.
In 2004 he was looking for a couple of acres as a retreat from his city life as an anaesthesiologist. Instead he found 101 acres with a spectacular view of Rice Lake. “We were planning a nice garden, but we rather changed our plans,” he said dryly. He pondered how best to use the land before deciding to return at least part of it to its natural state. “Then I had to think what exactly was natural,” he grinned.
“People imagine pre-settlement Ontario was all dense forests,” he mused. “But writers like Susanna Moodie document a long strip of prairie grass along this shore.” The Indians would have regularly burned the prairie to maintain it, ridding it of aggressive weeds and ambitious little trees. “Tall grass roots go very deep and survive fire and drought,” he explained.
His neighbour Tony Kenny had created a prairie of his own, and he and his son helped John clear the hayfield and sowed the field using a bucket with a hole in it and a fan to blow the seed. They dragged old bed springs behind them to cover the seed. Dr. Oyston from the high tech medical world was mighty impressed.
As we walked the prairie and part of the 30-acre woodlot, John named some of his 120 species of woody plants and said the hardest part was sourcing true native seed. “Purists might disapprove, but I got some from southwestern Ontario. I don’t think the wildlife cares if the Big Bluestem is not originally from around here.”
I asked about aesthetics because his mown paths and avenue-like planting of trees enhance the random wildness of everything else, but he brushed it off. “I’m a collector, not a designer,” he insisted, explaining the clear logic behind all that he’d done. I remain unconvinced that the beauty of those sightlines are mere coincidence.
Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Indian Grass and Switch Grass, some seven feet high, dominate the three-acre prairie, but Wild Rye and Bergamot grow there, too, and brilliant blue asters. Brushing through tall whispering grass, I felt very close to Mother Earth. Elsewhere, John is struggling to establish wild lupin, a plant crucial to the survival of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly. Why? Because he cares, because he has the resources, and because he relishes his hours spent on the land.
Dr. Oyston works in the healing arts. A little sign on a big tree says, “When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.” As he scooped up his little dog Tess, who wears a bell so he can find her in the tall grass, he ran his hand up a stalk of grass scattering spiky seeds and said, “Really, this place is my therapy.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake had six cheese shops and a shoemaker when I first went there. What’s it got now? Tourist shops.” Within seconds of sitting down with Peter John Stokes at his old kitchen table, I knew we were in for an interesting ride.
At 86, Mr. Stokes has a take-no-prisoners approach when talking about his passions and his work. With his elegant appearance, total recall and insistence on treating us to the best carrot cake in town, this was an interview to remember. Or not. Sadly I can only write so fast, and his stories and technical details came so fast I couldn’t catch them all. So I have just my impressions and speedy scribbled notes to tell you about this remarkable man. Thank God for Google.
Peter Stokes deservedly received the first Eric Arthur Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in preserving heritage buildings, his publications and his volunteer work. Eric Arthur was his teacher at the U. of T., founded the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario in 1933 and led the charge to save Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall, Gooderham flat iron building and others. Peter Stokes continues the charge. He began his career in 1958 as the Restoration Architect for Upper Canada Village. He led the restoration of The Grange, the beautiful manor house at the Art Gallery of Ontario. His preservation and restoration projects are legion, including the Apothecary in Niagara-on-the-Lake; Victoria Hall in Cobourg and the St. Lawrence Hotel in Port Hope. He co-authored the Settler’s Dream. He was the first full-time restoration architect in Ontario, his career coinciding with the pioneering era of Canadian architectural conservation. When the crucial Ontario Heritage Act passed in 1975, Peter Stokes was the go-to guy, at a time when few people truly understood the value of preservation.
After 40 years in Niagara-on-the-Lake, he moved to Port Hope because “I wanted to be back on a railway line again.” He became fast friends with Peter Schultz, editor and publisher of the now defunct Port Hope Evening Guide.” Together they explored and restored local historic properties. Stokes once bought a building on Walton Street to stop a Kentucky Friend Chicken franchise moving in; Schultz made a similar investment to prevent long-term tenants being evicted. There’s a lot of heart there.
With 12,500 people, Port Hope has 160 buildings with historic designation, thanks largely to the late Alice King Sculthorpe, a heritage champion who pops up frequently in his stories.
