From the fur trade to the library

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Before becoming a teacher and a librarian, local historian Dave Geddes worked stints in a gold mine, a telegraph office, a Morse code station and a fur trading post

It might be incongruous with the persona of a librarian, especially one as immersed in history as Dave Geddes – the local scholar, after all, has long been a fixture in this city’s history pages, having written newspaper columns and books on significant people and events of St. Albert’s historic past – but there it is.

His high school transcript offers the revelation that he received a failing grade in history from Milne’s High School in Fochabers, Scotland – his home town. It was his worst subject.

“I don’t remember that,” Geddes says, suggesting that it might have been the study of North American history that did him in.

“It was never too exciting,” he said.

These facts can be overlooked in view of what Geddes has done since then. He has done much to promote education but, even more, he has had a storied life of his own, playing parts in some of the more interesting aspects of Canada’s history.

After all, how many people do you know that used to work in the fur trade? Geddes had just turned 21 when the Hudson’s Bay Company paid his way from his homeland to work in the fur trade in Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Geddes explained that he was unsettled and craved adventure and experience.

“I didn’t have a vision of what a long-term career would be. I was new to Canada. I was just enjoying the moment. I had a great couple of years learning how things worked and meeting all kinds of different people.”

He was still a Scottish lad of 14 when he decided to leave school. The last years of the Second World War had seen a shortage of labourers as soldiers went off to fight. He became a telegram boy in the Fochabers post office.

That was after he had already had his first taste of labour by being a “tattie picker” – a potato harvester – a particularly grueling and backbreaking occupation.

Geddes left home at 16 to set out on his own by becoming an engine cleaner for the London Midland & Scottish Railway. That stint ended when he was called up to do his 18 months of conscripted service in the army, a time that saw him posted in Egypt along the Suez Canal.

After that he returned to his railway work but soon saw an advertisement for “adventurous young men” to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company, “the oldest chartered stock company in the world,” he writes in his still unpublished memoir called Dave: An Autobiographical Sketch.

He arrived in Edmonton on his 21st birthday, just as a stop along his way to Fort Smith. That work lasted for two years before he was transferred to the post at Fort Rae on Great Slave Lake. There, he communicated via Morse code to the Signals Corp station at Fort Resolution on the other side of the lake.

Then he found work at the Discovery Gold Mine near Yellowknife. A construction job in Hay River followed. That’s where he worked on the DEW line for two years starting in 1955. The Distant Early Warning line was the Cold War network of radar stations designed to detect Soviet invasions and attacks by air and sea in Canada’s Far North.

Other employers included Federal Electric Corp., the company that ran the DEW line. He was a driver and a messenger based at the Municipal Airport in Edmonton. He also became an aircraft dispatcher at PIN Main on the tip of Cape Parry, the most northerly point of continental Canada. There was also a gig as an insurance investigator.

“All these jobs are fine but I wanted something more,” Geddes recalls.

That was it. He was 28 and decided to finally go back to school, 14 years after he quit.

Geddes had always been a voracious reader, so much so that he had entertained being a writer and had had some of his articles published in the Edmonton Journal. He was also published alongside W.O. Mitchell and other western literati in the Alberta Golden Jubilee Anthology.

“I read a lot, even as a teenager. I would meet university students who came up north in the summertime. I could carry on conversations with them. That changed my thinking. ‘I’m as smart as that guy.’ This constantly encouraged me to go ahead.”

Going ahead meant going back … to school. That was the hard part, he recalls.

“I wanted something more. All I had to do was go to university. I signed up for a bunch of high school classes. I got to Alberta College and I was doing Math 20. At that time it was all algebra,” he said with a particular note of disdain.

“A plus B equals C. I had no idea what they were talking about. The teacher was this little grey-haired lady. After class one day, she calls me to the back of the class. She said, ‘Mr. Geddes, why are you here? I think you’re wasting your time.’ I said, ‘I think I am too.’”

But he slugged it out, more daunted by the prospect of having to learn another language to be accepted into university. A friend suggested that he didn’t need such a requirement to get into education.

“I said, ‘what do you mean into education? I want an education. I don’t want to go into education,’” he says.

“‘You can become a teacher!’” the friend said.

“Just like in the old novel, the scales fell from my eyes,” Geddes says.

And so he became a post-secondary student, learning how to be a teacher. He was still immersed in his courses at the U of A when he visited a hiring fair. A stop by the St. Albert booth proved to be prophetic.

Geddes says he was hired on the spot because his Scottish accent got the approval from the “good Irishman” Ronald Harvey, the chairman of the Protestant school district at the time.

He was one of the first teachers hired for the new Paul Kane High School back in 1963 while he was still in the middle of his education degree. He worked during the day and took night classes and summer school to get through his courses. The workhorse never gave up and eventually got his schooling done.

Having his own life in history helped him to develop a passion for history classes. His love of writing helped him to develop as a writer himself. Naturally, he taught language arts and social studies. Later he got his diploma in library sciences to become a librarian. Geddes worked at Paul Kane for three straight decades until he retired in 1993.

Since his retirement, he has made a name for himself as a historian with his popular column in the Saint City News. He has written three books, including Building the Lighthouse, the history of the Protestant school district. His autobiography is still a work in progress, he says, as he tinkers with the grammar and punctuation.

Geddes says that, of all his experiences, education has been the greatest gift.

“It has paid off in so many ways,” he said. “It really changes your life.”

Q&A

What’s your favourite book? "Wow! I’ve read a million!! I can’t pick just one! The books of childhood are always the best: E.R. Burroughs’ Tarzan books. Later, E.S. Forester’s books about Midshipman Easy…"

Favourite movie?
"All time? Gone With the Wind – Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh."

What did you want to be when you grew up?
"A midshipman in the Royal Navy and travel the world."

What do you want to see on your tombstone?
"He tried. He succeeded."

What is your greatest accomplishment?
"Going back to school as an adult and winning out over algebra!"

Do you have any superstitions?
"No. But I never walk under ladders, just in case."

Pet peeves?
"People who complain rather than try."

Rolling Stones or the Beatles?
"Beatles. Just a buncha kids with guitars but they changed it all. They wouldn’t accept no as an answer and went on to change the music world."

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About Author

Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns and profiles on people.