A native of rural South Ontario, Jerry came to Newfoundland in 1985 for what was to be a three-year period. That has turned into a 33 + year love affair with the province. His work experience includes community economic development, community-based heritage development, a stint as a bed and breakfast owner/operator, executive director of the Association of Heritage Industries (provincial heritage advocacy organization) and ten years as Director of Heritage with the Provincial Government. In 2016 Jerry assumed the role of executive director with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, a crown agency devoted to preserving and safeguarding the province’s historic places and intangible cultural heritage.
He studied architectural design and preservation at the undergraduate level (University of Waterloo) and completed a MA in cultural geography at Memorial with a focus on the changes occurring in outport Newfoundland communities.
He has been involved as a member of the board (including as chair) on a number of arts and heritage organizations including Perchance Theatre, Newman Sound Men’s Choir, the O’Brien Farm Foundation and the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. Other interests include travel, family history, politics, gardening and a 140 year-old Methodist Church that he has been restoring as a weekend retreat.
Through his professional and volunteer experience he has had extensive experience in project and budget planning, project management, strategic planning and group facilitation.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?
I had been thinking about doing graduate studies for many years and work and life got in the way. I saw a colleague of mine doing a PhD at Memorial while working full-time and being a single mother. I thought that if she could do it, surely I could. Memorial was the logical option as it allowed me to study part-time while continuing with my professional career.
What drew you to do a masters degree in cultural geography?
Having worked in the field of heritage conservation and community development for many years, I saw some real value in returning to school to get back into the world of ideas and to develop a greater critical perspective on my work. I chose cultural geography specifically, as it offered a multi-disciplinary approach to studying and understanding places. I generally like to be able to consider a subject from a number of different angles. I was attracted to Memorial’s cultural geography program as it had a good reputation and I knew some of the faculty personally, although by the time I was enrolled almost the entire faculty had retired. But I was able to find a thesis supervisor who provided the guidance and encouragement I needed to complete my studies.
Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as an student?
As a full-time professional, studying part-time, I didn’t have a lot of time to engage with Memorial outside of my classes. I think for me the most memorable times were the class discussions with fellow grad students and the times I was sitting in my supervisor’s office having a good gab.
You are currently the executive director of the Heritage NL - what’s a typical day like?
The thing I like the best at the Foundation is that there isn’t really a typical day or routine. I love the fact that I have lots of variety in my work and we are engaged in a number of interesting projects. While I usually start out my day answering emails, I then move on to any one of a number of different initiatives or tasks. I might be providing a client with information about our funding programs or technical advice on how to restore a building. Right now we are working on a couple of fun projects that include developing a new heritage paint colour chart for the province and a publication on our built fisheries heritage. I have a small but great team of staff who are very dedicated to what they do. I work for a board of directors and have worked for and with a number of different boards over the years. I enjoy working with them to formulate strategic direction and policy. I’m a bit of a policy wonk, having had the opportunity to refine some of those skills when I was Director of Heritage for the province previous to my current job. One of the things I enjoy most about my job is engaging with the owners and volunteers who care for our heritage buildings and seeing their incredible passion.
Can you explain your career trajectory/path and how you ended up working in heritage?
I began my studies at the University of Waterloo in architecture which is a field I was interested in since I was a kid. I became somewhat disillusioned with architecture and decided that I really liked historic buildings. I decided to pursue studies in the area of architectural history and preservation through an independent studies program at UW. I had a couple of great summer jobs as a student working on the documentation of historic buildings which heightened my interest. My first job after graduation was with the National Trust which was then developing the national Main Street program, an initiative intended to support downtown revitalization and heritage preservation. I came to Newfoundland to coordinate a Main Street project in Carbonear back in 1985. I thought I would stick around the province for three years and then move on but I stayed and have had the opportunity to work in a variety of jobs related to heritage and community development. A lot of what I learned about the field, I learned simply on the job by doing a bit of research and then plunging in.
What’s your elevator pitch to encourage people to care about heritage?
