Armchair Mayor column for the Kamloops Daily News, Saturday, July 18, 2009
Aside from the man himself, there will be one other thing missing from the unveiling ceremony Monday for the statue of Flying Phil Gaglardi.
I’ve watched the various stages of creation of the statue by sculptor Terry Norlander, and it has turned out magnificently. It captures the energy of the man, which is pretty amazing for a stationary object made of bronze.
What will be missing, what we won’t have the great privilege of experiencing, is the famed Gaglardi voice. It was hard to believe, at times, that such a voice, so capable of amazing oratory, could come from within a five-foot-five-inch body. It was as though it had a life all its own.
Opposition leader Robert Strachan once said a Gaglardi speech in the legislature was like “a thundering herd of buffalo with about as much sense of direction.”
Gaglardi never spoke from notes — he didn’t have to. Neither did he think much about what he was going to say before he said it. You could point him to a microphone, give him a topic, and he’d be good for five minutes or 50 minutes, whatever you wanted.
His persona and his achievements are being honoured with this statue. When we asked people four years ago what they thought would be a fitting way to recognize Gaglardi, the most popular idea was a statue.
Among those who knew Gaglardi, or knew of him, the controversies that marked his life and career continue. For those who worry about spending public money on such things, relax — the $43,000 project has been paid for with private donations raised by the Friends of Phil Gaglardi Society. (The statue now becomes the property of the City of Kamloops.)
The group was formed after renaming the Overlanders Bridge was rejected, and the statue idea put forward. City council agreed to allow the statue to be placed in Gaglardi Square next to the former Calvary Temple (St. Andrew’s on the Square). It’s a fitting location, as Gaglardi once preached every week from the pulpit at the church.
Doing Gaglardi justice was a challenge for Norlander, who also co-sculpted the Overlanders statue at the corner of Victoria Street and First Avenue. Since so many people are familiar with the Gaglardi countenance, he couldn’t take much poetic licence, and had to get it as close to reality as possible.
I provided Terry with the photos I’d collected for the biographical book I’d written about Flying Phil some 18 years ago. Working from photographs is tough for a sculptor because people’s faces change expression so much, and the physical features change over time.
He also used Tom Gagardi, Phil’s grandson, as a model — though Tom is much larger physically than Phil was, his face bears a remarkable resemblance to Phil as a young man.
Norlander wisely chose not to put Gaglardi in the standing pose typical of statues, instead posing him in a speaking position, one hand and finger jabbing the air for emphasis, the other holding what could be a set of highway plans, and one cowboy-booted foot cocked on its heel.
He depicts Gaglardi at his political prime in mid-life. Some will say the statue looks exactly like him, others will have criticisms, and that’s part of public art. But when I look at the statue, I hear Flying Phil declaring, “If I tell a lie, it’s because I think I’m telling the truth!” and “I’m not bragging, just telling the truth!” and “When God made Phil Gaglardi, he threw away the mould.”
A couple of days ago, after I’d started writing this column, I got a call from Phil’s son Bob — who will be here for the ceremony Monday — and he coincidentally mentioned Phil’s gift for oratory.
That gift was honed as a Pentecostal preacher and perfected as a politician. Even in casual conversation, he tended to punch certain syllables and words at random, in his own unique accent. And pretty much every sentence ended in an exclamation mark.
“JUMpin’ JUPiter!” he’d say. “I’m Phil GagLARDi! HOW you doin’?”
But while the voice and the bravado were part of his image, he went much deeper. People know all about the controversies over highway development and speeding tickets and the Lear jet he used to fly around in, but few are as familiar with his kindness, generosity, and sense of service.
Few would probably believe that inside this larger than life character who called himself “the best little shrimp God every made” was a shy man who preferred people approaching him to wading into a crowd to work a room.
As Bob Gaglardi said, his father never concerned himself with money, and never worried about being paid back when he helped out a parishioner or a constituent.
Phil was our MLA for 20 years, a pastor for even longer, the most prominent member of the Bennett cabinet, and our mayor. During his time in provincial government, he established the B.C. Ferries system and built the likes of the Port Mann Bridge, the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, the B.C. section of the Trans Canada Highway and, yes, the Overlanders Bridge.
There was nothing simple about Phil Gaglardi. He remains the most colourful, famous and accomplished — and controversial — politician ever to have come out of Kamloops, and it’s about time he receives appropriate recognition in this, his “home” town.
If Phil Gaglardi could be asked Monday the secret to success, he might fall back on one of his favourite phrases — “There’s no limit to what a man can do if he doesn’t care who gets the credit.”
Which might sound curious, since he was not a modest man, but some 37 years after he left provincial office, and a dozen years after his death, he’s finally getting some of that credit in the city he served for so long.
Mel Rothenburger is editor of The Daily News, author of the 1991 Gaglardi biography Friend O’ Mine, and a director of the Friends of Phil Gaglardi Society that commissioned the statue of Phil Gaglardi.