By Emily Stonehouse
There are a few key staples in Haliburton County; the steely grey plane that’s nose nods to Head Lake, the locomotive that casts a beam of light onto the high school, and Gerald McKnight, who would greet each passerby with a “busy, eh?” as they carried on with their day.
“He was always out and about in the community,” shared his friend, Tim Tofflemire.
Tofflemire has worked with Community Living for the past 23 years, and met Gerald right when he started. “Once you get past the occasional gruff exterior, he was a real teddy bear underneath,” chuckled Tofflemire.
“He was a very good man,” echoed Michelle Cooper, another long-term staff member at Community Living, and dear friend to Gerald, “and his community was his whole world.”
Gerald moved to Haliburton in 1986, and settled into Community Living. The not-for-profit facility offers individuals living with developmental disabilities opportunities to succeed in their day-to-day lives. “Gerald was supported by Community Living to work towards independent living, and eventually got his own apartment,” said Tofflemire. “That’s something we work towards.”
Having come from an institution in Cobourg prior to settling in Haliburton, with no biological family identified and a sullied past with negative experiences in institutions, Gerald was welcomed into the community with open arms. “These institutions were not a nice place to be,” said Tofflemire, “and if he was growing up in this day and age, it would be a lot different. But he had a hard time before coming here.”
Upon settling into the community, Gerald picked up an immediate interest in the local garbage trucks, and was given the opportunity to ride on the back of the trucks to collect weekly garbage. Tofflemire shared that one of Gerald’s colleagues from that time referred to him as the “here and now guru”, claiming that his outlook on life was always just to exist in the moment.
Other locals would recall seeing Gerald at his regular seat in the Village Donut shop, that at one point resided across from Emmerson Lumber in Haliburton. “He was a regular there,” chuckled Tofflemire, “definitely a daily visitor.”
Gerald’s signature catchphrase was “busy, eh?”, as many locals knew and appreciated. “He could have a conversation with anyone,” said Teresa Jordan, the executive director of Community Living. “And what an invitation to speak. He always welcomed the conversation that brought on.”
Tofflemire shared that Gerald’s two big passions were trains and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). “One time, we couldn’t find Gerald, realized we hadn’t seen him all day in town,” said Tofflemire, saying they went on to contact the local police to see if they could track him down. Upon the call being made, another officer buzzed in to say they had him. “A few officers were headed down to Orillia for the day, and he decided to join them,” said Tofflemire, “they brought him down and gave him a private tour of the station. That used to happen a lot. He’d get these private tours around OPP stations and would leave with a bunch of stuff they gave him.”
There was another time that Gerald arrived onsite to a situation where a deer had been hit, and the OPP were dealing with it. Gerald would always carry a pager around, given to him by his friends at the OPP. In the midst of the call, his pager went off, and the OPP were surprised as Gerald hastily left the scene. Within minutes, he was spotted in the back of a fire truck, racing off to another local emergency with the Dysart firefighters.
“It was his smile,” Tofflemire said, when asked how Gerald managed to charm his way into so many situations, “people would connect with him, and he was really included in so many things. People went out of their way to make him feel included.”
When Gerald wasn’t helping out the emergency services, he volunteered consistently with the maintenance departments at Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, and Fleming College in Haliburton. The staff grew to enjoy his presence so much that they would pay for his cab fare to and from Community Living to ensure he was there as often as he could be.
Tofflemire said that despite his occasional gruffness, Gerald was deeply caring in his core, always asking about the staff, and concerned about people who were sick or absent. “He would cry,” said Tofflemire, “if there was a loss or sadness, he would get very emotional.”
Cooper agreed wholeheartedly, sharing that his community was his family in so many ways, “I saw a side to him that so many others didn’t get to see,” she said, “we would spend many days crying together. He would get especially sad if anyone in his community passed away.”
Cooper shared that when she went to school for working with individuals with developmental disabilities, she was always taught to “not get attached”. But with Gerald, that was impossible. “He was my best friend,” she said, noting that he would come over for birthday dinners, family outings, and Christmases. “Christmas was his favourite time of the year,” she reflected, sharing that he absolutely adored Santa Claus, and the spirit of the holidays. “Even when he went into the long term care home, he was so concerned about Santa finding him there. I said, ‘don’t worry Ger, Santa will always find you,” she chuckled nostalgically.
Gerald passed away at the age of 72 at Hyland Crest in Haliburton. He had been living his last few years at the facility, and received care, compassion, and patience from the team. “I can’t thank them enough for the care they provided Gerald,” said Cooper.
Having no known family, to Gerald, Community Living and Haliburton Village were his family, his safe space, his home. And his presence brought out the best in this town; opening their days, their spaces, their minds, and their hearts to this person who lived his life in the moment, and who found true happiness in the day-to-day.
Gerald added a little joy and charm to all those who knew him, and those who did not, at least recognized the staple in our town. “He lived such a good life,” said Cooper, “Haliburton was so good to him. He was a very good man, and I don’t think he would have any complaints.”
Don’t worry, Gerald. We will stay busy, eh.