O Captain, My Captain!

Ray Keery set the course for my life’s direction.

Such a defining statement is by no means a random choice of words. I have carried Ray Keery in my heart since I was 14 years old. There is no other influence more deserving of such profound credit. He is the kindest man I have ever known… also the humblest man I have ever known. That’s why I am always compelled to tell my Ray Keery story.

Some people will say that Ray Keery founded Skills Canada but I say that Ray Keery is Skills Canada. He exemplified Skills Canada’s core foundation of leadership. Skills Canada is now a national organization, and Ray Keery is a national treasure in the grassroots promotion of what this country needs the most – an education system that invests in skilled trades and student leadership experiences.

It has been 30 years since my time in shop classes but delivering this kind of big picture education message feels totally natural for me. Ray’s passion for vocational advocacy was contagious, and his Skills Canada team members always tried to channel his wise words and echo his heartfelt belief. Even during his celebration of life, Ray would appreciate that we are jumping up on his soapbox.

However, no one could ever communicate the importance of technical education, personal leadership development and school board and industry partnerships better than Ray Keery. His crusade to promote the Skills Canada and Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA) model was like his very own oxygen. His energy was refueled everyday on his relentless passion for his students and education. When Ray Keery came to a meeting to speak about his ideas to give kids a chance in the skilled trades, people were in store for a visionary awaking. He did more than push for a program to support students and education, he lived it.

In the years between Grade 9 and Grade 13 (yes, I too, did a high school victory lap), there was no one that I spent more hours with than Ray Keery. We were inseparable because he never stopped opening new doors that took the ODCVI Skills Canada team places together – places like Ohio State Skills Olympics, Ohio State VICA Summer Camps, as well as US VICA Skills Competitions in Louisville, Kentucky. Meanwhile, closer to home, my high school travel schedule was like a professional job. Weekends, evenings and lunch hours spent preparing for competitions and awards nights, speaking at local schools and school boards, industry associations and local service clubs, travelling to Skills Canada provincial events and building team based obstacle courses and delivering leadership programs in Haliburton Forest Wildlife Reserve.

Many people do not know that Ray Keery was part of my life beyond the scope of Skills Canada. We ran the roads around Lake Simcoe together when he was involved in the bait fish industry. He brought me into his important friendship with Ohio State VICA Director, Jeff Merickel who also became a great friend and another important role model in my life. I was proudly there, along with some other ODCVI classmates, to surprise Ray during a special reception at his Masonic Lodge. Ray and I even shared the Orillia Opera House stage in a production of West Side Story. He played a powerfully convincing Officer Krupke!

Sharing some of my history with this incredible man underscores the obvious; Ray Keery went above and beyond the life changing role of a caring high school teacher.

Ray Keery passed away on August 11, and it was a privilege to present Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” at his funeral service. My first discovery of this great poem came from Dead Poets Society. This epic 1989 Academy award-winning film, staring Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, is an inspiring Hollywood representation of a legendary teacher who wasn’t afraid to break the rules. Mr. Keating empowered students to deliver their barbaric “yulp;” to see the world from a different view; to find their true self; and to seize the day. While watching that movie, I thought, wow, Mr. Keating is one hell of a teacher… but he doesn’t have a thing on Mr. Keery.

I am sure that I speak for hundreds of students who walked the tech halls of high school, feeling like we had been given a purpose, and most importantly, a place to be who we were meant to be thanks to the Skills Canada vision. Welding, drafting, machine shop, auto shop, electrical and construction trades were the subjects that called our name, and Mr. Keery, ODCVI’s Head of Technical Education, called out to our leadership potential. We knew we were part of something great, and Mr. Keery brilliantly forged the path to opportunities that no other high school experiences could have ever delivered.

My career aspirations put conservation over carpentry but the mentorship of Ray Keery provided life’s most transferable skills. Because I admired how Ray always stayed true to his cause, he motivated me to pursue a cause-based career of my own. I was fascinated with his dedication to building programs from the ground up. It was a proud day when, a few years into my professional life, I was able to tell Ray about my enthusiasm for a new province-wide youth conservation and leadership program that I authored with the DNA of his Skills Canada dream. How fortuitous that the teambuilding obstacle course our high school Skills Canada team constructed in Haliburton Forest also served the first OFAH Get Outdoors Summer Leadership Camps.

