Alex Raeburn: Caledon’s Man for All Seasons
For 92 years Alex Raeburn has been in the middle of the action, and enjoying every minute of it.
“It was just plain ridiculous.” Alex Raeburn’s exasperation at the bone-headed behaviour of bureaucrats rings in his voice as if the incident occurred yesterday morning. In fact, it took place more than three decades ago, when Alex was deputy-reeve of Caledon Township.
“Here you have the people of Inglewood. They’ve been promised a provincial grant for artificial ice, so the community raises money to build an arena and what happens? Some government official tells them the deal’s off. No grant! Now, in my opinion, there’s only one way to fix a situation like that: you go straight to the top.”
That is why within hours of the bad news for Inglewood, Alex was down at Queen’s Park. “I knew a few people there,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “You’ve just got to talk to the right ones.” By the time Alex returned to Caledon that day, the same bureaucrat who had denied the grant had stayed overtime to restore it. Inglewood got its ice.
It wasn’t the first time Alex Raeburn had gone straight to the top. In 1939 he went to New York City to see the World’s Fair and, as part of the experience, decided to walk around the entire circumference of Manhattan Island. During the excursion, undertaken in daily sections, he noticed several battleships docked in the Hudson River. Never having seen a battleship, he joined a lineup of visitors waiting to board one of them. However, the other visitors were sailors’ families, boarding on special privilege. Alex was summarily refused.
“Someone the likes of you would have to get permission from the admiral,” a petty officer told him with a smirk. “He’s at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
So that’s where Alex went. “I said I was a Canadian who wanted to see the admiral. I kept getting passed around and handed off until, sure enough, I landed in his office. It turns out he was a keen fisherman. He wanted to know all about fishing spots in northern Ontario, so I just told him a bunch of stuff that any Ontarian knows, and that’s how I got to see the inside of a battleship.”
In 1979, Alex Raeburn was officially thanked by the Hon. René Brunelle for his many years work on the Niagara Escarpment Commission. In his remarks, the minister noted that Alex “is not the kind of person to stand on the sidelines when the game is taking place.” That must be a Raeburn family trait. They have been making things happen in these hills since Alex’s great-grandfather, Robert Raeburn, settled here in the 1820s. Caledon Village was first called Raeburn’s Corners, before it became Charleston, then eventually Caledon.
When Alex took up the torch in the 1960s, he was instrumental in having Caledon become a ‘police village,’ and served as one of its first trustees. He also became a Township of Caledon school trustee, and then the board’s chair at a time when Ontario’s education system was experiencing dramatic changes. One of the board’s tasks was the construction of Belfountain Public School in 1963.
“That meant closing four small country schools. Not everybody likes that kind of thing,” notes Alex. “The kids didn’t mind leaving the outhouses behind though, or the leaky roofs.” The opening of Caledon Central P.S. two years later meant that Alex had to close his own alma mater, S.S. #8, where he’d taken his seat for the first time in 1918.
When he retired from aircraft manufacturer, McDonnell-Douglas, in 1972, Alex was elected the township’s deputy reeve. He admits that rather than seek a spot on council he took aim at the higher office so he could get more done, but he may have also had a subconscious motive. As a young boy keenly interested in the world around him, Alex had often attended township council. He had never forgotten that during winter meetings, the councillors had to wear hats and coats to keep warm, while the reeve and deputy got to sit next to the stove.
The Township of Caledon was folded into the new Town of Caledon as Ward 1 in 1974. Alex went on to serve as the ward’s regional councillor for the next four years. Right from the start, he made it clear he was not going to “stand on the sidelines.”
The matter of choosing the new town’s name was a case in point. Fine print in the Region of Peel Act stated that the region would be made up of the cities of Mississauga and Brampton, and the town of Albion.
“It almost stayed that way too,” Alex remembers, “because most of the council said it was as good a name as any. That got my dander up and I pointed out that the fine print also said the name was subject to a plebiscite.” Which is how Alex became a lightning rod for the Call-it-Caledon campaign. So successful was his strategy that when the plebiscite was held (the choices were Albion, Cardwell, and Caledon), only the village of Bolton held out for alternatives. Even in the former township of Albion, a majority thought Alex had the right idea.
There was a lot more to governing the region than choosing a name, though, and as chair of a make-it-happen committee, public works, Alex was in his element. As well, just as in the old township system, there was work to be done behind the scenes. One issue, for example, was close to Alex’s own back yard: developing the Millcroft Inn.
