In mid-January of this year, 2021, Gerard Farry died in Vancouver at the age of 92. He wasn’t the sort of man who’d naturally be familiar to the readers of this website; he had been the director of urban planning for Greater Vancouver during the 1970s and 1980s, which was the heyday of urban master planning in Canada. He was a man who understood the value of civil service and at the same time recognized its limitations in a privatizing political economy; he was a collector of Jesuits and intellectual oddballs; and he was a profoundly decent human being.
He was also my boss, my mentor, and my friend. He taught me that one must see the world for what it is, and people for what they do—but that this skill was only socially valuable if one tried (at the same time) to imagine what the world ought to, and could be.
Gerard became the Director of GVRD’s master planning agency at the precise moment in political time that Greater Vancouver’s politicians stopped wanting to plan anything, preferring what they termed “flexibility” or “privatization”. Within a matter of years during the turbulent mid-1970s, what began as an era of politically farsighted and socially courageous master planning of Canadian cities became one of cynical contingency and bribing the general public with its own money. At GVRD Planning, Gerard presided over this destructive interregnum with courage and insight.
At work, Gerard could never resist an interesting practical idea—or anyone who had them. But he was also interested in ideas at whatever level of application they appeared. This interest in ideas made him the one person I’ve ever worked for that I was consciously and completely loyal to. I was loyal to him because I recognized that he sincerely wanted to improve the living conditions of cities and their citizens, that he was almost impossible to hoodwink, and that he had a generous sense of humour and a deep faith in human goodness. God knows he tolerated my pranks and occasionally, even encouraged them.
His intellectual curiosity was nearly limitless: He was a walking encyclopedia about urban planning, and with Harry Lash, one of the two generally literate planners I’ve encountered. In the mid-1970s he rarely missed the bi-weekly readings of Shakespeare’s plays my girlfriend and I organized, and he was always there for the more sporadic readings of the Greek tragedies that followed—Sophocles and Euripides, mostly. He didn’t read plays with ease, but his tone-perfect interpretation of Polonius in a reading of Hamlet one night had most of the other readers helpless with admiring laughter, because of the way he’d had to drop his ego to do it.
There was a spiritual side to his intellectual curiosity. His ongoing association with the Jesuits, many of whom he went out of his way to introduce to me, gave me an appreciation for people with differently-trained minds I wouldn’t have otherwise gained, and for which I am deeply grateful.
During the years I worked for Gerard, he brought in a string of strong-minded and often unorthodox planners to the department: the troll-like but brilliant transportation planner Doug Spaeth, the economist David Baxter, and of course, policy matrix specialist Peter George, with whom I shared absolutely nothing but the fact that we were both sons of ice cream manufacturers—and our loyalty to Gerard. Otherwise, Peter and I were the matter/antimatter of the planning department. Gerard, I think, deliberately placed us in proximity to the other to harvest the reactions, and somehow always kept Peter from murdering me, as when I sent out a Planning Institute of B.C. letter under Peter’s signature announcing that Volvo station wagons would no longer be provided with PIBC membership.
I was, in the practical reality of running the planning department, Gerard’s “Odd-Job”: the person he deployed to deal with whatever no one else in the department could figure out by conventional planning procedures—things like the community plan for Bowen Island, and the partially-successful battle to delay the expansion of runways at Vancouver International Airport. I also worked as Gerard’s rewrite man on committee reports and policy papers, a job I liked despite the long hours because it allowed me entrance to both the inner workings of local urban planning, and to the subtleties of political diplomacy at which Gerard was remarkably expert—and articulate about.
He was a sweet-tempered man, deeply sociable, tolerant, curious, and wise, and, I think, a man who led a happy and useful life. His fundamental generosity and thoughtfulness provided me with a lifelong alternative to the cynicism and self-promotion that has so darkened public life in Canada, and I am grateful to have known him.
I will miss our conversations and our correspondence, which continued to the end. His thoughtful life will remain on my mind, and he will remain alive in my mind as long as I have one. Rest in Peace, my old friend.
Posted October 24, 2021 850 words