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COLUMN: Remembering the contribution of Harry DeJong
On Thursday afternoon the phone rang: “Hello Mark, this is Ted DeJong, Harry’s son ... my dad passed away last night.”
Sincere condolences expressed, my thoughts went back over the years that I knew Harry DeJong, a man who through five decades served our community and our province with dedication, diligence and devotion to making where we live a better place.
He was serving as an alderman on Matsqui council in 1975 when I got a call from Dave Kandal … “we need your help to get Harry DeJong elected as mayor.”
What followed were many nights spent with Kandal and Spud Murphy planning strategy.
We realized one of the biggest stumbling blocks to mayoral success was Harry DeJong himself, at the time shy and reserved with a very strong Dutch accent.
A “cure” was needed. So, because personal video cameras were not yet common, I enlisted the help of a professional cameraman I knew through the Abbotsford Sport Parachute Centre.
On the evenings between strategy sessions we’d gather at Harry’s Matsqui Village dairy farm to video him speaking, repeating and reviewing over and over. The filming worked. Harry gained strength and confidence in public speaking and our campaign strategy was successful in the civic elections of 1975.
Harry spent 12 years in the mayor’s chair – the large brick edifice that is now city hall built during his tenure, as was establishment of what is now the Ag-Rec complex and many other community facilities. Harry was a hands-on mayor, and one day discovered what he thought were senior civil employees taking overly long lunches at a local watering hole. Harry, playing the sleuth, caught and disciplined them, which eventually ended up in a very public libel/slander suit.
Vindicated in court, and strengthened by his years in the mayor’s chair, Harry sought greater office and in 1987 was elected as one of two MLAs to represent the then-separated municipalities of Abbotsford and Matsqui.
Unfortunately for Harry and the Social Credit Party he represented, 1987 also heralded the ascension of Bill Vander Zalm, and by the 1991 provincial election the party was in tatters. Only Harry and six other Socred MLAs were re-elected. He soldiered on, however, only to resign in 1995 to once again seek the mayor’s chair, this time for the newly amalgamated City of Abbotsford.
That, to my knowledge, was Harry’s only electoral defeat. But undaunted by disappointment, he threw himself into community work, fully immersing himself in the future success of Agrifair, the presidency of which was relinquished only a year or so ago when failing health required it.
But while Harry was the face of the DeJong family and his career, it was his wife Ann who was the true heart of it. Without her support and faith, I’m certain Harry’s spirit of community giving would not have been so successful.
I was at his 80th birthday party when Ann told me they were moving from Abbotsford to a new home being built adjacent to their daughter in Agassiz. When I asked why, Harry offhandedly said, “health reasons,” never letting on the graveness of the situation.
He has left a great legacy in his wake, yet for all Harry has done there is not yet a permanent recognition of his contributions to this city.
Jack Robertson, Ross Siemens and I wrote a letter to the city more than a year, requesting that all or part of the Ag-Rec complex be named in his honour, before he died. Many of our schools, streets and parks have been named after notable community contributors. Unlike most of them, and thanks to council dithering, the tribute to Harry DeJong will be, if it occurs, posthumous, and that is a shame.
On Thursday however, there will be a celebration of life for a quiet man who gave so much to make this community what it is today. That he will not be there to hear the many spoken words of honour is also regrettable.