“The investors wanted to make a real showpiece out of what was a broken-down old mill,” he says. “I thought it was an idea worth considering. For sure the mill was never going to come back, and there was only a kind of half-assed restaurant there, but the nearby residents were worried about what an ‘inn’ meant. So I just put everyone together and insisted they thrash the damn thing out! Turned out pretty good, didn’t it?” he adds with a grin. The new inn won a national award for heritage preservation.
A passion for heritage
In 1978, the year after the Millcroft opened for business, Alex Raeburn’s style of aiming high hit a rare snag. He ran for election as mayor and was defeated. “Sure it bothered me,” he acknowledges, “but only until I walked across the street and bought a fishing rod.”
Fortunately for Caledon, for these hills and, indeed, for Ontario, Alex’s summary departure from competitive municipal politics gave him more time for getting things done. Because of his deep and abiding interest in environmental issues, Alex had been more than pleased to be Peel Region’s representative on both the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Credit Valley Conservation Authority. Now he was able to expand his influence by accepting a position on Ontario’s Waste Management Advisory Board.
A similar passion for heritage had led him to be first chair of Caledon’s LACAC (Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee) and to active involvement in what is now the Peel Heritage Complex. With the duties of municipal office now behind him, this interest widened to the provincial level with an appointment to the Ontario Heritage Foundation.
Alex is particularly proud of what the OHF has accomplished, and of his role in arranging acquisitions such as Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre. As he puts it, “Once you don’t have to watch your back all the time you can really get things done on these committees.”
That was never more true than in his efforts on behalf of Forks of the Credit Provincial Park. What is now one of this area’s favourite parks might be far less appealing today had it not been for Alex Raeburn.
“We darn near missed getting the Willoughby property,” he explains. The scenic, cliffside property was the site of the greatest industrial boom in Caledon, the mining of quarry stone. “It was just about the best part of the whole park in my opinion. The Town wanted the property and both the Escarpment Commission and the Credit Valley Authority were on board, but every time our wishes would get to Queen’s Park, somehow they’d just disappear! See, I was the only one on the OHF who really understood how vital that property is to the park and I was the only one staying on top of things. Whoever was shelving it knew I had only a few days left in my second term on the OHF! It was close. We almost missed that one!”
Getting things done, it seems, doesn’t just apply to Alex’s public career but to his work life as well. In his own words, his position at McDonnell-Douglas (Avro Canada in an earlier incarnation) was “sort of in the middle. I was high enough in the chain to see the brass at work, but low enough to work with the slaves too. They called me ‘liaison.’ Mostly what I was expected to do was sort out manufacturing and design problems and fix them.”
Alex’s success at ‘fixing’ is recalled by Palgrave resident, Ray Rogers. A long-time manager at the company, he remembers a crisis over fabrication of wings for the DC-9. “Upper management was running around screaming and people on the shop floor were milling about all confused while Alex just quietly went about and got the problem fixed. He was like that. A lifesaver. We often used to wonder what would have happened to the DC-9 if he’d been dumped with the others during the Arrow fiasco.”
Surviving ‘Black Friday’ at Avro
When Alex Raeburn wasn’t organizing and governing, or raising a family, or beating up on reluctant bureaucrats, or playing and coaching lacrosse, or building his own house in Caledon Village (“put in every nail”), he was a tool and die maker.
In the 1930s he worked for Parker Pen in Toronto, but after enduring a bout of tuberculosis (he spent a year in a sanitarium), he wanted to live and work in cleaner air. So he moved back home to Caledon and went to work at A.V. Roe in Malton (“26 minutes door to door”), makers of the famous Avro Arrow, and victim of its infamous cancellation on ‘Black Friday,’ February 20, 1959. Nearly 14,000 employees were immediately fired by Avro, but not Alex.
“Before the Arrow,” he explains, “we had been putting out CF-100s. This one day there was a jet being rolled out the door and it had a new modification to the engine mounts. At the last minute an inspector found a loose bolt they couldn’t get at, so a foreman got me to design a wrench on the spot. Usually that kind of thing took weeks, but I got it to him in a couple of hours. He never forgot that, so as he went up the ladder, I went up too.