This is not the first time I have expressed my admiration for Ray. On October 7, 1994, just a month or so into my first year of college, I poured my heart out to Ray in a three-page hand written letter. To be honest, I forgot I had done so. Ray kept that letter and it just was rediscovered and delivered back to me again. To quote my 19-year old self:

“Here’s to Ray Keery, my Grade 9 woodworking teacher, my Skills Canada advisor, my public speaking coach, my guidance counsellor, my mentor, my inspiration, my partner in crime, my best friend and my everything.”

Thank you, Ray.

RayKeery

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Back Country lanes

Lilacs

Back country lanes

lead to nature’s acclaim

when lilacs deliver their show

They bloom in May and colour-up our day,

As the gardens start to grow.

Lilacs’ deep purple and soft violet tones

Line the lane that leads us to home…

To Pye Acres, and all the pastimes we dabble-in

The outdoor life we adore, started half a century or more

Thanks to our dear neighbour, Madeline.

Apple trees are in sight with their petals of white

Before they reveal the fruits of their yield.

In the summer ahead, apples turn red

And serve deer hunting adventures afield.

That pre-Confederation Barn

Braved years of weathers’ harm

But stands stoically in a late May fog.

It’s historical charm, from early days of farm is accented in apple blooms, lilacs and log.

Back country roads

Deliver life’s purest loads

of stories that come from our land.

Spring lilacs that bloom are gone too soon

Like the precious time we have in our hands.

The trail to my association roots

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I can take you to the exact spot on the partridge hunting trail where my Dad told me about his membership in the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

“You see this crest,” my Dad said pointing to the OFAH emblem sewn to his hunting jacket. “This is what protects hunting.”

I felt my Dad’s heart when he talked about his OFAH membership. My Dad called hunting and fishing his “birthright” and he told me that he proudly belonged to the OFAH because, “if anglers and hunters don’t stick together, we are going to lose it.”

That simple truth ignited my own passion for the OFAH. It also shaped my respect for anyone with the initiative to get involved in an association. Even as a young hunter, I understood the basic purpose of membership organizations. An association (or Federation) is a group of regular people, like my Dad, who pull together to take charge of their shared values and interests. I got it!

I joined the OFAH when I was 12. I was offered a professional position with this organization when I was 23 and have proudly been with the OFAH ever since.

These days I spend a lot of time wondering if membership has lost its meaning for the next generation ready to make a difference, but perhaps not ready to ever join an association. Do most people even consider why associations exist?

I reach back to 35-year old memories, including that day on the partridge hunting trail, to help retrace my earliest steps in awareness about the importance of associations.

Every summer my friends and I played baseball. Our families never paid for uniforms, equipment or sports registration fees because, behind the scenes, were my neighbours who belonged to our little village’s sports association. They made baseball participation possible thanks to their volunteer time and year-round fundraising. I was also actively involved in public speaking, travelling across the province and throughout the United States for prepared speech competitions. Every dollar of my travel costs was sponsored by volunteers of our local Lions Club, Rotary International and the Royal Canadian Legion. My first-year college tuition fees were subsidized with scholarships I received from more great community leaders and their respective associations. In many ways, I am the product of caring people who are the pillars of community service. Looking back, I guess I’ve known for years that volunteer-based associations drive civic achievements.

Bridging generations

Today, most membership associations are run almost entirely by the same generation of volunteers that have been working tirelessly since my childhood days at the ball diamond. That generation (baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964) urgently need new volunteers to fly the plane. However, associations are struggling with recruitment, particularly from my generation (Generation X born between 1965 and 1981) and the Millennials (Generation Y born between 1982 to 1995). The struggle is real and the reasons for it can be found in the great demographic divide.

I have a humble confession. Several years ago, I had to back out of a promise (a promise that I made to myself) to “someday” join a local service club. After being officially welcomed to the club, I admitted that the time and money involved in attending regular business meetings, committee meetings, and weekend club events, fundraisers and all of the other great opportunities “to give back” was not possible for this new Dad. My wife and I were balancing family life and our careers while managing a new mortgage, childcare costs and all the other pressures on the 30 and 40-something crowd.