Peter Stokes will work until he drops, which, judging by our brisk walk up Walton Street to his favourite café, won’t be any time soon. He just published Moisture the Menace, a handbook for preserving and rescuing old steeples, spires, attics and cellars. His co-author, Thomas J. Plue, did the actual steeple climbing and is as incensed by neglect and shoddy repairs as Stokes – and just as outspoken to the owners.
Before we parted, with a quick hug and his assurance that he hadn’t found us tedious at all, I asked him why old buildings are less valued here than in Europe. “Europeans are not so intimidated by them,” he replied. “They’re used to old buildings and appreciate their worth. They don’t see them as worn out or a nuisance. Good North American buildings are just as viable. A colleague once said “If you build something that survives just one Canadian winter unscathed, you’ve got yourself a good building.”
Even when I was little I took care of people, because I wanted to. I always wanted to be a nurse.”
Thelma Cooke has been looking after people all her life and wouldn’t have it any other way. She trained as a nurse but only worked for a short time before marrying a farmer and starting a family. “I never really expected to work again but then my husband took ill, and, well, I went back.” Thelma nursed in Campbellford for 30 years, raised two boys and, in her retirement, cared for her ailing husband until he died 13 years ago. “After that I needed something to keep me busy,” she says with her sweet smile.
“I took a course in palliative care. As a nurse you get to know people and spend time with them at the end of their life. I’m okay with that. You just do what you can to make them comfortable and feel more peaceful. I sit with people while their families take a break. I like to talk, just easy conversation, and if [the patients] want to talk about what’s happening to them, I’m happy to listen.”
It’s humbling to hear Thelma talk about what she gives so freely. She’s 79-years old and visits the hospice two or three times a week, as often as she’s needed. “I visited one lady in Warkworth for six years,” she recalled. “But sometimes I’m with [hospice patients] for just a couple of nights right at the end. I read to them. Recently one of my people had brain surgery and couldn’t concentrate if I read a full story. So I read short pieces from books like Chicken Soup for the Soul. Simple stuff.”
This year the Hospice Association of Ontario honoured Thelma with the June Callwood Award of Distinction. The late Ms. Callwood, a tireless community activist and recipient of the Order of Canada, would have understood Thelma well. She knew the truth in the old saying “If you need something done, ask a busy woman.”
As well as visiting with gravely ill hospice patients, Thelma plays piano at the local nursing home and she is the organist for her church, although she says she wouldn’t mind giving that one up. “I’m just helping out until they find someone else,” she said. How long has she been doing that? “Since 1984,” she laughed.
Thelma’s apartment near Campbellford town centre is a home filled with joyful memories. Prize ribbons on display, books and memorabilia all around. Holy icons and family photos jostle for space on the wall above a well-used piano, along with that treasured certificate. She says she was flabbergasted to receive the award, but is clearly delighted and was wearing her Callwood pin with pride.
Thelma will soon attend a Palliative Care refresher course. “I have to keep up with new things,” she says crisply. And to add to the comfort and companionship she already gives so freely, she is taking a Grieving Counsellor course. “Why do I do what I do? I like caring for people, helping people. When you give, you get so much back. I do it because it makes me happy.”
With his ruffled hair, stubble and jeans, high school teacher Rob Garden doesn’t look much older than his students. Last year the Toronto Star named him one of the best teachers in Ontario. This year he won Hastings Prince Edward School District’s Educator of the Year Award. That’s heady stuff for a 31-year old who began teaching at his old school just six years ago.
“I was eating breakfast when a friend phoned to say I was in The Star as one of the top 35 teachers. I had no idea. It’s the kids that nominate you. This year I was in France with students for the 95th anniversary of Vimy Ridge when one of my Grade 12 students, Cassidy Allison nominated me for the Educator award. It’s fantastic, of course, but my first thought was ‘holy moley, how many others are out there doing great stuff’, and that was the main point of my acceptance speech.”
Ironic, then, that after graduating Queen’s University, Rob’s application to teacher training college was rejected. “I had studied business, but it’s funny, people always ask, ‘what do you want to be?’ when the question should be ‘what do you like to do?’ In high school I helped out at the elementary school down the street because what I like to do is teach. I applied to teachers’ college again, this time as a math teacher. Math teachers are always in demand.” It worked. He chose to come home to the County to do his first teacher placement at Picton’s Prince Edward Collegiate Institute, and then he decided to stay.
