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'He just had a huge heart for the kids'

Last truant officer's compassion for youth recalled

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Just the two words are enough to send a shudder of dread down the spine of older people -- truant officer.

Back in the day, he or she was a dogged bounty hunter who'd track a skipping student to the ends of the earth -- though usually only as far as the pool hall, mall, or the TV at home.

But truant officers also straightened out a lot of kids who needed help.

Truant officers such as Bill Rumley, who died recently and who was the last of his kind in Manitoba.

"There's a huge message to kids -- if they're missing, we send someone to look for them," and that person who comes looking really does care about them, said Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O'Leary, who knew Rumley back in the day when both worked in the Winnipeg School Division.

"I remember him finding kids in Portage Place, in video arcades, talking to the owners about not letting kids in during school hours. He might bluff a kid, but nobody called his bluff. Bill could just bring in kids from everywhere," O'Leary said. "He had kind of a gruff manner, but Bill never quit on a kid.

"He'd challenge us: 'I brought him in the door, now it's your job to get him involved and build a relationship,'" recalled O'Leary.

"If your parents didn't call you in sick, he'd go to your door, or to the popular hangouts like Portage Place," said his son, Clayton Rumley.

His dad didn't quite finish high school. Bill Rumley sold industrial supplies until he saw an opening for a truant officer with the Winnipeg School Division.

Back then, a truant officer could physically bring a recalcitrant kid back to school, but that wasn't necessary very often, said his son. And sometimes it got more exciting than Rumley might have wished.

"He went to a house with a gang affiliation, and while he was at the door talking to the family, someone drove by and fired a shot," said Clayton. Another time, "He got threatened with a ceremonial tomahawk.

"There was a time he didn't engage the parking brake, and he got out to chase a kid, and the car rolled away," his son recalled with a laugh.

"His concern was to get the kid in school. He was an imposing figure, and just his presence was enough to get them in the car."

Rumley connected with the kids in his territory throughout the WSD's North End and inner city, said his son. Rumley came from a single-parent family and was Métis.

"He didn't give them any psychobabble," said Clayton.

Then came the provincial funding freezes and cuts of the 1990s, and in 1994, the WSD laid off Rumley and two other truant officers, the last truant officers in the province.

Those two found other jobs within the division, but Rumley soon put his years of experience to work as his own boss -- he formed ACES, Attendance Counselling Education Services, out of his home in West St. Paul.

He started working alone for the now-amalgamated Norwood School Division. ACES now employs half a dozen people working under contract for several city school divisions, but they're now called attendance counsellors, using persuasion and reason and a well-defined rule book, not traditional truant officers.

Clayton Rumley said his father was a deeply religious man who volunteered extensively with seniors and with inmates at the Rockwood correctional centre. His Billious Pond bluegrass gospel band played throughout southern Manitoba.

One of the kids who Rumley tracked down and brought back to school years later asked Rumley and his wife, Teresa, to be godparents to her child.

And there were times, said his son, "if the house seemed unsafe, he'd call Child and Family Services. A lot of the parents didn't have the tools to effectively control or discipline their kids," he said, nor would his dad ignore the plight of a child living in a dangerous household.

"He just had a huge heart for the kids," said Interlake School Division assistant superintendent Christine Penner, who was at St. John's High School in Rumley's day. "He was relentless in his pursuit to get kids to school. He didn't back down from any challenge."

Penner said Rumley had recently been writing a book on the North End, and would show her each new chapter when they got together. "He certainly made a huge difference in the lives of parents and children in Winnipeg's North End," she said.

School social worker Josette Lukowycz remembered Rumley as an imposing and severe-looking man, whose compassion and caring kids instantly recognized under the gruff demeanour.

"When Bill walked into a school he was immediately believable as the man who could and would help the schools improve their attendance. He exuded confidence and competence," said Lukowycz.

There were times, Lukowycz said, kids skipped school, knowing Rumley would come for them.

"These students had figured out that Bill could look severe on the outside but was an amazingly compassionate and caring adult who had the ability to hear their side of the story, sift through what was real and what wasn't, and never lie to them. He always told them the truth, whether they wanted to hear it or not, but then he also took it one step further and helped them look at positive solutions for their situations.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 A11

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