Partner, father, educator, community activist. Born on Oct. 17, 1942, in Nieuw-Buinen, the Netherlands; died on July 30, 2016, in Udora, Ont., in a consensual physician-assisted death, aged 73.
Gerry was an unrepentant, idealistic and uncompromising champion of social justice. His final decision – to end his life at home with medical assistance – wasn’t an act of courage as much as it was characteristic of a life of decisions made to benefit others.
An educator for 30 years, he railed against bureaucracy, against inaction – particularly if it squelched opportunity for kids or robbed the community of its voice. He worked for the North York Board of Education as a teacher, principal, consultant and assistant to the board’s director. He was a pioneer in multiculturalism, welcoming the languages, faiths and customs of various cultures into his schools.
He rescued old and unused musical instruments from several schools to refurbish them for learning and performance at Cummer Valley Middle School. He persuaded and cajoled educators at the highest levels to support students who couldn’t find their way academically.
When he retired at 55, Gerry helped to launch a community-based learning centre. Georgina Trades Training Inc. offers trades programs, apprenticeship courses and workplace certification programs that, over 10 years, have helped almost 4,500 students in rural communities develop skills for life-affirming careers.
He demanded that citizens have a voice in the creation of the town of Georgina’s official plan, and served as a community representative on the official plan review. He also represented the community in an initiative known as Back on Track to expand health services in Sutton, close to where he lived with Margaret, his partner of 27 years.
Gerry listened to people in schools, pubs, farms, centres of faith, community centres and agencies, hockey arenas, baseball diamonds, homes and businesses. He understood their experiences and fearlessly spoke their truths. You didn’t like him? No matter. Difficult issues had to be faced. Tough questions had to be asked. Surveys, polls and focus groups buttressed his calls for action.
Described by a close friend as a “fearless, shameless humanist, committed to the truth, no matter who it hurt, including himself,” Gerry lived to fight for others. His ethical, intellectual and emotional stamina were legendary.
His was a voice that could not be dampened or dismissed. That is, until it was. In 2009, his health began to decline. He developed progressive supranuclear palsy, a brain disorder with no known cure that affects movement, balance and walking, speech, swallowing, vision, mood and thinking. Loved and supported by family (children Matthew and Elizabeth and grandchildren Kyle, Craig, Sean, Peter, Aaron, Alexandra and Alyssa) and friends, Gerry grew frail and frustrated.
In the end, he could barely talk, a cruelty for one so eloquent and full of ideas. In 30 years of public education service, Gerry counted six days of illness. But locked in a failing body and facing being fed through a tube, he was grateful for another option.
Throughout his life, Gerry was a skilled woodworker, who enjoyed refurbishing found and recycled materials to give them new purpose. In fallen cedar, he saw furniture and toys. He never bought a gift he could make himself. His final gift, however, is one of example, the courage to stand for what is right, the courage to lie down when standing is no longer possible.
Brian Jamieson is a former colleague and long-time friend of Gerry’s.
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