Percy Wickman

 

A Giant of a Man

In 1987 my father wrote his autobiography, “Wheels in the Fast Lane: A Blessing in Disguise.” I was in university and I read this book on a flight from Edmonton to Halifax, where I was completing my architectural studies. My father’s story illustrated how the last 23 years of his life, using a wheelchair, had been so much better than the first 23 years of his life, walking.

I laughed and I cried. And I learned about a man who had come from a tough childhood. My father had rarely spoken to me of his early years.

Former Alberta MLA Percy Wickman was born on June 10, 1941, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. By age 15 he had moved out. He eventually made his way to Edmonton, Alberta. In 1964, while on the job unloading grocery items from a box car, a huge grey dividing steel door came off its rollers and landed on my father’s back. He became paraplegic.

I was only six months old when this happened. I only knew my father as a person who uses a wheelchair.

This year, on July 3, my father passed away at the age of 63. We had been very close. My thoughts were that this had happened too soon, and he still owed us more time. He had done so much in his life, but I knew he could have done more.

In 1969, five years after his accident, my father helped found the Handicapped Housing Society of Alberta to help people with disabilities secure affordable and accessible housing. The new organization’s motto was “for the handicapped, by the handicapped.” This is an early example of his groundbreaking advocacy work for people with disabilities. In 1981, my father would co-chair the Canadian Organizing Committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons.

In 1977, again in the spirit of making the world a better place for his fellow citizens, my father ran for the office of Edmonton City Councillor. He was voted in – but with the least votes of any of the 12 elected councillors. Three years later, he was voted in with the most votes of any of the elected councillors. It took only this short time to prove how well he represented the people of Edmonton. He believed in people and second chances.

He spent nine years at city council.

But in 1989 my father made political history when he ran as a Liberal candidate in the provincial election – against the premier of Alberta, Don Getty. I worked on this campaign, and I listened to people say my father was crazy. My father told me that he would only run in the constituency that he lived in. If Don Getty was his opponent, then so be it. There was honour in the way my father lived his life, and this allowed him to be a great decision maker. He did what he believed to be right, even when most people could not always understand his reasoning.

I clearly understand this. I even believed it was a great idea to debate a huge stuffed chicken at a public forum to which Don Getty did not show up. A photo of the chicken stunt made front-page news. My father successfully defeated Mr. Getty – and was thereafter dubbed the “giant killer.” (In a 2001 newspaper column, my father insisted, “when the dust finally settled, the real giant killer was not me… but rather that two-metre stuffed chicken, which, incidentally, has been… taken apart to be used as a Halloween costume by my son Ron.”)

My father spent the next 12 years serving at the Alberta legislature. Honours followed. Last year, the Canadian Paraplegic Association created the Percy Wickman Accessibility Award. It was presented to the City of Edmonton in recognition of its barrier-free improvements to Commonwealth Stadium and other parks and recreation facilities. And on June 15, 2004, Percy Wickman was appointed to the Order of Canada by Lieutenant Governor Lois Hole for his lifelong work serving his community and the rights of people with disabilities.

My father always put the needs of others ahead of himself. That is what made him a great politician and a great human being. He was generous with his time. Throughout my childhood and even in my adult years, he was always there for me, and for everyone else. His energy seemed endless. At his funeral, so many people approached me with touching stories of how he had helped them. In his political life he regularly visited schools to teach children about his work and how to live life with passion.

I have been blessed to be raised by a giant of a father. He dreamed of a fairer and just world where everyone had a chance to live a better life. He did so much to achieve this goal, especially for persons with disabilities.

Did he pass away too soon? Does he owe us more time? I believe we owe him. Like my father, we should all strive to leave this world a better place than when we entered it. We should all strive to be good, be tolerant of others, believe in ourselves and do the right thing.

Perhaps his own words can convey the essence of Percy Wickman. The following passage is taken from his will – as a “hereafter” epilogue to “Wheels in the Fast Lane:”

“Life has been good to me. I really had no complaints… What is my legacy in life? Having served as an Alderman for nine years – no! Having been an MLA for 12 years – again, no! My greatest legacy, at least my role in it, is seeing a little Wicky enter the world and grow into an outstanding individual. One who will eventually leave a greater legacy than I could possibly have dreamt of. In addition, he gave me the three jewels, [grandchildren] Ceira, Kellen and Jayden, who had become the most important things in my life. I cannot possibly describe the love I had for them as it is boundless, and I am sure they will all go on to succeed and make their parents glow with pride… Of course, I was not the only one to play a role in the birth of Ron. Silvia played a much greater role in instilling certain values and principles into Ron. Like any other couple, Sil and I had our ups and downs, but I do not think there is any other woman out there that would have stuck with me through thick and thin like Sil did. She is one of a kind!”

(Ron Wickman is an architect living in Edmonton, Alberta.)

 

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