They call him "the father of Winnipeg’s heritage movement," because without David McDowell, landmarks such as the Millennium Centre and Dalnavert might be ancient history.
McDowell died at St. Boniface Hospital on June 18 at the age of 80.
"He was very much a visionary," said Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell.
McDowell watched the city’s demolition spree of the 1960s and ’70s and decided something needed to be done.
"He was one of the original picketers on Main Street to say, ‘Stop: we’re losing our built heritage at an alarming rate.’ It was a time when the heritage was just starting off," Tugwell said.
"People getting off their chairs and getting upset with the rocket amount of demolition taking place."
An iconic image from the Nov. 20, 1978 Winnipeg Free Press shows a parka-clad McDowell leading a group of protesters down to the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at 389 Main St.
The bank wanted to demolish its old headquarters and the next-door Hamilton Building (the former Bank of Hamilton, which merged with CIBC in 1961) at 395 Main, after it moved into the Richardson Centre.
"They are still very sound and could be recycled," McDowell told the Free Press at the time. "Winnipeg is a very lucky city to still have many of its old buildings and it is very important these be maintained."
They won, of course, because 389 Main is now known as the Millennium Centre, its marble banking hall and glass dome are part of a popular wedding venue.
McDowell was also instrumental in restoring the former home of Hugh John Macdonald into what we now know as Dalnavert, with the Manitoba Historical Society.
"Not only was he involved in the initial salvage and restoration of the house," said Manitoba Historical Society president Gordon Goldsborough. "He was also involved in it transitioning to its present operation. At the time it was at threat, and now it’s hopefully, on a good solid foundation."
"The fact that we have so many wonderful old buildings in downtown… it wasn’t solely him but it required someone who had the enthusiasm, the drive, the knowledge, and he had all of those things," he said.
Saving the bank buildings also led to the formation of Heritage Winnipeg. McDowell went on to be president twice — in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. "He was a prince of Heritage Winnipeg," said Tugwell.
But that barely scratches the surface of all the hats he wore: president of the Manitoba Historical Society, Manitoba governor for the National Trust of Canada, co-chair of Streetcar 356, and he was involved with Upper Fort Garry and the Centennial Farm Award.
"We tell visitors from across the world about Winnipeg’s story — a lot of that came out of what Dave helped initiate," said Steven Stothers, his co-chair on the Streetcar 356 restoration project.
McDowell had undergone multiple cancer treatments but his wife Linda said an infection caught them by surprise, and his death was sudden and unexpected.
"He got sidelined by treatments and operations over the last several years but was always kept working," Stothers said.
Tugwell spoke with him just a week before he died. Even though he was sick, she said he never complained, but just kept forging ahead.
"He just had this relentless commitment," she said, calling McDowell a mentor.
The causes were important, Linda McDowell said, but his self-identity as a teacher was the key to it.
"He approached it as a teacher," Stothers said. "‘I’m going to educate you about Winnipeg, help you understand or learn why Winnipeg is important’… he encouraged other people to learn."
McDowell grew up in Brandon, where his family ran a grocery store. After getting a teaching certificate from Brandon College, he headed out to teach in rural schools — but that was far from the end of his education thanks, in part, to meeting fellow teacher Linda Moore in the early 1960s.
They met when she invited him to attend a meeting at their Brandon school — the first of countless meetings the two history buffs would attend together. After marrying in 1967, they moved to Winnipeg.
McDowell’s varied interests — teaching, geography, history — came together when he was asked to co-author a book on geography with a professor of his, John Tyman. By Section, Township and Range: Studies in Prairie Settlement set him on course for the rest of his career, Linda said.
He was a constant student as well as a teacher; David and Linda took turns working while the other one went back to university for a year or two. He got a master’s degree in education and later joined the provincial Department of Education. When they "retired," both McDowells continued teaching an education class at the University of Winnipeg.
When McDowell’s health started to deteriorate, Tugwell wanted to make sure he knew how grateful the heritage community is for all of his efforts.
In 2015, Heritage Winnipeg held a fundraising dinner in his honour, highlighting all of it.
"It was his sheer breadth of knowledge, of history and heritage, and also the amount of organizations and committees he was on," Tugwell said. The movement needed people, but it also needed someone to hold them together and get people on the same page. That was (him)."
"He was a teacher, educator, quick wit, quick study, always telling bad jokes — groaners — with a twinkle in his eye," said Stothers, who worked with McDowell to restore Winnipeg’s last streetcar to its former glory.
McDowell never lost faith that the project would be completed. In recent weeks, they were debating the finer points of tongue-and-groove slots to make the restoration perfect.
Stothers said working in heritage can feel like "putting your finger in the dyke."
But he’s determined to get one final legacy finished for McDowell.
"We’re going to complete Streetcar 356 for Dave."
Tessa Vanderhart is interested in everything, but especially local news, health policy and statistics.
Updated on Monday, July 15, 2019 at 8:32 AM CDT: Name fixed.