After spending nine years as a musician enrolled in the Canadian Forces in his hometown of Victoria, Dave Walker arrived in Prince Rupert.
His first impression of the city was, to say the least, nothing to write home about.
“The day I got into town, it was pouring rain. The rain was coming down about an inch per hour and the wind was blowing about 100 kilometres per hour and I thought, ‘welcome to Prince Rupert Dave. I am going to stick this out for a year and then I am gone’,” he recalls.
“That was 43 years ago and there is no way I am going anywhere now.”
What brought Dave to Prince Rupert is the same thing that brought many in the community to Kaien Island: he was lured to the North Coast with a job at the Watson Island Pulp Mill. But his wasn’t just an ordinary trade, Walker spent his time as fire chief for what was then Prince Rupert’s largest employer.
“I designed and bought ambulances, fire engines, proper industrial equipment and dealt with some horrific accidents and fires. One fire we had did $170,000 damage in 75 seconds at the powerhouse,” he said, noting the company was very welcoming and thankful for his work.
“They treated me really well. I showed a little initiative and worked hard and they went out of their way to treat me nicely. They sent me all over North America to go to school and learn my trade.”
It was that spirit of welcoming that drove Dave to get involved in the community. While he may have come to Prince Rupert for the job, most in the community will know Dave Walker for his volunteer work.
One example of the many ways he gives back to the place he calls home is the Jingle Bell Express, the annual train ride with Santa Claus that Walker started and organized for 15 years.
“That is why I have so much white hair. It got pretty hairy at times and lots of strange things happened with that,” he joked.
“There were a couple of times when there just about wasn’t a train. You know, winter time and they had to get the train from Terrace to Prince Rupert in the middle of the night and there were avalanches and road blocks. Here I am at 8 p.m. looking down the tracks because the next morning is the train – all these tickets are sold, Santa Claus is on his way and I’m out there in the snow waiting. When the headlights showed up, I just thought ‘Oh, thank God’.”
But as much work as it was, Dave will quickly tell you that it was worth every white hair it caused. He recalls two particular instances, one where he met the first baby to use new jaundice lights purchased through the funds raised by the ride eight years previously, and one child who was won over by Saint Nick.
“There was a kid who said, ‘I’m not going to ride with Santa Claus on the stupid train’. He was about two years old in his dad’s arms and they were walking down the platform toward the train and he happens to look up and see Santa Claus standing there. He went from a screaming, kicking kid to just jaw dropped in awe in a matter of seconds. That is what it’s all about,” he said with a smile.
“It was a lot of work organizing it, but train day was a whole different story. It was always such a blast. I had a uniform I wore and we just had a ball.”
While his involvement in the community is almost impossible to keep track of — he has overseen the train display at North Pacific Cannery since its inception 30 years ago, helped train the volunteer fire department in Port Edward, fought off gale force winds to help place the Kwinitsa Station, maintained the old chair lift and served on boards as varied as the Prince Rupert Regional Archives to Northern Savings Credit Union to the Prince Rupert Music Society — Dave’s current passion is rejuvenating the Prince Rupert branch of the Royal Canadian Legion as its current president.
“Right now my focus is getting the Legion going again after its near demise a few years ago … it is important that any city this size, and even smaller, has a Legion. There are smaller places than Prince Rupert in B.C. and Canada that have a Legion,” he said.
“People got the misconceived idea that when the Legion sold the property on the waterfront that it was the end of the Legion, that the Legion was gone. There was no more Legion in Prince Rupert. That is not the case at all. The Legion had its membership and we had our monthly meeting in different locations since we didn’t have our own,” he said.
The Legion now has a new location on 3rd Ave. West, which includes exhibits of old army and navy equipment.
“If we have a place to hang our shingle, people will come back. Not only will people come back, new ones will come,” he said.
“We have a great board of directors in place and if they can look after this place, it will be good for another 100 years no problem.”
After 43 years and countless hours of volunteering, Dave said what he loves most about Prince Rupert comes down to one thing.
“It’s the people. It really is … they’re people that care and in the big city you don’t get that. You don’t get people that care. I care, so that is why I got involved with all of the volunteering,” he said.
“I would never leave. There is no way. Not a chance.”