Beloved Haliburton Highlands Secondary School teacher Derek Little passed away on June 11, following a two-year battle with brain cancer.

Haliburton community mourns the loss of ‘special’ teacher Derek Little

By Mike Baker

Derek Little was many things – a father, a brother, a son, a friend. He was a teacher and a true community leader.

On June 11, Haliburton lost one of its true champions. Little passed away following an almost two-and-a-half year battle with brain cancer. Immediately following his passing, the Echo started to hear stories from those who knew him. It was clear, from the get go, that Derek was a truly special person.

Much of that can be traced back to his upbringing.

Tom MacLeod grew up with Derek in Blairhampton. He remembers a man who cared for his family and friends, and who always stood up for what he felt was right.

“Derek was raised properly by his parents, Alec and Zetta, who instilled in him the core values of family, hard work, persistence, and respect for others. A testament to the Little family’s dedication is the fact that Derek and his four siblings never missed one single day of school, right up until they graduated high school,” MacLeod said. “Those with knowledge of Blairhampton winters will understand that the roads did not always get plowed immediately after heavy snowfalls. That never stopped the Littles from plodding through several kilometres of knee-deep snow to get to the main highway to meet the bus.”

Derek always held a deep love for learning and continued education. According to his mother, he knew right from a young age that he wanted to pursue a career as a teacher.

After graduating from Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, Derek attended Lakehead University, graduating in May 1992. He would then spend a year at teacher’s college, graduating in June 1993 before heading home a fully qualified educator.

His first job was at Archie Stouffer Elementary School in Minden. It wasn’t long before his talents took him to greener pastures – back to HHSS.

Gary Brohman was the principal at the time that Derek arrived.

“Derek Little began his teaching career teaching science subjects. I soon realized he had many other capabilities – he taught mathematics, co-op, physical and health education with an enthusiasm and skill that brought the curriculum to a level of engagement that his students loved,” Brohman recalls.

Carrie Harrison remembers her first encounter with “Mr. D” as he was affectionately known throughout his career. It was her first day of Grade 9 at HHSS.

“I remember being so scared and so worried about starting out at high school. I was so unsure of how it was going to go. I remember walking into math class – the applied level of math – and there he was, Derek Little sitting behind the desk waiting for us all to pile in,” Harrison said. “I knew some faces and wasn’t sure of others, but Derek helped settle us all in, and he was a great teacher. He was a no bull crap kind of man, but as stern as he was, he was also a teddy bear. Anyone that knew him would tell you that.”

She added, “I learned many, many things from him, and I’m glad that I did. I can’t believe that he’s gone.”
While Little excelled in almost every position he was placed during those early years at HHSS, it was through something of a whimsical pilot project that he truly flourished and succeeded.

Brohman recalls Derek approaching him in 1997 to start a four-credit outdoor education program, with the premise being that his students would learn real life skills and gain certificates and accreditation they could use post-graduation. Unsure at the time, Brohman took a chance on Little and his proposed program. It turned out to be one of the best decisions he ever made.

“The end result was that Haliburton had the best [outdoor education] program in Ontario in just a couple of years under his leadership,” Brohman said. “The secret to the success was Derek himself. He was an outstanding teacher, leader, mentor, friend and, in some cases, a father figure. Derek also did not make this an all-boys program – many girls took this course with great success.”

Zetta says that outdoor education program was, perhaps, the crowning achievement of Little’s teaching career.
“That program really was Derek’s baby. He had to raise funds to start it, recruit his own students and be the driving force behind it. He taught all kinds of subjects, but it was in the four-credit program that Derek thrived. He tailored the program towards those who might not be so academically inclined, and he thought it suited this area perfectly given the nature all around us,” Zetta says.

“He always said about that program that if he had just one student that succeeded and went on to forge a career, or move on to further education, then he had succeeded,” Zetta continued. “We later found out that the program actually had an 85 per cent success rate.”

There are many stories to come from that outdoor education program. Irene Heaven, education coordinator at Abbey Gardens, remembers Derek and his class helping out with multiple projects at the site.

“We have this program called the ‘Great Spectacle’ at Abbey Gardens, and the students from Derek’s program helped to build the site one year, and then would make sure to come back year over year to help maintain it,” Heaven said. “They helped out with rebuilding our pony paddock, doing work in the gardens, and they even built a totally new trail for us at one time too. I told Derek where I wanted it to start and where I wanted it to end, and away he went organizing and directing his class.”

Heaven had known Derek for more than a decade, also working alongside him in her previous position teaching the duel-credit course at the high school for Fleming College. While she always appreciated and respected his teaching ability, Heaven says the personal relationships Derek was able to forge with his students was most impressive of all.

“I really admired the rapport he had with these young adults. As much as he was a friend to them, he was also a leader. He wanted them to be accountable and wanted to teach them that there are consequences to the things that you do. I think they really respected him for that,” Heaven said. “He valued every single youth as an individual, identified their strengths and tried to build on their confidence. As a teacher, you really couldn’t have asked for more. He helped kids and he encouraged them to be the best that they could be.”

Long-time Haliburton resident John Teljeur shared his favourite Derek story with the Echo – one that he says will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“I knew Derek growing up, he was a few years behind me in school, but we interacted, played hockey, that type of stuff. As we got older, I knew what kind of man he grew up to be,” Teljeur said. “At this point, I was helping out in many different ways across the county, and I came across an older couple who had virtually nothing. Their house was in really bad shape. They had literally nothing.

“I went out to their property one day, and their house was surrounding by a dozen or so dead trees. I wondered how in god’s name I was going to help these people, knowing that any one of those trees could collapse at any time. If that happened, the cottage, everything inside of it would have been gone,” Teljeur continued.

