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Essay: Okotoks remembers a mayor… I remember my Grade 6 teacher

Do you remember your Grade 6 teacher’s name?

I do.

His name was Bill Robertson. Mr. Robertson, or Mr. R, to many of my vintage.

I was introduced to Okotoks’ future mayor at the spry age of 11. I was in his Grade 6 (6R) homeroom class at Big Rock School in our then-small town of Okotoks.  The population back in 1985 was just shy of 5,000.

You know someone has made an imprint on your life when you can vividly recall moments of time spent with them. Even if it was 36 years ago.

Mr. R, as he was referred to by students, was a master storyteller. We would clamour around him as he read us book after book – sometimes one chapter, other times more. He used different voices, intrigue and suspense to keep us on the edge of our chairs.

Just as we’d reach a tense point in the story, he would close the book up with a devious smile and tell us that we’d have to wait until next time to find out more.

Bill Robertson died on July 7, after a battle with cancer. Robertson had been the mayor of Okotoks since 2010, though he was first elected to town council in 1995. He announced earlier this year he wouldn’t be seeking re-election.

The Town of Okotoks posted this to their website Tuesday.

“On behalf of Town Council we extend our deepest condolences to his wife Elaine, their children Michael, Jeffery and Bradley and all members of his family,” said Deputy Mayor Florence Christophers.

“Bill will be profoundly missed, both as a great leader in our community and as a mentor and a friend.”

Shepherding massive growth

When I first moved to Okotoks back in 1979, it was just a tiny rural town, population 2,600. Heck, we had to drive 30 mins just to see Calgary’s skyline.

It’s not so today.

Fast forward four decades and 27,500 people later, the picture is much different. For half that time, Mr. R was a part of the group leading this town, ultimately being the top dog for the past 11 years.

In that time, the town has been heralded for its growth strategy, including its commitment to going greener. That included the community of Drake Landing – North America’s first solar neighbourhood. 

There were major infrastructure spends: arenas, stadiums, bridge twinnings, new municipal buildings, and most recently transit, all to help grapple with the town’s continued growth.

But what was important to my family, and to many others, was that though we now lived in a bustling small metropolis of 30,000, Okotoks has always maintained its small-town flair.

Just as much as his city building, I will remember his commitment to community. The commitment to lighting the Christmas lights at Light up Okotoks or being at the annual rib cook off. And all those times he would participate in the annual Sports Day parade and wave at you as though you were the only person on the street.

That commitment rubbed off on people and it created a sense of place.

It’s a place where you could meet the mayor on the street, and he’d know you by name.

Graduated 6R, but he wasn’t done with me

While I made my way out of 6R and into Grade 7, my connection with Mr. R had ended. Temporarily, though.

Later on, as a teen and early adult, I used to tag along with my dad and play slo-pitch with the storied Okotoks Spoilers ball club.  Mr. R (or Bill, when you start to drink beer around the adults), was a teammate for a time when I filled in with the crew of 30- to 50-something beer leaguers.  

As young adults do, I drifted off from the nest, and my connections to home faded.

When I started my career as a journalist more than 20 years ago, it began a path back.

There was the odd time I connected with Bill through journalism, either in his time as councillor, or later on as the mayor of Okotoks.

I also connected with him as a citizen when my family moved back to town in 2010.

I can remember when he was door knocking for the 2010 election, and I, a brave young editor at the Metro Calgary, quizzed Bill at the door. 

We talked about the water situation, growth in Okotoks, policing and other items. Here’s the interesting thing: In a day of entourages knocking on doors for elections, he was by himself. Just there, knocking on doors, having conversations.

Later on, I ran into him at Danielle Smith’s HQ in High River, the night of the massive upset at the hands of Alison Redford.

Neighbourhood connection intact

Over the past couple of years, my occasion to run into Bill was on the streets, just near my home, as I would walk with the kids along Milligan Drive to or from their school. I believe he lived nearby, too.

He would be taking a stroll with his wife, often with a ball cap on, maybe to shield himself from potential political conversations on the street. He probably just wanted to enjoy a stroll.  I don’t know if he’d identify me from a ways, but he’d always look up and say, “Hey Darren, how are you?”

I’d respond, and we’d continue on our way.

The last encounter was a couple months ago. Same street, same walk.

“Hey Darren, how are you?”

Thirty-six years later I was still connected with my Grade 6 teacher. He stayed in contact with my younger brother and his family, too.

I’ll always remember the Grade 6 book readings, how the town grew while he was mayor, our professional interactions – but most of all, I’ll remember how he helped foster that sense of community.

That place where you could meet the mayor on the street, and he’d know you by name.

Flags are now flying at half mast in Okotoks, according to the town, to honour Bill Robertson’s contributions.

Rest in peace, Mr. R.