* Editor’s note – this article was originally published in the June 29, 2016 edition of the North Island Gazette celebrating Port McNeill’s 50th anniversary.
82-year-old former Port McNeill mayor Gerry Furney remembers sitting on a large boulder on the beach in 1956, near today’s ferry dock, thinking this was a place he could settle in to. Then, Port McNeill was just an isolated logging camp in the wilds of North Vancouver Island, but he saw it as a beautiful place to live and work.
His adventurous spirit and natural curiosity started early. Growing up in the port city of Cork, Ireland, Furney says he collected stamps which gave him the opportunity to visit ships and chat with sailors from all over the world.
“The most important thing I learned was that I didn’t know everything,” he said, “so I wanted the opportunity to learn more.”
He loved to read and write, and had up to 30 pen pals across the globe at one time.
As a young man he had a variety of diverse jobs from farm labourer, articling to an accountant, audit assistant at Ford Motor Company in London, and the unusual move to a diesel engine tester for better pay, believing, and proving, that he could learn just about any job.
“My whole attitude is ‘Can I do it?’ The answer is always: ‘yes’,” he said. He once shocked interviewers when he bicycled 165 miles to a job interview in Dublin.
Still itching for adventure, along with Tom Murphy, he hitchhiked throughout Europe, attended Grace Kelly’s wedding in Monaco, and partied at New York’s Vassar Girls’ College. Everywhere they went they found welcoming and wanting to help them out.
“We were just two friendly, happy Irish boys in shorts,” said Furney. “And people just seemed to take a liking to us.”
From New York they hitchhiked to Toronto and were hired to drive used convertibles ($600 cheaper in the East) across the country to New Westminster, B.C. Furney admits he only had an Irish learner’s permit, but that didn’t prevent him from dreaming of driving a logging truck when he responded to the Logger’s Wanted ad. He boarded the S.S. Catala bound for remote Port McNeill along with what he describes as “a motley crew from all over the world.”
In addition to a short stint as a logging truck driver, Furney has been a choker man, chaser, tire repairer, warehouse man and even sold dynamite.
His can-do attitude served Port McNeill well for the following 60 years, as — as one of the first councillors and as mayor for 39 years.
Originally a large company-run logging camp of mainly men living in bunkhouses, he had the idea that Port McNeill area could do better for loggers and miners. His vision in creating a municipality was “all about dad coming home from work at the end of the day. Making a working community for families.”
When mining operations set up in the late 50s and early 60s, it brought more workers and some families. Furney, as president of the fledgling chamber of commerce, worked with the forestry and mining companies, and MLA Dan Campbell, to incorporate as a village. Incorporation would put the reins in the people’s hands, and provide a common voice in working with the provincial government on issues that faced a growing community, like roads, schools, water, recreation, hospital and emergency services. In February 1966 Port McNeill was incorporated as a village with a population of 400.
Furney was also there in 1982, when the village had grown to 2,500, and sought town status. It became the first town created in Canada under Canada’s new constitution.
As mayor, his contributions to the town are numerous, including lobbying for paved roads connecting North Island communities, ferry services, and implementing the sea wall, the harbour park and office, and the information centre. But he says his biggest achievements have been in convincing good people to run for council and encouraging volunteerism.
“Volunteers have a major effect on the community. You are welcome and you can be productive and contribute. There is a general need for people to take an interest, ask questions and make suggestions,” he said. “The arena is a classic example of a couple of guys sitting in a Chinese restaurant saying ‘we need an arena’, and then working to make it happen.”
He gets choked up at another memory. “A boy drowned in 1957,” he said, and after a moment of silence continued, “We put together a committee and built Port McNeill’s first swimming pool, so now everyone has a chance to have swimming lessons.”
After 60 years of progress, he still has hopes for the future of Port McNeill. He’d like to see an increase in the fishing industry and more mining exploration. “There’s one out there some place. I just hope someone can find it,” he said. “In mining, as in life, you just have to dig a little bit.”
In 2015 Furney was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Port McNeill Chamber of Commerce and Grenville Place in front of the town office was renamed to Furney Place. Along the way, Furney played his trombone, most memorably with the Alert Bay doctor’s band “Dr. Pickup and his Bandaids”, and published Popcorn for Breakfast in 2010, which he calls poetry for people who would not normally read poetry, inspired by his experiences in Ireland, England, and Vancouver Island.
In 1973 Furney and his wife Carmel built a house on Beach Drive right in front of that beach boulder he sat on in 1956, raised a family, and still live there today. Although he is retired from civic life, you can often find Furney at hockey games and dance recitals, cheering on his North Island Secondary School and Sunset School grandchildren.
– Written by Trish Weatherall