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Spotlight on alumni

In the second of four spotlights on the 2011 Alumni Tribute Award winners in this edition and upcoming editions of the Gazette, we feature Fred Best. Mr. Best is the 2011 recipient of the Outstanding Community Service award. The long serving mayor of Clarenville has worn many hats in a career as an educator, municipal leader and volunteer. In conversation with our Gazette contributor David Penney, Fred Best reflects on his experiences and the importance of community service.

DP: I think it's fair to say your name has become synonymous with the town of Clarenville. Would you agree with that?
FB: Well, I don't know. I started out this way in 1977. I came to Clarenville to teach and did that for 27 years, and was principal of the elementary school for 25 of those. At the same time I got involved with municipal politics. In '77 I was appointed deputy mayor and I've been on council ever since, involved in lots of different ways I suppose, mayor since 1981. And it's been a lot of fun. Clarenville is not a difficult town to be mayor of, and what I mean by that is the fact that Clarenville is a very vigorous, progressive town, with very broad-minded people for the most part.

DP: Tell me how you got started. You did your education degree at Memorial?
FB: Yes, well I'm from Wesleyville in Bonavista North. And when I first decided to go to university in the early 1950s you have to understand that at that time we were still somewhat of an isolated community. We used to have to take what was called a passenger boat to Gambo in order to get the train to St. John's. That first year at Memorial I got what was called a Grade 1 Teaching Certificate. I got a job teaching in the United Church School in Corner Brook and saved enough money after two years to go back to university to do my second, third and fourth year.
DP: What was it like to be at Memorial at that time?
FB: Well, my first degree I did on the Parade Street campus. And back in those days the professors were on a first name basis with you. At that time, George Hickman, who was dean of education, became a good friend of mine. Dr. Hunter taught French and English. Those fellows would stop and talk to you anywhere. But you know those were the kind of relationships that existed at MUN in those days. I mean, Doug Eaton would meet you in the corridor and put his arm around you and say, 'How are you doing? Are you having any problems?' That was the philosophy that existed there.

DP: Your dual roles as a teacher and a municipal leader in Clarenville have come together in a pretty interesting way. Can you talk about that?
FB: By the time I came here, denominational education had pretty much disappeared from Clarenville, one of the few places in Newfoundland where that was the case. And that was part of what made me much more well known around the community, the fact that we were all together. My entrance into municipal politics was quite easy because I was well known as far as being the principal of the school. Of course the other part of that is the fact that the town hall and the school that I was principal of are about 400 yards apart. So, if there was anything going on as far as council was concerned, they could almost wave to me and say, 'Look, we need you over here.' As principal of the school with more administrative duties and less teaching time, I could respond to that job as well. And here's one better. The second year I was here I bought a house that's only a stone's throw from the school and the council office and I still live in that same house. So the council office, the school and my house – I could walk to all three in about two minutes.

DP: How does your early background and upbringing play a role in your commitment to community work?
FB: Well, coming from a rural setting like I did in Bonavista North, you have to understand that nothing happened in a community unless you were a part of it. If it was a garden party or a church function you went to it. If the Orange Lodge had a parade you went to it. That was the culture you grew up in. You were part of everything that went on in a community, as was everyone else. The community may have been isolated, but you weren't isolated from each other.

DP: I'd like to ask you about the range of your community and volunteer work. You've been involved at all levels. Why is that important?
FB: I think when you're in a community and you get down to the grassroots, that's where it's really meaningful. For me, it's more important to know Mrs. So and So down the road. I'm not talking about class distinction here, but it's about relating to people and that's where I'm most comfortable. I'm not a sophisticated person, I never have been and I don't aspire to be. I'm still a shy person when it comes to relationships outside my common relationships. I'm an avid outdoorsman – hunting, fishing, I grow my own vegetables and all that. I enjoy the common things and really that's my background. It's a big part of my philosophy that carries over to volunteer work I've done and my work as mayor. I think it's served me well.

DP: Is there anything that stands out over such a long and successful career?
FB: I would have to say that it is those relationships you develop with people over the years. I still have people who come to me who want me to help them with their wills or do weddings. I've developed a strong, personal relationship with many people here and it means a lot to me.