Archie McQueen has always believed that he had to give something back. The Hamilton man’s had a fortunate life, with two university degrees, a rewarding career and a role in Canadian history as a former prime minister’s aide.
That’s why Bennetto Elementary School Principal Mary Finstad can’t say enough about him, calling Archie a “true gentleman” who shows students the meaning of respect, service and support for your community.
For his volunteerism, McQueen recently received a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, one of the medals commemorating the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne.
“I’ve just always felt that you should volunteer,” says McQueen, 72, a vibrant personality in the North End school community. He’s the man every student knows, thanks to his regular volunteer stints in a mild intellectual disability class, and because he opens the gym to students before and after school.
A Grade 6-8 history teacher for most of his career, McQueen’s career saw him teach at Tweedsmuir, Highview, G.L. Armstrong and Bennetto, where he spent 13 years until retirement in 1997. After retiring, Bennetto called him to ask if he’d like to supply teach. He agreed, and thus began an amazing post-retirement relationship.
“I’m not in it for the money,” McQueen confides. He closes the door of Finstad’s office, so it doesn’t seem like he’s bragging. He explains that, yes, he supplies because he enjoys helping the school. But he donates every dollar he earns, and this has brought Bennetto thousands of dollars to use on technology, field trips and much more.
This selflessness makes Archie a complete original, Finstad says. “It doesn’t matter where the kids come from, he treats everyone with incredible respect and has high expectations. He wants to make sure that there are no barriers for any student.”
McQueen, who walks from the Locke Street area nearly every day he visits Bennetto, takes a special interest in developing positive character traits. He insists that students speak properly, using the word ‘yes’ instead of ‘yeah.’ He and Finstad are both proud that he’s never had to send a student to her office for a behaviour issue.
In another contribution to the school, McQueen runs an open gym program that typically starts at 7 a.m. every day before school and extends after school from 3:15 to 5 p.m. It gets them off the playground in poor weather, keeps them busy and “pays dividends” in the classroom for McQueen, because students get to know him.
Not everyone knows that McQueen’s early teaching years also included an exceptional summer job, the kind of position where dignity and respect are also required.
A history buff, as a university student McQueen had a keen interest in John Diefenbaker, the 13th Prime Minister of Canada, who served from 1957 to 1963. Diefenbaker led the Tory party to three election victories. McQueen wrote letters to Diefenbaker’s office, and they must have been impressive.
Finished at teacher’s college, McQueen had a chance to meet his hero, when the former PM arrived to accept an honorary degree from Wilfrid Laurier University. Diefenbaker’s office must have liked the young letter writer, because after a chat McQueen was offered a summer job working for the Tory leader.
So, during his summer breaks from 1970 to 1979, McQueen worked as Diefenbaker’s aide. He researched speeches, planned outings, accompanied the former PM to public events like the Fergus Highland Games and the Calgary Stampede, and was fortunate enough to see every Canadian province, and far-off places like Barbados.
“I never felt like a former prime minister should arrive at a public event alone, out wandering the streets in bad weather,” McQueen says of the dignity he thought Diefenbaker deserved.
McQueen lived as a guest at Diefenbaker’s house in the exclusive Ottawa enclave of Rockcliffe Park, and recalls the meals cooked by the maid, the sadness that followed the 1976 death of Diefenbaker’s second wife Olive, proof-reading the man’s memoirs and more.
Some of the memories sound old-worldly, like the fact that he and Diefenbaker would wear jackets and ties to dinner each night. And, after McQueen found Diefenbaker dead on the floor of his den in 1979, his remembers that among his top concerns was about preserving dignity. He called the ambulance, but also worried about how to move the body from the house to shield it from media cameras.
And in the end, Diefenbaker's state funeral was the most elaborate in Canadian history.
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