George Peary, former mayor of Abbotsford, city councillor, and school principal wears many hats. Growing up in Brandon, Manitoba, George was a sports star who at the age of 16 was named Brandon’s athlete of the year. He was captain of the Brandon Wheat Kings, played football, wrestled, did gymnastics, and represented Canada in the judo national championships.
Peary has taught in India, and worked as the principal of multiple schools, locally and in the Yukon. Since moving to the Fraser Valley in 1963, he has been actively involved as a public servant in many roles and even worked as a sessional instructor at, and received an honorary doctorate from, UFV. His career has been exceptionally productive and highly involved in the Abbotsford area.
Peary will speak at the President’s Lecture series at UFV on October 12, where he’ll talk about community building and his experiences with it throughout his career.
So you’re going to be speaking at UFV?
Yes, they really flattered me by giving me an honorary doctorate, I didn’t realize it came with a commitment. But I’m happy to go and see if I can entertain, maybe even educate a little bit.
What will you be talking about?
Well one of the strategic directions is changing lives, building communities; I’ve kind of had a pretty good seat in the pursuit of that. I’ve seen examples of the university having changed lives and indeed in my own life. The opportunity to go and teach in India, to live there for eight months, two semesters, to work at the university over there, to meet wonderful people, and to experience their country — its hunger, its pageantry, its blemishes, they’re all there.
What do you offer as a speaker and teacher?
My style is different than many professors. I’m more demonstrative. I perform, I don’t just teach, and that’s who I am. I’m quite animated, the students are either happy or appalled; thankfully most are happy. I try to be very conscious of the atmosphere and ambience in the classroom — there’s enough misery in the world. You don’t know, when there’s a class of 30 to 35, what kind of days they’ve had or what’s going on in their lives. When you teach something you need to present it in an interesting fashion and you honour the fact that students have ideas and opinions and then create an opportunity to participate.
I deal with some pretty heavy issues in my office on occasion, but I never give up on kids. You’ve got to try and nurture them and help them understand that maybe they made a bad decision and what they could do differently. I love that part of my work. Being in an assembly line putting fenders on Ford every day could be pretty deadly work.
Back when you were going to school, would you have guessed this is where you’d end up?
Oh no. Where are you going to be 10 years from now? No one knows, and it’s a good thing you don’t. It might frighten you otherwise or discourage you. You have to play the hand you’re dealt. Sometimes we get good cards and sometimes we don’t get good cards, but you do the best with what you have. I’ve had some wonderful hands and I thoroughly enjoyed playing them and I’ve had some hands that were tough. You gut it out and endure and you know what, I promised myself I wouldn’t do something I couldn’t enjoy. At my age, if I don’t enjoy it, I won’t do it anymore.
Does it makes sense now that you ended up where you did?
Well, you understand your life looking back, but of course you’re never sure what’s in the future. When you get to my age you start to get to what I call the countdown stage of your life. You look at the grandchildren and you wonder, “How many more Christmases am I going to have with these kids? How many more holidays to Hawaii?” What I want to do is live the most of every day and live with no regrets. I’m very conscious of that. I’ve been blessed with some pretty productive years on this planet; I’ve quite enjoyed it and I intend to keep on trucking.
What do you say to university / college students who want to influence their communities?
Keep your minds and eyes open to the possibilities. I always tell my students, do more than what’s expected. Don’t be a nine-to-five guy. Do your job until it’s done and do it well. If you’re going to be a garbage collector, be the best garbage collector. I really encourage young people that in whatever they do, do it well, be the best. It’s not getting easier for young people, but I think the opportunities are going to be even greater.
What do you think students need to be thinking about?
I think it’s important that they live every day. It’s pretty easy to get stuck in study mode and bury yourself in your books, but college and university shouldn’t be preparation for life, it should be part of life. So I encourage young people to get out there and be active. If you get a part-time job and can manage that with your studies, great. If you want to volunteer somewhere and make a difference in somebody’s life, there are plenty of opportunities for young people to keep active, to make a difference, to do something worthwhile. But be prepared for the opportunities. Most people my age don’t regret the things they did, they regret the things they didn’t. So live life, enjoy life, be bold.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity