As he readies for what should be his final campaign, Frederiction’s mayor reflects on what he has learned and what St. Thomas means to him
Last spring, another plaque was added when Fredericton’s longest serving mayor, Brad Woodside, was presented with an honourary doctorate from St. Thomas University.
We sat down before Christmas like old friends, which, in some ways, we are. For a short time, I lived down the street from Woodside. I knew the mayor, and my six-year-old self wore it like a badge of honour. Of course, I didn’t know a thing about municipal politics or provincial politics or gay pride. But I knew the mayor and that was enough.
He now wears his T-ring like a badge of honour, which it is. He also wears a STU jacket and has a photo above his doctorate degree of himself in STU colours.
It’s been nearly two decades since he stirred up national headlines with his refusal to proclaim gay pride week – a position that led some on campus to mutter about boycotting spring graduation. And there are signs, in his relatively more deft handling of the Occupy Fredericton decampment, that he has learned a few lessons along the way.
Yet it’s hard not to wonder, why do these trappings of an educated man mean so much to him?
Woodside grew up in Devon, one of Fredericton’s rougher areas.
“Some people might have thought that I was born with a silver spoon in my hand and that’s not the case,” Woodside said. “I fought really hard and worked really hard for everything that I had.”
He was raised by a single mother and never had much money.
While at school, Woodside and some friends started a band, The Impala’s, and later The Golden Bel Airs—Woodside was the front man for both.
He said his rock n’ roll days gave him the confidence to later become Canada’s national Toastmaster, but that was after he dropped out of Devon Junior High to join the air force.
“There I was, going out to take on the world with a Grade 8 education,” he said.
After a stint in the air force, which provided Woodside with the discipline he’d been lacking, he returned to New Brunswick and got his GED. He was one of the first in the province to do so.
“But I always felt that there was something missing and I guess what was missing was the thrill of graduating. The thrill of having a graduating class, graduating year—the reunions, the prom—all of those things, and I never experienced any of that.”
A turning point in Woodside’s life came when he was invited to attend a Junior Chamber of Commerce meeting with a friend. He remembers the welcoming feeling at his first meeting, a feeling he had known on the stage and in the air force, a feeling he longed for.
He attended a public speaking class put on by the Chamber, which concluded with a speech contest.
“That day I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. My hands were all sweaty,” Woodside said of the day of the contest.
He had practiced for weeks a speech on foreign investment in Canada. He spent time researching the topic at the University of New Brunswick to make sure his information was right, to make sure his speech was perfect.
“Although, I still could feel my heart racing and all of those things, the one thing that I noticed was—for the first time in my life—I am speaking to a group of people who are actually sitting still and listening to me and I’m thinking, ‘This is powerful.’”
Woodside belonged in front of the crowd. He finished second but was so inspired he went on to compete for the provincial title, the Atlantic title and eventually the Canadian title. But things didn’t end – or even slow down – there.
“I looked back through history and I could see all the people who were somebody, whether they were good, bad or indifferent, they all had one common denominator: It wasn’t blue eyes, it wasn’t short, it wasn’t tall, it was none of those things, the one common denominator every one of them could share was the ability to communicate.”
So Woodside went on to speak to the world.
The international public speaking competition was held in Cape Cod, Mass., and the young man with the GED from Devon wanted to win.
Once again, he prepared a speech, this time on world peace. For three months he rehearsed it. His delivery was impeccable, but in referencing the Watts Riots, Woodside said they happened in Chicago—Watts is a black section of Los Angeles.
“My heart just sunk,” Woodside said.
Still, he managed first runner-up.
He left amateur public speaking for municipal politics, with time spent as a radio personality in between.
Woodside was first elected to Fredericton’s city council in 1981 and became mayor in 1986. He made headlines as the mayor who said bilingualism was dividing the country and Dr. Henry Mortgantaler wasn’t welcome to set up a clinic in the city, but mostly, Woodside is remembered for his refusal to proclaim gay pride week on behalf of the LGBT community.
Now, Woodside offers no excuses. “It was not the right thing to do, but I have since figured out the right thing,” he said.
“I’ve come to appreciate, basically, everybody. That has been a maturing and a growing up and an evolution that has taken place within myself to make me a more rounded, better person.
“I think in order to love other people you have to love yourself and it’s tough to love yourself if you haven’t really gotten into the core of your being and tried to figure these things out.”
Over the years, Woodside says he has and the difference has shown. Before Christmas, Woodside took the gentler approach to remove the Occupy protestors from the base of City Hall. Eventually, he decided they had to go, but they were, at least, asked nicely more than a few times.
This May, he’s heading into his record 10th and last election for mayor. If he pulls off another win, he’ll finish off his career as the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Now, he looks older. Not quite the big politician I remember in my childhood, but he still has the same effect. The effect he has on the stage. Now, it rests on more than hard work and charisma; it rests, in some ways, on the third plaque on the wall. It rests on his education, which is so much more than the plaque: It’s life itself.
“The thing about life, is by the time you figure it out, it’s almost over,” he said, and then without hesitation, “That’s an original line.”
Or as the former bread deliverer, the air force, electrician’s helper, welder’s helper, car salesman, pizza deliverer and a labourer told STU’s 2011 grad class: “Today, I belong.”