An individual’s or a community’s heritage is an important touchstone and a part of who they are. It is part of our authentic selves. In this province, I think that our heritage – be it in the form of our historic buildings, landscapes, stories or cultural traditions and knowledge – is the most important resource we have for the development and sustainability of our communities. Heritage is a renewable resource. We only need to look at places like Bonavista, Trinity and Battle Harbour to see how our heritage can be a critical part of our future.
In your opinion, what is the one thing St. John’s as a city or Newfoundland and Labrador as a province can do to make this a better place to live for all?
That’s a big question. One of the things I would say is that we need to develop a stronger culture of planning and long-term thinking. It strikes me that Newfoundland and Labrador has developed a survivalist culture which makes sense given the history and economy of the province. For fishing families, it was all about getting through until the spring. This often translates today into a search for “quick fixes” by communities and governments. But if we are going to address some of the significant challenges of this place and realize some of its considerable opportunities, we need to be developing strategies of 10-20 years and more. I look at the work of the Bonavista Historic Townscape Foundation and see how it took 15 years of planning, investment and work to see a significant result in terms of new investment and activity. The other thing I would say, it is critical is for communities to be true to themselves and, in their desire to get ahead, not to lose what makes this them unique. For example, I see the historic fabric of downtown St. John’s being eroded bit by bit to be replaced with modern development that seems to have little regard for the city’s historical, cultural and geographical context. This causes me concern.
How did your arts/HSS degree prepare you for your life and career?
As I was well along in my career when I undertook a graduate degree at MUN, I think that my degree allowed me to think a bit more critically about the work that I do. I used to assume that “heritage” was an uncontested good. Through my reading and research, I learned that heritage can mean different things to different people and groups and that for some, our heritage is, in fact, painful. Witness the stories that have come out recently on Aboriginal residential schools. My readings on “discourse analysis” in particular, helped me to see that all records and texts need to be read for the relations of power that are embedded in them. Behind every government record, work of literature, oral history, historic photo, etc. is a particular agenda which may be personal, cultural, or institutional which requires one to read between the lines and not necessarily take it at face value. This is something that I tend to apply to much of my reading now. Again, I think it has helped me to approach things with a more critical eye.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I will likely be retired from my present job, although I love what I do so we will see. Regardless, I hope to keep working, maybe doing some international cultural consulting which would allow me to travel. I hope to spend more time at my summer place around the bay which is a 140-year old Methodist Church. I expect I will continue to volunteer with heritage and cultural groups.
What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?
Without people studying the arts we are in serious trouble as a society. The arts provide us with an opportunity to understand where we have come from as cultures and societies, to continue to create and shape vibrant cultures and to question our own culture. An arts degree allows one to develop one’s own critical thinking which is important if we are going to continue to continue to be a progressive, democratic society. As an employer, I look for students or graduates who have that critical thinking and who can express their thoughts well.
What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?
I’d say, give yourself time to figure out what you want to study. You may start in one field and discover somewhere else that you would rather go. My academic and professional career has changed course a number of times and with each shift, there has been learning that I could bring forward. No learning is wasted. And I would say to students to study what excites, engages, and challenges them, not what they think will make them the most money or what someone else thinks they should do. Life is too short not to do what you are most passionate about.
What’s your favourite place to visit?
That’s a tough choice to pick just one. I always love going out to my summer place around the bay on weekends. As I enter the community, I find a sense of peace and relaxation wash over me. Otherwise I love visiting Europe, -- almost anywhere – because of the depth of their culture and history. That being said, I had an incredible time in India early this year!
What are you reading and listening to these days?
I usually have a couple of books on the go at any one time. I love reading about history, politics, ecology, and ideas. Right now I am reading a history of the North Sea, entitled The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. My musical tastes run toward classical/baroque. I love a lively Italian “ciaconne.”
What are you most looking forward to within the next year?
I’m involved with the design and construction of some new building infrastructure at the historic O’Brien Farm, an initiative that I have been involved with for the last number of years. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with.