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Mayor of Port McNeill aims for 45 years in office

Port McNeill Mayor Gerry Furney during a Christmas hamper fundraising barbecue in Port McNeill, B.C., Sept. 23, 2011.

J.R. Rardon/J.R. Rardon/ The Globe and Mail

After 43 years in municipal office, including 36 as mayor of Port McNeill, Gerry Furney has almost reached his goal.

"I'm aiming for 45 years," said the genial Irish immigrant who writes poetry about the nail-soled caulk boots worn by loggers and wins election after election in the small resource town on the north end of Vancouver Island.

Mr. Furney, 78, one of two candidates for mayor in Port McNeill, is being challenged this year by Shelley Downey, a councillor for the past six years.

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"I think she got a bit impatient waiting for me to retire," Mr. Furney said.

And Ms. Downey, who is the owner-operator of Peoples Drug Mart in Port McNeill, pretty much confirms that's the case.

"I'd ask him every year, how much longer?" Ms. Downey said. "And every year he'd say, 'I don't know. This is what I do.' "

So now she is trying to get him to do something he has done only once before in those 43 years, which is to lose.

Ms. Downey, 47, admitted it is daunting to challenge someone who has held office almost as long as she's been alive.

"Gerry is certainly due respect for the service he has given the community … but I'm offering a new approach," she said. "I'd rather not have to run against him, because he's been acclaimed or elected every time out. But this time – and I don't know how you can put this nicely – I hope he loses."

Mr. Furney said that, after all his campaigns, he doubts he'll be nervous on election night, even though Ms. Downey is a strong challenger.

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"I'm happy to win, but if I lose, what the hell, I've lost before," he said.

The only election he didn't win since first running in 1968 was a squeaker.

"My second election, I lost by one vote," he said.

That stung, Mr. Furney said, but he used his two years out of politics to build up his business as the local agent for Shell Canada and CIL explosives.

Port McNeill was a small, raw logging camp when he first arrived. Since then, it has grown into a thriving town of about 3,000 with a more diverse economy based on forestry, mining, aquaculture and tourism.

Mr. Furney and a school friend were travelling across Canada in 1956 when they saw a "loggers wanted" sign posted in a shop window in Vancouver.

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Figuring a life in the bush sounded romantic, the two young men signed up, saying they had driven logging trucks in Ireland. A few days later, they boarded the S.S. Catala at the Union Steamship dock and sailed up the coast.

Mr. Furney's first memory of Port McNeill is sitting on the beach, looking out a blue ocean, with a vast green forest behind him.

"My impression was I had landed in paradise," he said. "It was like going back in to the story books I'd read about explorers in the Canadian wilderness. I thought, this is it."

He was put in a bunkhouse with about 120 other loggers and given the lowest, most dangerous job, working as a "chokerman," wrapping logs with cables, and then watching as they were swung over his head.

"It was a tough life, but we held our own," he said of himself and his friend, Tom Murphy, who a few years later left to pursue a career as a golf pro.

Mr. Furney stayed and stayed and stayed – and along the way helped Port McNeill evolve from logging camp to organized municipality.

In an interview with the B.C. newspaper The Celtic Connection, Mr. Furney, who still speaks with a touch of an Irish accent, said his approach to running a small town is simple.

"We have money coming in and money going out and we have to make sure that there is a bit more coming in than goes out. It's pretty much the same principle as running a household," he said.

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