Welcome to Our People, a new addition to the Gazette. St. Albert and area is full of individuals with interesting lives and stories to tell, or who have become successful in their careers, often quietly, behind the scenes. Every second Wednesday we will profile one of these people. If you know of an individual who you feel should be recognized in this way, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org
Local doctor had huge impact
Fin Fairfield helped found medical clinic and conservation group
by Susan Jones
Dr. Fin Fairfield knew when he was 16 years old that he wanted to be a doctor, but he may not have guessed he would still be a physician into his 70s.
And, the now 73-year-old says, he’s not sure he’s done yet even thought he semi-retired in July because of illness.
“I took the summer off and I expected to go back to work until I found out I was enjoying not working,” he said. “It’s come as a revelation to me after working hard all my life, I’m also good at not working.”
The unexpected nature of the decision to retire has left him conflicted so he said he might continue to do seniors’ care at the Youville Home.
Working hard, whether it was at Grandin Medical Clinic, which he founded with Dr. Ed Gramlich 45 years ago, or at Big Lake Environment Support Society (BLESS) that he founded in 1991, has been Fairfield’s life.
Fairfield was born in Winnipeg where his father and uncles owned Fairfield and Sons Woollen Mill. His father died when he was 12 and after his mother remarried, he moved to Calgary.
“I studied pre-medicine in Edmonton and this year marks the 50th anniversary of my graduation as a doctor,” he said.
Fairfield and Gramlich interned together and then decided to jointly hang their shingles in an office in Grandin Mall in 1966.
“We came here based on the fact that they were going to build the Sturgeon Hospital,” he said.
He remembers the McKenney Avenue Sturgeon Hospital with fondness. Fairfield, Gramlich, Dr. Walter Skrobot, Dr. Walter Mirlin and Dr. Ed Tworek were the original medical staff.
“It had deficiencies. There were only two emergency examining rooms and the emergency room leaked like a sieve, but we did everything: anaesthesia and surgery and we caught the babies,” he said, adding that he has no idea how many babies he delivered.
“It would be in the thousands. People come up to me all the time and tell me I delivered them,” he said. “One lady had seven babies at the old Sturgeon hospital and I delivered them all.”
Fairfield called the present hospital a “true community hospital” but he is still angered by the years when it was downgraded to a health centre.
“We were so fortunate to get an upgraded hospital in St. Albert, but we darned near lost it during the Klein administration,” he said. “What they did to the hospital was an absolute disaster and it bothered me. It took a lot out of me. But the right thing happened. Our hospital status was returned and that’s all that matters.”
It was at that time that Fairfield took the position as medical director of the facility.
The impetus for Big Lake Environment Support Society came in 1991 from Fairfield’s daughter PJ, who was studying environmental sciences at university.
“She was moaning that the world was going to hell and I told her, ‘PJ, anyone can do something,’ ” he recalled, “I put a letter in the Gazette and invited people to come to Grandin Medical Clinic for a meeting and BLESS was born.”
This BLESSed baby wasn’t always manageable or cute and cuddly and its mandate was often difficult to deliver, but Fairfield maintains that his goal all along was to make people aware of the beauty of Big Lake.
“People just thought of it as this big slough full of loon shit. I’m not a naturalist or an environmentalist. I’m a promoter. I felt people needed to be aware of its value as a natural resource. But BLESS became an anachronism when it became involved in the placement of the highway,” he said.
He feels a lingering sadness at the way the decade-long road battle progressed and cannot help but dip his foot in the troubled waters of Big Lake just one more time.
“I realized they were going to build the road anyway. It made no sense to me. For a community to build a road through its only parkland makes no sense. All we presented to council was the question, ‘Is there no other alternative than to run it through the centre of a park? Is there no alternative but to run it through our most active recreation area, with the canoe and kayak club, the BMX track, the soccer grounds, the rugby fields and the rodeo grounds?’ “
Fairfield is proud of the work the society did and of the awareness that was created.
“Remember Winterfest? I remember my wife, Peggy and also Gail and Bob Lane organizing all the hot dogs and wieners and sled dogs. You’d think we had nothing else to do,” Fairfield remembered, with a laugh.
Having Big Lake recognized as an important wildlife area and as a provincial park, are among his proudest memories. He’s proud too of the BLESS platform, which was built with $30,000 raised at silent auctions and a series of fund-raising events.
“My God we worked hard but BLESS earned an Emerald Award as the best community-based society in Alberta and unquestionably, BLESS gained recognition for Big Lake as an important wildlife area,” he said.
Fairfield, who stressed he is not through doctoring yet, is especially proud of the contribution he and Gramlich made together in starting Grandin Medical Clinic.
“That’s the most important thing I’ve done. I spent my life as a doctor and that has been most satisfying,” Fairfield said. “I take a good deal of pride in the accomplishments of Grandin Clinic.
Fairfield’s home shows another, equally strong pride in his family. The walls are covered with multiple pictures of his wife Peggy and his children Tony, PJ, Hugh and Terry along with photos of his oldest son Fin, who died in 1987.
“I have a lot of things I’d like to do. I won’t sit. I can’t sit. Maybe I’ll paint or carve ducks. I’d also like to work with seniors,” he said.
Fun facts: Dr. Fin Fairfield
Hawaii by James Michener
Favourite vacation spot:
Moose Lake, Alta., cottage
“My old Honda Odyssey.”
“My family: Peggy and our kids.”
“I think I kissed my mother. Oh what the heck! It was Sharon Morrison in high school.”
If you had total power what would you change in St. Albert?
“St. Albert is a great community and there’s not a lot of changing that needs to be done. I’d like to see a cheaper and wider variety of seniors’ accommodation.”