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Valley Lives - Jay Atherton

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the December 05, 2012 issue. Reprinted with permission.

'Great archivist' blended passion for teaching with history

by Matt Harrison

We may set out on a particular path, but that may not always be the best course to take. Such was the case with Jay Atherton.

"Jay was originally a teacher, but after one year, he was advised that maybe his talents lie somewhere else. He always laughed about that," recalls Carol Martin, family friend and member of the Gatineau Valley Historical Society (GVHS), of which Atherton was also a longtime volunteer.

Award Images
Jay Atherton. Photo courtesy Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

"So he turned to his other love - history - but Jay always retained that passion for teaching by continuing to mentor others, especially in regards to archiving," said Martin.

"He didn't just do it, he wrote everything down, because he wanted to empower others with the ability to do it themselves. This was part of what made him a great archivist."

Atherton had a long career as an archivist, first with Public Archives Canada, than later with that body of work renamed as the National Archives of Canada. His career path culminated in his promotion to DirectorGeneral of the Government's Archives and later President of the Records Branch. Among his many accolades, Atherton received the Commemorative Medal for the 125th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 1994. A friend and former colleague, Wakefield resident Marc Cockburn, calls Atherton - a tall man to begin with - a "giant among leaders and managers," not only within the Public Service, but also in the Gatineau Valley, to whose history the Vancouver native and his wife, Peggy, attached themselves when they moved to Chelsea.

Serving as president of the GVHS from 1992-95, Atherton helped transform the mere grassroots "get-it-done" organization into an "increasingly professional one," says Martin.

"He was also an innovator, unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom, and in this capacity his greatest contribution was perhaps the modernization of the Society's archiving practices," adds Cockburn.

The Wakefield Bridge, a GVHS-operated museum, as well as other Chelsea heritagerelated projects, benefited from Atherton's warm and experienced touch.

"He was so thoughtful and gentle, you always think that people like him should continue to live forever," says Martin.

Unfortunately his struggle with Parkinson's disease forced Atherton and his wife to move from Chelsea to Ottawa, which pulled him away from GVHS activities except on rare occasions.

"He didn't really regret not being able to be as involved at the GVHS as he once was; he simply focused on the present and didn't look much at the past," says Peggy Atherton.

It is perhaps an odd sentiment describing someone who dedicated much of his life to history.

The "great archivist" passed away Nov. 6 at age 75. The sounds of jazz, of which Atherton was so fond, filled the Parkdale United Church in Ottawa, where the funeral was held Nov. 24.


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