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Dress smart for the part, even if people say you're 'Canada's craziest mayor' Add to ...

He is the Mr. Dressup of Canadian politics.

This morning he is turned out in an expensive dark blue pinstripe suit, an elegant white shirt and a tie as bright and busy as an old cash register.

Clothes, in fact, have been the only issue in Mayor Don Atchison's first four months in office -- and yet it has somehow become big enough to have him named "Canada's craziest mayor" among what must be the stiffest competition in the Western Hemisphere.

He delights in it.

He delights, in fact, in everything, but especially in this eccentric Prairie city that features City Hall hours from 8:09 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a statue of Gordie Howe on one corner, one of Mahatma Gandhi on another.

Only one of them grew up here.

So, too, did Mr. Atchison, a large, powerful 52-year-old who fell in love with politics when he was in Grade 6 and happened to watch television coverage of the British election. That's correct -- British.

In Grade 12, he decided to run for the student council post of sports rep, and to get attention he began wearing sports equipment to school. One day a football helmet; one day hockey pants; one day he clumped about the halls in ski boots. He won easily.

He loved hockey equipment more than anything, and was good enough in goal pads and a mask to play for the Saskatoon Blades and eventually move on to a minor pro career as property of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

He was with the Johnstown Jets when the player sitting in the stall beside him, Ned Dowd, began taking notes. Mr. Atchison asked him what he was writing down and Mr. Dowd told him his sister, Nancy, was writing a Hollywood screenplay on hockey.

"Yeah, sure," the big goalie said to Mr. Dowd, "and I've got some swamp land in Florida I'd like you to look into." Much to his surprise, however, Nancy Dowd did complete a screenplay and the result, Slap Shot -- featuring Paul Newman, the Hanson Brothers and Ned Dowd as crazy Ogie Ogilthorpe -- went on to become perhaps the most famous sports movie of all time.

"Everything in that movie's true," he says.

The film features a hilarious French Canadian, Denis Lemieux, as the goalie, however -- missing out on what may well have been an equally memorable character in having Mr. Atchison merely play himself.

From sports he got his lifelong belief in a shirt and tie. Dress smart, he believes, and you'll be smarter. Good clothes make you more dynamic, more sure of yourself.

When he retired from hockey he came back to Saskatoon and operated Atch & Co., a men's wear store, with his father. He and his wife, Mardelle, had five children and, a decade ago, it was her suggestion that he try civic politics.

He was good at it, as well as novel. He campaigned by dressing up in a business suit and showing up on different corners to wave at citizens as they passed on their way to and from work. It got him to council and, last fall, to the mayor's office.

His first act was to set a dress code. You want to come into this office, he said, you had better be dressed right. He viewed it as his office; the people saw it as their office. Some even suggested he was trying to pump up sales. The dress code was dropped immediately.

It was enough, however, to gain him more votes than any other in comedian Rick Mercer's quest to identify "the craziest mayor in Canada" on CBC-TV's Monday Report. Mr. Atchison took on all of them -- St. John's Andy Wells, London's Anne Marie DeCicco, Mississauga's Hazel McCallion and Montreal's Gerald Tremblay -- and with the encouragement of Mardelle, who thought the prank a lark, even went on the show to make a humble acceptance speech. His fans say if he's crazy it's like a fox.

All the attention, of course, has distracted from the important work at hand -- attacking crime, healing relations with the large aboriginal community, a multimillion-dollar waterfront reclamation project -- but the notoriety also has its advantages.

Perhaps next time Toronto Mayor David Miller decides to hold another summit of city leaders, he'll think to ask the mayor of Saskatoon rather than the mayor of smaller Regina.

Mr. Atchison, not surprisingly, sees his fast-growing city along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River as the jewel of the Prairies, with a great future in high-tech industries and tourism.

"For me," he says, "it's all about visions and dreams. If you don't dream big, nothing happens. If you dream small, small things happen." But before all that, there is the forthcoming gala to consider at the Mendel Art Gallery. A presentation is going to be made of a vintage car, and the mayor has promised to dress for the occasion.

"I'm going to wear my golf knickers," he says.

"I'll wear my knickers, and black-and-white argyle socks, and black-and-white spectator shoes . . .

"And a shirt and tie, of course."

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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