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North Van man helps community evolve

From wartime to school time his systems had a positive impact

GORDON McConnell demonstrates his unique method of keeping his shirts pressed.

"What you want to do," he explains, "is press that part."

He indicates the placket, the strip of cloth that holds the buttons and buttonholes. "It's traditional to use an iron," he continues. "You can use anything heavy."

Gordon gathers his "ingredients" - a clipboard, two waxed paper bags from inside cereal boxes, a little water and a big, heavy book. The first bag goes on the clipboard to keep the shirt from being stained. Next comes the shirt, the placket dampened with water, and another bag, to protect the book. "After half an hour, it's flat and almost dry and I continue down to the end of the shirt."

"Ingenious," I say.

"That's the word I thought," comes the reply.

A clothes press is not the first successful system Gordon has devised.

Every sheet of steel that came into the Burrard Dry Dock shipyards during the Second World War passed through the hands of the steel checkers. The steel, of varying size and thickness, was cut and shaped into the pieces that eventually formed a ship. Gordon devised a code that would indicate how the sheets would be cut. He assigned a number to a template for each piece of steel and a letter to identify the strake, or strip of steel plate that formed the ship's hull, into which that piece would be fitted. Simple and efficient, Gordon's code saved steel and time when the shipyards were running round the clock.

Hector Gordon McConnell was born on May 13, 1913, in the family home, the train station at Langham, Sask., where his father was a telegraph operator for the railway. The regular salary enabled the four McConnell children to graduate from high school and go on to advanced education, but it was not a settled life. The family followed the railway as it expanded from one small town to the next across Western Canada. The eight years the family lived in Lloydminster was the longest they stayed in one place. There, Gordon attended church with his family, sang in the choir and around the piano on Sunday afternoons.

"There was always music going on," he recalls, but the sweetest sound he can remember is the song of the meadowlark out on the prairie.

By the time Gordon graduated from law school, it was 1930 and "you couldn't buy a job," he recalls. Gordon found work, though he never practised law, and a wife, Ethel Wyatt. They married in 1940 and by 1942 were living in North Vancouver, where Gordon was hired at the shipyards. They lived in wartime housing above the flats now covered by Capilano Mall and had two sons, Michael and Deane.

In 1945, with the end of the war in sight, Gordon took a job as secretary for the City of North Vancouver's school board. The following year, the city and District of North Vancouver's school boards amalgamated, forming School District 44. Gordon left his office at city hall, formerly North Vancouver high school and currently Presentation House, for an office at Queen Mary school and the position of secretary-treasurer, which he held until he retired in 1975.

The direction of North Vancouver's development can be plotted by the schools that were built. The school board worked with municipal planners and building departments to keep up with where newcomers to the community were choosing to build their homes and raise their families. In the Edgemont area, for example, the first school was Highlands, "with nothing but solid bush right up to Grouse Mountain," recalls Gordon. The Canyon Heights development required a school and Montroyal school came next. "You had to anticipate growth," says Gordon, "and for the most part we did a pretty good job of staying ahead."

The McConnells settled in the Grand Boulevard area where they raised their sons, attended church and enjoyed gardening. Gordon raised prize chrysanthemums and Ethel was fond of fuschias. They were one of the first couples to move into The Summerhill retirement residence when the doors opened in 2001. Ethel died soon after but her name still stands with Gordon's on the door to their home.

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact her at 778-279-2275 or email her at [email protected].