According to association experts such as Sarah Sladek, author of “The End of Membership As we Know It,” my confession accurately reflects the realities of today’s middle-age interests, habits and expectations. This year, I joined fellow association managers in a Future of Membership workshop, hosted by Redstone Agency in Toronto, to learn more about Sarah’s insight into generational differences.

Beyond membership

Sons and daughters of Boomers are not considered “joiners” but they may be prepared to contribute on other levels for associations that see beyond membership. For instance, my family supports our local associations with event participation, donations and raffle ticket purchases. No, we don’t make time for membership meetings, but we enjoy being part of association’s online communities that keep us informed of when and how we can help. Through our personal family and friends on Facebook and email we have raised hundreds of dollars in pledges (aka “peer-to-peer” fundraising) as part of our involvement in campaigns like Movember, Relay for Life and the Kids Help Line’s Walk So Kids Can Talk. Personally addressed information and news we receive to recognize our donations to Ducks Unlimited Canada and the OFAH also motivate my family to give more to conservation.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters is presenting new ways to get all ages involved in our organization. Some members belong to one or more clubs and others make a commitment to join and renew as individual OFAH members. The new $25 OFAH Paperless Membership has brought in thousands of new supporters from ages 8 to 82, and the average age is 47 (Generation X).

But there is more to the OFAH menu than just membership. Anyone who purchases OFAH branded merchandise, donates to OFAH programs through monthly giving, planned giving or buys our conservation lottery tickets is supporting the outdoors in ways just as meaningful as membership. The OFAH is also grateful to anyone who reads Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine, watches Angler & Hunter TV, and engages in OFAH topics and discussion through our e-news and social media. These communications vehicles help people consider the outdoor opportunities that simply wouldn’t exist without OFAH supporters.

This spring, I was asked to give a presentation to Grade 9 science students about the role of the OFAH as a non-government and not-for-profit conservation association. I started my talk in the same way I started this article. I told them that the OFAH was about people like my Dad, just everyday citizens who join together because they care about our natural resources and outdoor traditions. The students clearly understood the definition of an association when I rhetorically asked, “what is stronger, the united voice of 78,000-members or a single cry of an individual?”

My presentation included an overview of a long list of environmental achievements that were spearheaded by OFAH volunteer passion. The reintroduction of native species like elk and wild turkey, and tens of thousands of hands-on volunteer hours (invested annually) in local stream restoration, tree planting as well as salmon, trout and walleye stocking. I stressed how the majority always benefit from the minority that take the initiative to create change.

The new hope

The OFAH presentation inspired my audience of cyber-agers (Generation Z born between 1996 and 2009), and hopefully they will be inspired to support associations that represent their way of life. Generation Z also includes my two boys who have inherited their grandpa’s fascination for spring mornings on the trout stream and autumn evenings in the duck blind. There are now three generations of Pye boys putting their support behind outdoor associations that stand up for family traditions and the environment.

I believe the future is bright for associations. Today’s generation is raised to think globally about a planet that needs urgent care, and now more than ever, young people are empowered to lead movements to influence change for social and environmental causes. Every high school student takes on 40-hours of community service work so there is a stronger base of understanding about local associations and the satisfaction of giving something back. In my opinion, Generation Z is the new association hope and they have the promise to become the largest and most accomplished revolution of volunteer leaders.

Regardless of age, no one can afford to be silent. Support for an association doesn’t start with a donation or a membership, it starts with a deeply personal commitment to choose action over apathy. Right now, it’s time for all generations to get back to their association roots. It’s time to return to the trail where down-to-earth advice to get involved is passed along, and where promises to give back will keep associations strong.

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Together again

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May 5 is a special day. It is the day when, 16-years ago, a litter of English Setters were born beside our bed.  First, Bert. Second, Bella. Although unforeseeable on that proud whelping day, Molly’s first two arrivals had immediately found their permanent home.

Bert deserved our title of pick of the litter. What an intelligent boy. Bert was a true standout in class, character and unmatched hunting skills. Bert was big, brown and handsome.

