Two Hours With Eugene Whelan

In the spring of 2007 while working as an intern at The Rivertown Times, I started pulling on a thread pertaining to a story about the illegal removal of trees in Navy Yard Park by the town of Amherstburg under the order of the mayor and council members, but that isn’t the story I will be telling today.

The story is about where that thread lead me, or more appropriately to whom that thread led me. My Uncle, William Gibb, former Mayor of Amherstburg, told me that Senator Whelan was apoplectic about the unauthorized destruction of trees in a federally own, passive park. He told me to call Whelan for comment as he was key to the creation of the park and knew more about the legalities of municipality’s actions than anyone he could recall.

Of course in my excitement I forgot to ask my Uncle for Whelan’s phone number. How do you get a senator’s phone number? In Whelan’s case, the answer was the phonebook. How many of our elected official’s actually list their home phone number*?  I prepared an interview where I would economically stay on point. Try to suss out the legalities of the removal of healthy trees in a park under federal jurisdiction, maybe get a couple really passionate quotes from a former cabinet minister and senator, and write a piece that would actually hold our local politicians feet to the fire.  Whelen dashed those hopes of an economical conversation almost immediately. “Nedin,” he queried as soon as I identified myself and why I was calling, “Are you related to Vic Nedin?”

“Yes, he was my grandfather,” I replied, taken aback by his almost mischievous tone.

“Well, your grandfather was in my book. Did you read my book son?”

“No sir, I have not,” I said, waiting for a click and dial tone in response to my answer.

“Well it sits on many shelves around here,” he said with a chuckle, “Pick it up sometime.”

What I didn’t know was that beyond getting the information and the quotes I was looking for, he also was going to make reading his book pointless. For two hours he told me his life story, his childhood on a family farm where his ideas on rural economic development were formed and incubated, his time in local politics where my grandfather would make him stand on a literal soap box in his restaurant and speak, his relationship with Prime Ministers Trudeau and Chretien and his legacy as minister of Agriculture, his friendship with Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, and the pride he felt for his daughter Susan’s career. It is to this date the best interview I have ever had.  He  also did something the most politicians can never seem to do, he answered my questions. He gave me the ammunition to write the story I wanted to write, and he more than earned my respect and admiration.

The recording of those two hours has been lost, my article for The Rivertown Times was killed by the editor for fear of a loss of ad revenue from the town, and I was scooped a couple weeks later by the Windsor Star. What I do have to show for this interview is higher standards to hold our politicians to, bigger expectations of what I want to see from my elected officials and a first hand account of the history of this region from a man who help shape it.

Rest In Peace Gene.

*During our conversation Whelen claimed he had always been listed. This notion, in my 25 year old brain, was so foreign that it almost overshadowed the rest of what we talked about. If you all remember, I wrote an open letter to my MP because his website was down and his contact information was not available during an important vote. So maybe my standards were skewed by the accessibility of Whelan.