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Wye Marsh executive remembered as an inspirational leader

Naturalists the world over are mourning the loss of former Wye Marsh director who led with grace and honour, says outdoors columnist
Bob Whittam
Bob Whittam, former director of Wye Marsh Wildlife Interpretive Centre, has passed away and will be missed by naturalists around the region and beyond. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Bob Whittam, then Director of the Wye Marsh Wildlife Centre, helps staff clean up.

What's so special about that? Read on...

It's been a while since I wrote an ode, or eulogy, about someone's passing from our community. However, not surprisingly, time flows on and events happen and now another moment has come to pause and give acknowledgement to someone who made their mark in our lives.

Bob Whittam is a name and a person that was well-known in the north Simcoe County area, especially in Midland and Penetanguishene. But he was also known, and is remembered, by hundreds who are now scattered around this whole planet, engaged in environmental tasks.

This is because Bob was the director of Wye Marsh Wildlife Interpretation Centre for many years, and influenced dozens and dozens of young women and men to share a concern about the natural environment.

Growing up in the 1950s I think Bob was probably seen as being a bit of a geek. He liked birdwatching and playing piano; certainly not your post-war macho activities.

Encouraged by his parents he went on in life to become a renowned birder and an accomplished organist; the birding became his career, the music his gift to his community.

I met Bob in 1979 when I applied for a summer job at Wye Marsh. He, Harry Parsons, and Eva Kaiser gave me the benefit of an interview even though I had no formal education in biology at that time, and was coming from a background of land surveying, which was not exactly naturalist material. I guess they saw something in me but offered a position of groundskeeper. I accepted.

Over the next seven years Bob kept finding funding to keep me around. I had proven myself as an adequate groundskeeper and had shown good prospect to becoming a real naturalist.

Working with Eva we presented a pretty good team of educators. Summer after summer, the annual swarm of student workers came and went, and every year Bob managed to find a way to catch everyone's attention and almost to a person he would encourage, guide, support and direct each of us to achieve personal goals.

Part of his charm was his low-key yet witty humour.

The Wye Center was run, in those early years, by the federal government and bilingualism was being forced upon the population. I rebelled. Bob sat me down. Being quite fluent in French himself, we had a chat about personal growth, and if I wanted to continue with government work I would have to accept this mandate.

He finished his fairly serious conversation by putting a hand on my shoulder, looking me in the eye, and saying, "Just remember this Dave, one egg is enough." With a twinkle in his eye he walked away.

Must admit that it took me a while to 'get it'. One egg, un oeuf. Oh, Bob.

In 1980 the Governor-General of Canada was touring the area with his wife and son. Being a government operation, Wye Marsh Centre was placed on the agenda as a place to visit. But the schedule for the day left the regal family with only a few minutes of time in late afternoon for a visit. Some on the organizing committee questioned why bother? But Bob offered a solution.

And so the Governor-General, his family and distinguished guests were treated to a Wye staff pot-luck supper! It worked! Son Jason had time for a pre-dinner guided walk through the nature trails, and Lillian and Ed could relax a little. There was an informal get-to-know-ya vibe to the evening, and became a memorable event for all of us who were involved.

But it was immediately after that dinner that the Bob did something that impressed me so much... rather than hob-nob with left-over dignitaries he came downstairs and washed and dried dishes with his staff. Hey, it was a staff pot-luck and that's what you do, pitch in.

I had an unfortunate experience at Wye the following year, where my youthful cockiness led to an fellow naturalist becoming injured.

Slightly mauled by a cougar that was on loan for an exhibit (on the end of a leash that I was holding). Long story, perhaps told another day. But during the incident police, ambulance and other agencies with bright flashing lights were called. Although it ended somewhat well, I was sure that my career had just terminated with a sudden jolt.

Bob arrived (it was Saturday morning and he had been summoned from home), assessed the situation, ensured Joan had been treated, that the cougar was once more encaged, and pulled me into his office. We didn't say much. Just sat their catching our breath.

When Bob left the office it was to place himself firmly between me and the media. Being the Director, he took blame for the incident. I was allowed to remain working there (right after I got that darn cat back to its home). I owed Bob big time for that.

Last weekend Bob left us, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease. But his passing has been noted by naturalists the world over; that geeky kid who grew up to protect the environment, inspiring one summer student at a time. Gonna miss you Bob, good birding.