“On the day everybody was fired, they brought all us supervisors into a meeting. Our names were on a big chart, pretty much in order of rank, and management kept wiping names off the bottom rows. My name would have disappeared on the next sweep, but that’s where it stopped. I stayed till 1972. Retired as fabrications manager. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it, when you realize that all those high-priced, university-educated engineers were working along with a graduate of Orangeville High School! That Black Friday though… Sure the company appreciated my work – I always seemed to be the one they sent off troubleshooting – but an experience like that mass firing certainly focusses the mind. In life, you’ve got to keep your eyes open.”
Living to the fullest
“Fortunately, my parents always encouraged me to think for myself, especially my mother. She was from Philadelphia, a nurse. Must have been a jolt to move here. She was of French extraction, a Yankee – and a Catholic! A hundred years ago in Caledon that was like coming to the plate with three called strikes.
She never pushed her religion on me though. My father either, although the Raeburns were mighty strong Presbyterians. What they each did was take me to their church and tell me to make up my own mind. Well, after a good look, I didn’t want any part of either one. As far as I’m concerned, religion is how you live your life every day, not just what you toss around on Sunday. Lou Parsons [first chair of Peel Region] once said to me, ‘Alex, you’re the most religious man I know’, so maybe I got it right, at least some of the time.”
If getting it right includes living every day to the fullest, then Alex Raeburn is still managing just fine. You might expect a 92-year-old to spend a lot of time looking back. And Alex will do that if pressed. He’ll reminisce about buying a 300-foot lot in the early 1940s for a hundred dollars. Or about volunteering to be a driver for the Carleton Ladies’ Basketball team. His ’38 Chevy could take six, one of whom was always Doris Craig; they married in 1942.
He’ll talk about leading the family cow down what is now Highway 10 to introduce her to a neighbour’s prize bull. (On the way, she broke loose and jumped a fence to meet another suitor instead.) And from his vast collection of scrapbooks, Alex may show you the 1921 school photo from S.S. #8. He’s standing not far from pretty June Gillespie whom he married nearly sixty years later after they’d each lost their first spouse.
But memories don’t fill the day for him; there’s too much to do. Like staying current with local and world affairs. The daily paper helps with that, but Alex finds the internet a greater boon. “If only we’d had the web when I was on council,” he says. “You want to find out about something? Just Google it and there it is! Of course, there’s so much on the net a person could spend the whole day and there’s more to life than that.” Such as photography in Alex’s case.
He is particularly fond of photographing wildlife, though he admits it’s getting a wee bit harder now to chase down the opportunities. So he has taught himself to videocam wildlife photos from magazines, transfer them to a TV screen and then photograph the images with an SLR camera. The very professional looking results fill the walls of the historic Science Hall in Alton, where he and June (he calls her “Billie”, after her grandfather, William Stubbs, who was featured in the spring issue of In the Hills) make their winter home.
Alex will still accept a very occasional speaking engagement but only if the conditions are right. “Public speaking is very tiring,” he explains, “so at my age you have to pick and choose your physical activities.” He re-shingled the roof of their summer home at nearby Green Lake, but that was at age 85 when he was still a youngster. “See, I’ve got this reminder, this long plastic tube running down from my heart. It’ll probably outlast me.” That’s a possibility of course, but after a few visits with Alex Raeburn it’s not hard to believe he’ll give that tube a good run.
“I’m just going to keep on doing everything I can,” he says. “After all, what’s the world for if you can’t have a bit of fun?
Seeing a Flying Saucer
“It came up to the window where I was standing. Hovered just like a hummingbird and then pulled away. Quite a sight!”
When Alex Raeburn saw a flying saucer swooshing by his office window, he was neither delusional nor intoxicated. It was really there.
Despite several books on the topic and a host of readily available photographs, remarkably few Canadians are aware that in the early 1950s, Avro Canada developed a prototype flying saucer called the Avrocar. Backed by the Canadian and (mostly) U.S. governments, and with the utmost secrecy, the objective was to build a craft capable of climbing vertically and flying horizontally at up to 2,400 km/h.
The prototype actually worked, but only up to altitudes of about a single storey after which it became unstable. By 1960 the project was abandoned. The prototype now sits in the U.S. Air Force Museum in Virginia. Alex has a plate-sized model that he still gleefully produces to entertain guests with the story.
“I’d have gone to jail for telling you this in 1953,” he says. “Official Secrets Act, you know. I would never have got to see it myself except they were always needing strange things designed and fabricated and that’s where I came in.”