He traded in the subtropical airs of Australia for the cooler climes of British Columbia’s Peace Country, building a reputation over decades for his dedication to his students, the arts, and the environment in Fort St. John.
Long-time resident Tony Atkins died Thursday morning following a fight with cancer. He was 71.
“He was just one of those wonderful people that we were blessed to have,” said Dave Sloan, superintendent of School District 60.
“His passing is too soon.”
Atkins was just a young school teacher from Australia when came to Fort St. John with a pair of friends in the 1960s, landing a job teaching at Alwin Holland Elementary School. He would later serve as principal of C.M. Finch Elementary until his retirement.
Sloan remembered Atkins for his quick wit and dry humour, and for being a pillar of support for new teachers and administrators coming into the district. Atkins mentored many who are senior staff today.
Sloan said Atkins would always joke that he was “retired, not buried,” and remained active in the schools after his retirement.
“He continued to volunteer with the elementary track meet, was the timer for the district speech contest, and even up until this year, he was active as a judge at the C.M. Finch Science Fair,” said Sloan.
Atkins a founding member of Stage North
Outside of the classroom, Atkins was an active member of the community — involved with both the Peace Valley Environment Association (PVEA), where he sat as treasurer since the 1980s. He was also a founder member of Stage North in 1978, where he helped bring productions to life through his set designs, and was volunteer with The Workshop Players in the 1970s.
He was also a board member with the North Peace Cultural Society, sitting as its secretary.
“He went about all the work without making a fuss, you could always count on him,” said Ruth Ann Darnall, who chairs the PVEA, and taught with Atkins at Alwin Holland.
Darnall said news of Atkins’ passing is resonating back to his family in Australia, friends on Vancouver Island, and even former students in other provinces.
Dawn Ljuden, who worked with Atkins with Stage North, called him a mentor and a confidante, a man who never sought to soak in the limelight, instead preferring to quietly donate his time and his tools.
“He would never admit it, but he was amazing at designing sets,” she said.
“He never looked for thanks. A lot of what he did was quiet and soft in the background, it just made him feel good. He didn’t want to be on stage. He wanted to make things happen so every one else could join.”
Stage North President Gilles Francoeur said “generations of volunteers owe Tony a great debt of gratitude, for without him they literally would not have had a stage to perform on.”
“Tony was a consistent and unwavering presence in my own life for the better part of twenty years,” said Francoeur.
“I found him to be a profoundly intelligent and funny man. Quick with a joke or a pat on the back. He could lift your spirits with barely a word or none at all.”
He may not have liked the stage, but Atkins was planning to stand upon one this season in Ljuden’s fall production of Macbeth. Atkins had a small role in the play back in his high school days. Ljuden says she’ll be dedicating the show to him.
“As much as he hated being on stage, he promised me he would be in it if he had the same three lines he had in high school,” Ljuden said.
“This is a big loss for Fort St. John, not just for Stage North. We’re going to feel it for years to come,” she said.
Atkins integral in local fight against Site C.
In a statement, Diane Culling, also with the PVEA, said Atkins in the fight against the Site C dam project from the start, and will remain so until to the end.
“The fact that the PVEA executive must scramble to ensure that the many balls that Tony always “kept in the air” do not drop now, at the very time we are trying to come to terms with his unexpected death, is a measure of how important he was to the campaign to save our beloved Peace River Valley,” Culling wrote in a statement to members.
“So now Tony is gone. As was Leo Rutledge, and so many people that spent that past forty years working to stop Site C. They have passed the torch to us. And we cannot let them down,” Culling continued.
“Let’s put this damn dam to bed once and for all, before another person that loves that valley has to die without knowing that it is safe.”