Things, as they say, work out. PECI had a business program but no business teacher, so the new math teacher took on that role, too. Rob has created six new courses, partnered with professors from Belleville’s Loyalist College, encouraged students to go for dual credits – college and high school level together – and has grown the program from 14 students to 57 in six years.
“Marketing, entrepreneurship, they’re important for anything today. Going into a trade? You have to sell yourself and your skills. Even going for an interview, it helps to understand business needs and market yourself.”
High schools still have the same smell, the same faint sound of squeaky sneakers on gymnasium floors, but oh how classrooms have changed. Rob rarely uses textbooks or blackboards. Computers are his tools. “I grew up with them, so did my students. It’s where we get information, where we work, how we communicate.” Far from banning cell phones, he encourages texting during lessons so kids exchange ideas right away instead of waiting for permission to speak 45 minutes later. Rob understands his students, because he, too, is part of what he calls ‘the click generation’.
Through his partnership with Loyalist College, Rob just acquired a full set of classroom iPads. “I create a lesson on my laptop and download it with references and links to all the iPads for students to use.”
As Rob speaks of possibilities and engagement and better ways of learning, the room is electric with energy and ideas.
My old head spins, but I feel a pang of envy for his students. “If I can help blaze a trail of achievement in a small place like this, that will be good. It’s great to see kids I taught who are out there working, using what they learned, making lives for themselves in the County.”
An old brass hand bell sits on his desk beside his laptop. “My uncle was a principal. He died when I was 10 and my aunt gave me his bell. Strange, eh? I like to keep it with me.” Then he was gone, rushing off to coach the basketball team at an after-school away game. He took a little heat for that, but Rob Garden does it for the kids.
There are many volunteers who help make life easier for clients of the Children’s Aid Society. To paraphrase the old TV classic Dragnet, “this is the story of just one”.
Belleville’s Harry Plummer doesn’t think he’s any kind of hero for helping kids and grownups get where they need to be. He teased me that if I Googled his real name, Henry Plummer, I would find a notorious thief in North Dakota who was hanged for stealing gold. “Now that would be worth writing about,” he said. His wife Mary Ellen just rolled her eyes in the kitchen.
Harry recently got his five-year pin from the CAS, but he smiles and says, “I’m not in it for the glory. I’ve always been active outside of my work.” He taught at Loyalist College and was president of Ontario Public Service Employees Union there, sitting on six negotiating teams during his time, “So, yes, I was pretty busy.” Mary Ellen used to joke about how she would get him out of the house when he retired, but that has never been a problem.
The couple raised six children together, and then took on raising one of their children’s children. It happens. There is not a judgmental bone in their bodies, just the desire to do what they can to help things work. They both told me: “It keeps us young.”
“I guess I’ve touched the lives of about 100 little people in my five years,” he said.
Is it depressing, knowing a lot of his passengers are in a difficult time? “Nope. The kids are just kids. Some of them are quiet little things, but others never shut up.” He laughed. “I wear a hearing aid, so that’s like my biggest challenge, when they’re old enough to talk but too young to understand I can’t catch everything they say, with road noise and all. I often pull over to the side of the road to say “What? What are you saying buddy?”
Some passengers are going to special appointments, some are just going to school. “If a child gets placed in another school district, the agency tries to keep them in the school they know for as long as possible. Somebody has to drive them there and back every day.”
His furthest trip is Barrie, but he frequently does the Ottawa run. “I’ve driven every age, from babies three or four weeks old to teenagers. I enjoy it. It’s fun and interesting. I meet a lot of people, and I’m helping out.”
When Harry’s not volunteering, he takes photographs and uploads them to his website, and he drives their own teenager to soccer or AA minor midget hockey games at all hours of the day and night.
“Harry’s the taxi driver,” says Mary Ellen who attends almost as many games, but insisted “I don’t sit with him. I sit with the yelling moms. Sometimes we don’t get home until two in the morning, but we still all get up in time for school.”
“My dad used to say, ‘if you want to be a hero at night, you’ve got to be a hero in the morning, too, son,”’ Harry recalled. He’s a hometown hero, but he doesn’t really see it. He gives of himself just because he can. “It’s easy for me, so why wouldn’t I?”