“I was out on Halloween night, wondering what to do, and I bumped into Derek. We talked, and I told him about this situation. I told him I didn’t know what to do. Before I could say anything else, Derek said he would put some ideas together, and maybe get the kids from his outdoor education class to help out.

“A couple of days later, we were planning to meet up at the location. I left work early figuring I would be the first one there. But when I arrived, there Derek was, with his students. They had already been there for hours. They’d taken down 10 or so of the trees, cut up the wood and stacked it for the elderly couple,” Teljeur added. “I walk up and I’m looking at the owner’s face, and he’s just gobsmacked. He doesn’t know how to react. He’d never had people come and do these things for him.”

This occurred in early November 2018. A few days after Derek and his gang cleared out, there was a particular nasty snow storm, which Teljeur remembers dumped between three and four foot of snow on the community.
“If we hadn’t managed to get those trees down, that could have been really bad. We ended up talking about it a few days later, and Derek didn’t think what he had done was that big of a deal. I told him that that person will never forget him for that, and I will never forget him for that,” Teljeur said. “He didn’t need a beer, he didn’t need a couple bucks, he just did it. That made a big, big impression on me.”

Derek taught the outdoor education program until summer 2020. By then he had been diagnosed with a rare brain tumour.

Zetta remembers her son having a seizure in January 2019. A CT scan showed no issues, but an MRI, taken later, showed a mass on Derek’s right occipital lobe.

The initial prognosis wasn’t good, Zetta remembers.

“We knew the outcome would probably be death,” she said. “Derek reacted stalwartly, with a stiff upper lip. He said he was going to fight to the end and that’s exactly what he did.”

He underwent initial surgery in April 2019 at Toronto Western hospital. Doctors were able to remove 90 per cent of the tumour. Derek was discharged two days later.

The next few months went well, Zetta remembers. Derek showed signs of recovery, and went about his life as normally as he could. He planned trips with his five sons, and put an added emphasis on spending time with his family, which included three brothers and one sister.

He would eventually step away from his role at HHSS in mid-2020.

Chris Boulay, current principal at the local high school, paid homage to Little and the impact he had on the entire student body at HHSS.

“I truly was only getting to know Mr. Little when he fell ill, as I was in my first year at HHSS. But in the short time we did work alongside each other, I could easily see the passion he had for students, co-op, his outdoors program and football,” Boulay said. “He set the bar high, and no obstacle could get in his way or deter him from succeeding. He embodies and modelled our school credo of respect, commitment and responsibility.

“Failure was never an option for Derek, and he fought a valiant fight with illness, while always remaining upbeat and optimistic,” Boulay added.

Shortly after resigning from his role at the school, Derek was back in the hospital. In November 2020, doctors thought his cancer had returned, and worse, grown. He went under the knife on Nov. 28. Zetta says this mass would turn out to be a compilation of dead cells caused by radiation treatment. He appeared to be in the clear, until he developed a deadly infection that he could not seem to shake. He spent more than two months in the hospital, at a time when friends and family could not visit due to the restrictions implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In hospital, alone, Derek struggled. He was close to death when, in February of this year, he was sent home with family as a palliative patient.

However, upon returning to his childhood home, rather than get closer to death, Derek improved. Within weeks he was back on his feet and seeming like his normal self.

During that rebound period, he was able to spend vital time with his family, notably his sister Tanya Little McKnight. The pair would spend full days baking together and having fun – just as they did when they were children.

Then, on the evening of June 10, Derek would go to sleep one final time after a particular uneventful day.

“There was no indication that he was unwell. He had bad days and good days all the way along. He could have a bad day, and then the next day perk up again and kind of be himself. Then he went to bed on that Thursday night and he never woke up,” Zetta recalls.

Tanya said she would remember her brother as a man that put others before himself, especially when it came to family.

“He was my protector. He always stood up for me, no matter what. He was funny, and he was caring. He always had my back,” she said.

Marisa Thomazo was Derek’s sister-in-law. She remembers him as a fantastic guy, saying the memories of him would keep her smiling for the rest of her life.

“Derek had a huge heart. As a true down-to-earth Blairhampton boy, he carried the ‘Little’ traits of always being generous, caring, hard-working, inclusive, and always ready to help anyone that needed help, and he passed those traits on to his five boys that he loved so much,” Thomazo said. “He was an educator at heart and because of his caring nature, he was able to connect with so many kids … He made an impact on every single person he came across.”

Brohman, who spent years side-by-side with Little on the football field as a coach, as well as in the halls as an educator, seconded that statement, saying it’s difficult to gauge just how big an impact he had on HHSS and the wider Haliburton community.

“Not only was Derek well regarded by his students, but he had a very special relationship with the Haliburton community. He built an outstanding partnership based on commitment, responsibility, respect and trust,” Brohman said. “Derek… was admired and enthusiastically sought out and followed, whether it be in class, or as a coach on the football field. He was a man who generously gave his best of himself, no matter the job or the circumstance.
“If you wanted a job completed, all you had to do was call Mr. D,” Brohman concluded.

Following Derek’s death, it was revealed that his brother, Sam, would take over running the outdoor education program at HHSS – a fitting tribute, his parents state.

Zetta said it was comforting to hear of the impact Derek had on the community. A celebration of life, commemorating Derek’s memory will be held later this year, once COVID-19 restrictions clear up enough that all those who wish to pay their respects will have the opportunity to do so.

“Derek was a very special man. It’s comforting to know that he lived his life helping people in the community. He was a kind Samaritan as far as I’m concerned,” Zetta said “The pride I feel knowing how many lives Derek had a positive impact on, it’s indescribable… We’re proud of every one of his accomplishments and how he portrayed himself throughout his life.”