Phil Reece seemed to be there every time kids were proudly displaying their heritage projects.
I first met Reece about a decade ago, when he’d been involved in getting heritage fairs started at Sargent Park School. I can’t say that Reece started heritage fairs, because there were other teachers I kept encountering at the celebrations of heritage research over the years, but he was incredibly involved in kids researching their culture and heritage.
Phil Reece died Saturday at the age of 63. You can find his obituary here.
Reece was just so passionate about heritage, and he lit that passion in a lot of kids. Sure, every heritage fair had more than its share of projects on Louis Riel, Laura Secord and Wayne Gretzky, just as every science fair has a lot of volcanoes. But even those kids learned the rudimentary elements of research.
There were some amazing projects. I remember the boy who went to a forgotten rural cemetery, identified each grave, and researched the history of everyone buried there, turning its care over to an area church.
Or the boy who read through an ancestor’s official record books, in French, as a federal agent dealing with, among other things, Chief Sitting Bull and his people when they came to Canada.
There was the teacher — yes, my kids were fortunate to have him in their senior grades — who sent Grade 9 teams of researchers out each year to track down the history of such Winnipeg landmarks as the BDI or Uptown Academy Bowling Lanes. I hope you’re still doing that, Mr. T.
The Sargent Park School heritage fairs have evolved into a lot of school-based heritage fairs, to regional fairs, and to the provincial heritage fair, which, in turn, sends kids to the national heritage fair each summer. Reece retired as a teacher, but worked as a schools consultant for the Historica Foundation — the people who do the Heritage Minutes — which runs the national heritage fair and the summer institute for history teachers at U of W. Reece also got into the Open Doors Winnipeg, which takes people into historic buildings and public institutions each year.
I was always an easy mark for Reece and his colleagues to get a story. I’m a history major, and as coverage grew each year of science fairs, I argued and advocated and strived for the same coverage of heritage fairs — alas, as a lowly proletarian drone, I’ve so far been unable to get the same coverage.
Maybe it’s because heritage fairs laud participants and celebrate their success without medals and trophies, without winners, and by extension, without losers. Maybe it’s because kids with fabulous heritage projects don’t get huge scholarships or access to labs and hospitals.
But thanks to teachers like Phil Reece, a lot of kids have learned practical research skills, and know a whole lot more about their communities, and their family histories, and who we all are and how we all ended up here together.
Maybe some boy or girl will do a heritage fair project on Phil Reece.