Bella deserved our title of Houdini. In the weeks of meeting families interested in eight available puppies, Bella pulled some great escapes and disappearing acts. Bella couldn’t be picked if Bella couldn’t be found. We suspect Bella’s Houdini stunts were in response to her astute premonition. She was already with her family.

On the homestretch of the 2003 OFAH Get Outdoors Summer Leadership Camps (a program that Cathy and I proudly created) we decided that we were going to keep Bella, Molly’s last unsold puppy.20190506_154750

Cathy and I embraced life as a three-dog family but our family wasn’t complete without our boys Charlie and Jackson. The boys’ childhood was shaped by wrapping their arms and hearts around Molly, Bert and Bella.

May 5, 2003 changed our lives forever. Molly, Bert and Bella gave us years of great memories. Together, these three family members were there as we pursued dreams for the future: an engagement ring, a wedding on a rock, a deed to 138 acres, two healthy and happy boys and a brand new home.

The Pye Acres blog is where we tell the Pye family story, and every chapter captures the love of our English Setters. Honoured here first was Bert, then Molly, and then Enzo. Today we honour Bella.

We said goodbye to Bella on April 19. She showed the world how living 16-years of the best outdoors and family life is really done. She hunted last fall with the passion of a pup, and she loved our family everyday with her heart of gold.  Bella’s early instincts were right. She was born to stay with the family that loved her from the very start.

Molly, Bert and Bella… together again.

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We love you, Bella.

 

 

A Timberdoodle comes home

“No one would rather hunt woodcock in October than I, but since learning of the sky dance I find myself calling one or two birds enough. I must be sure that, come April, there be no dearth of dancers in the sunset sky.” — Aldo Leopold.

WC

This beautifully hand-carved American woodcock is the work of our special friend Mike Reader. It’s been a year since the impeccable likeness of this spirited upland game bird came from Mike’s carving studio and was delivered to our home.  As woodcock return from migration, and at dusk the fields of Pye Acres become a stage for their sky dance, I wanted to share Mike’s carving talent as well as Aldo’s words of conservation wisdom.

Thank you again, Mike. You always promised the Pye Family one of your works of art. We absolutely love this carving.

The Christina Westcott way

Excerpt from Vimy by Pierre Berton.

At Vimy, far more time was spent in back-breaking toil – endless digging with pick and shovel, toting heavy loads over difficult ground – than in firing any weapons. The Canadians easily adapted to these familiar conditions, made the best of them, and used age-old Canadian devices, such as the Indian tumpline, to alleviate the work load.

These were men whose arm and shoulder muscles had been toughened by years of playing two Indigenous Canadian games, lacrosse and ice hockey. It was no great feat for them to march for hours with a rifle at the slope or high port, or to lunge with a bayonet. There were also men who were used to working with horses, who had laboured on the railways and mines, and who had tinkered with farm machinery. All these skills dovetailed neatly into the Vimy requirements, where thousands of feet of rails and plank road had to be laid, hundreds of yards of tunnels had to be blasted from the chalk, and fifty thousand horses had to be fed and cared for.

Trench life in France was appalling for everybody, but at least a good proportion of the men at Vimy had known what it was like to sleep out in the mud and rain, to eat a cold meal in the wilderness, and, in many cases, to knock over a deer with a rifle. It was the same with those in the sky above. All of Canada’s leading flying aces came from backwoods communities, mainly from the West. In civilian life they were crack shots and good riders. After all, to manhandle a Sopwith Camel in the Great War wasn’t that different from riding a spirited steed.

 The Canadians who went off to war in 1914 from the fields and the forests were not yet soldiers; in or out of uniform they could not have prevailed against a disciplined enemy. But they had the guts and stamina and, perhaps more important, a habit of self-resilience that would help carry them through those weary months when the mud and vermin were almost unbearable, and those tense few hours when the guns roared and the trenches ran with blood.

Welcome family and friends. The Westcott Family is honoured to have you here today, and your love and support is sincerely appreciated.

My introduction today was borrowed from an important page in Canadian history, written by Pierre Berton in his book called Vimy. The credit to the “guts and stamina” and “self-resilience” of those heroic Vimy soldiers sends a message to my heart about the bravery and tenacity of another proud Canadian, my cousin, Christina Westcott.

