This is the Life: Peter Lougheed was a model of decency

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My first memory of an Alberta provincial election goes back to 1967, when an upstart Progressive Conservative leader began to make waves in the news. It was no easy feat — the Social Credit party had been ruling since 1936 and the Liberal party had typically formed what I recall to be a pretty weak opposition.

It was a Saturday morning and my family was returning from our regular visit to the public library when we passed a man who was, literally, running from door to door, passing out campaign brochures and chatting with anyone who answered a doorbell. I recognized Len Werry’s face from the news.

As election day neared, our math teacher, Jake Heibert (I was attending Bowness Composite High School), brought up the election subject — our class was comprised of top students from schools around Northwest Calgary and we were expected to take an interest in these things. I volunteered an opinion that Werry would win our constituency and Heibert scoffed. The incumbent Socred, Charles Johnston, had previously been a member of Parliament.

Werry’s door-to-door campaign paid off and he won, becoming one of six Progressive Conservatives to form the official Opposition. The following day, Heibert tossed a dime across the classroom to pay off the bet we had made. I caught it and placed into a spot I had ready. I had cut a photo of Werry out of a campaign poster, looped a string around the candidate’s neck and made a little pocket to hold my winning coin, so that it looked like he was wearing a pendant. That little victory shrine remained near my desk for the rest of the school year. In ensuing years, that same teacher would put together competitions in which we would predict the order of how election or leadership candidates would finish in each race. I was a regular winner of these contests.

By the time the 1971 election rolled around, I was a political veteran, having worked on the ’68 federal election and become the province’s youngest federal constituency director, years before I would be old enough to vote. The Progressive Conservative contingent had swelled to 10 after two byelection wins and a pair of defections. Clearly, Peter Lougheed was becoming a force to be reckoned with.

During that exciting campaign, the candidate I was working for would pick me up at my home (I had just turned 17) at 7 a.m. once a week so I could accompany him to strategy breakfast meetings attended by all the Calgary PC candidates and key campaign personnel. After the meeting the (unsuccessful) candidate drove me to high school.

Peter Lougheed, of course, usually attended those meetings and I was in awe of this very likeable, extremely strong and articulate man. And I remember his admonitions that our party was campaigning on what it would do as a government — even mentioning the words Social Credit was discouraged. On election night, I took the bus to the home of Pat Donnelly, our campaign’s office manager (who would later serve two terms on Calgary’s city council), to watch the election results with other campaigners. It seemed surreal — Lougheed’s party accomplished the almost unthinkable task of displacing a government that ruled, with very little opposition, for two generations. The night ended with the PCs winning 49 of 75 seats. Werry would be named to Lougheed’s first cabinet.

Lougheed was a tenacious premier, fighting to ensure Albertans benefited from gas and oil production, but always within the framework of a strong federal union.

As I think back to those years in which Lougheed was premier, I remember a man of immense civility, one who had a rare ability to battle opponents without stooping to personal attacks or mud slinging. He was as passionate about his country as he was his province. He was a leader with a vision and he lived a life that was beyond reproach. He cared about the arts as much as he cared about the economy and he set a marvelous example as a family man.

I have never known a better person.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.