It’s often the case – as Joni Mitchell said – that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.’ A lot of people were thinking along those lines after the sudden passing of Jeff Commins of Wagner on Nov. 8.
“The M.D. lost a hell of a member on council,” says Murray Kerik, Commins’ colleague on council for a couple of terms.
As Kerik (he’s the reeve) mentioned in his remarks at the Nov. 16 memorial service, public service was what Jeff was all about. He loved helping people
“He was a damn good friend to us” Kerik says. “Everything he did he did for somebody else, not for himself.”
Commins was in the middle of his second term as an M.D. councillor when he died. His first term happened to coincide with the 2011 Slave Lake wildfire disaster. With then reeve Denny Garratt, Jeff found himself at the M.D. office on the fateful afternoon Sunday, May 15 with a rapidly developing and dangerous situation blowing in from the east. He and Garratt decided they needed to do something so they jumped in a vehicle, drove down Poplar Lane and started knocking on doors, letting people know they had to evacuate. They might have saved some lives.
“He wouldn’t let me go by myself,” says Garratt. “We were trying to get people out of their houses; smoke and fire were two or three minutes away.”
That was just one example of a lifetime of ‘getting involved.’ Commins had been doing that in one way or another ever since arriving in the Lesser Slave Lake area with wife Marlene and young children Jeremy and Joee in the mid-1980s. He served on a local committee advising the improvement district on an area structure plan for the south shore communities. He got heavily involved with the local chapter of Ducks Unlimited, serving for a time as its president and raising lots of money for habitat conservation. He was involved off and on with the Slave Lake & District Chamber of Commerce for many years, including time spent on the executive. He was also president of the Southshore Community Development Association, whose crowning achievement was the establishment of the Widewater Complex.
As a council member, Commins served on many committees and boards. One of those was the regional housing authority; he spent time as chair of that board as well, representing M.D. council.
Garratt recalls encouraging Commins to run for M.D. council, back in 2010 or thereabouts. After initial reservations, he decided to go for it and was successful.
“I was happy,” Garratt says. “He was honest, well-motivated. He actually cared about people. People like that are few and far between.”
But let’s back up and find out where Commins came from, and how he ended up in Slave Lake.
Born just into the new year of 1950 in Edmonton to George and Hildur Commins, he grew up there, went to school there and at the age of 18 joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He trained as a meteorologist, achieving that designation in 1970. However, returning to Alberta after his military stint was over, he decided to get his electrician’s ticket. That proved to be a good move, and he found work in the oilfield, including for a time in Fort McMurray and even further afield, in the High Arctic.
Along the way, in the mid-1970s, Commins chanced to meet Marlene. He and his brother Bob were out hunting south of Camrose just after Christmas when they had some vehicle difficulties. The farmhouse they went to looking for help turned out to be that of Marlene’s parents, who invited them in for a turkey dinner. She wasn’t there, but one thing led to another and 10 months or so later they were married.
In the early 1980s, Jeff was offered a job working for Rainbow Pipeline in Slave Lake. The couple took the opportunity to move to the area, buying land in Wagner and setting up their dream home. A couple of years later they started a business selling cedar products, among other things. It did well and over the years developed into what’s now known as Southshore Hidden Treasures, located in Slave Lake.
Business was one thing; pleasure was another and how much fun Commins had came up again and again in the tributes at the memorial service. Hunting and especially fishing were high on the list. And flying! At some point, Commins surprised (maybe even terrified) a lot of people in the area by taking to the skies in the skimpiest of aircraft – a sort of motorized parachute. He (and Marlene!) could be seen buzzing blithely through the skies above Slave Lake – having all kinds of fun.
“He loved flying,” Marlene says.
Commins was halfway through his latest term on council, and enjoying a sort of semi-retirement when the dreaded cancer diagnosis came down. It was terminal, but that didn’t stop him from being his same positive, cheerful self – something that was remarked on by many people in recent weeks. Two days before he passed away he attended his final council meeting.
“He was tired out when he got back,” Marlene recalls. “But he always wanted to participate if he could.”
Commins’ diagnosis of liver cancer happened in July, after he’d been in to the city to have what was thought to be appendicitis looked at. They told him, Marlene says, ‘Appendicitis is the least of your problems,’ and gave him six months to live. Part of that time was spent in Mexico getting treatments not available in Canada, where chemotherapy was all that was offered. He didn’t want that.
“Jeff didn’t have fear,” she says, “but he did have faith. He didn’t want to be hooked up to machines.”
As it happened, the date of the Nov. 16 memorial service was the same at Jeff and Marlene’s 45th wedding anniversary and a party went on at Widewater that evening in commemoration of both his life and their 45 years together.
“Big fireworks!” says Marlene. “Jeff loved fireworks.”