Christina pursued life with the same passion and fortitude that Canadians, including our grandfather, Clarence Pye, and great grandfather, Samuel Pye, took to war. Christina’s “habit of self-resilience” carried her through her own epic battle.

It’s fitting that we embrace a touch of Canadian history on a day that honours Christina. She would agree that a classroom-style lesson can come at any occasion, even at her Celebration of Life service. Our promise to never stop learning is for the one who never stopped teaching.

Canadian history was very important to Christina. In 2007, she organized a student trip to the Vimy Ridge monument and the First World War battle ground in France where Canada brought victory on Easter Monday 1917. The Canadian spirit that triumphed Vimy also defined my cousin.

Life is about being true to yourself, and Christina owns this achievement. We are very proud of her. She never backed down on personal promises. She never stopped cheering on her family. She never forgot where she came from.

As a little girl, Christina’s imagination turned playhouses into school houses – and, yes, she was the teacher. Reaching out to support her family as well as classmates was just as important to Christina as the degrees she earned to achieve her teaching dream. Christina’s passion for teaching and caring about the success of others made a profound difference in the lives of hundreds of students, parents and teachers. Christina stayed true to her small-town roots, taking Brechin farm values and Westcott determination to Peterborough, Kingston and Oshawa.

Several years ago, I finished up a business meeting early in the City of Oshawa. As I drove past a high school, I thought, “Hey, I wonder…”

Christina came to mind. I knew she had accepted a teaching position with the Durham Region School Board. I turned the vehicle around, pulled into Oshawa Central Collegiate, and walked into the main office.

I said, “Excuse me. Does this school have a teacher on staff named Christina Westcott?”

“Yes, we do!”

A teacher passing through the office announced “follow me” and off we went as she guided me through the school hallways. She threw open a door and interrupted Christina teaching to a full class. Her smile lit up and Christina never skipped a beat.

She said, “Class, this is Robert Pye! He is here today to give us a talk about fish and wildlife conservation!”

I have no idea what I taught that day. It didn’t matter. Christina was thrilled, and I was proud of myself that day for acting upon the spontaneity and sincerity that her love encouraged.

My golden childhood memories shine because of Christina. She was the centerpiece of family gatherings with the brightest smile and greatest laugh in the room. She was the initiative to create quality family time around a simple game like checkers or Sorry.

She worked as enthusiastically as she played. From digging in the gardens to brushing on paint, no job was ever too big for Christina. Taking on the heavy lifting, putting in the overtime, and going the extra mile is the Christina Westcott way. She inspired and humbled the world around her because she never complained or looked for attention when she delivered one hundred percent.

Anyone can work their ass off. Christina worked her ass off with a smile. In the words of her favourite artist, Michael Buble, “It’s a beautiful day, and I can’t stop myself from smiling.”

We all have special memories of Christina, and her smile – that beautiful smile – is the highlight of every Christina Westcott moment in our hearts.

My cousin’s pursuit of her dreams was with grit and grace – that powerful combination is perhaps the greatest lesson this extraordinary teacher ever taught us.

CW

February 8, 1976 – January 12, 2019

Christina Westcott – you are the real deal.

You are the down-to-earth, proud and true Canadian quality that Pierre Berton wrote about in Vimy.

You are the professional who raised the bar on student success and teacher dedication.

You are the soft strong bonds of sharing at every family occasion.

You are forever in our hearts.

We love you Christina.

 

I am the duck hunter.

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I am the paddler breaking through the cattails, making way to a duck blind that calls my name. I am the anticipation in the hour of darkness that unravels into legal light. I am the steadiness, the readiness, the call and the shot as wild wings descend upon the decoys.  I am the face towards an autumn sunrise that feels like an exclusive show. I am a vow that wetlands will always have my volunteer action, and my voice, to protect them. I am the hunting skills passed down by generations of duck callers and wing shooters. I am the spectator hidden by camouflage as Canada Geese spell V on a flight that plays the soundtrack of fall. I am the quality time I promised a special hunting buddy, making bonds and another heartfelt connection to nature. I am the passion that comes from waterfowl hunting pastimes. I am conservation.