Bob Heyes, left, and Doug Simmonds always look forward to the MacMillan Bloedel retirement breakfasts. (Photo by Don Bodger)

Chemainus sawmill retirement breakfasts stand the test of time

It’s been 20 years since the first gathering of friends and former co-workers

Guess who’s coming to breakfast?

It’ll be some of the same dedicated former employees of the MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. sawmill in Chemainus plus other recent retirees from the Chemainus sawmill during its days of different ownership getting together for the 20th year.

The M&B retirement breakfasts have remarkably stood the test of time, bringing together co-workers and longtime friends from the mill’s heyday for a gathering that’s become a highlight on the calendar for so many residents throughout the region from Duncan and the south end of the Cowichan Valley through Nanaimo.

It all originated from an idea that caught on with longtime mill employee Neal Burmeister, whose former wife belonged to a Cowichan Valley tourism association. Members used to work on grants together and then maintained their connection as a group after disbanding.

“When I retired in ‘99, I thought after about a year, when you work in a mill like that it’s surprising when you’re removed from your working friends and a bit of a social atmosphere that takes place,” said Burmeister.

After a year, the first Friday of each month from October through May was arranged for the breakfasts, beginning at the Mount Brenton Golf Club.

Important contact was made initially by Bob Heyes handling the phoning for the Ladysmith and Nanaimo areas, Burmeister in Chemainus and Crofton until he moved to Nanaimo and Doug Simmonds took over and Gary Grouhel for the Duncan area retirees.

“Twenty years up to now, it’s worked pretty darn good,” noted Burmeister.

The breakfasts are at the Horseshoe Bay Inn Cafe now and the next one to mark the milestone anniversary is this Friday, Feb. 7. Anywhere from 25 to 35 people attend at any given time.

Heyes, 84, of Ladysmith started in the planer mill in 1953, transferred to Harmac for 17 years and then came back to work at the new mill, retiring in 1992. He was immediately on board with the breakfast idea.

“I’ve been involved with it since Day One,” he said.

Simmonds is of the younger variety of retired workers at 73. “I continued right through,” he said of his 33 years at the mill from 1973 to 2006.

“They were all pretty good years,” said Simmonds.

The first breakfast was on Feb. 4, 2000 and stories of yesteryear abound, as a focal point for the group.

“Originally, it was just for the people that retired from the Chemainus sawmill,” said Heyes. “After a while, we started to take anybody.”

The breakfasts were also held at various times over the years at the former Gerry’s Diner outside Duncan and Ricky’s Restaurant in Ladysmith.

Heyes keeps meticulous statistics of each breakfast. The average numbers attending each year has fluctuated only slightly, with 29 people in 2014 and 2015, 26 in 2016, 25 in 2017, 24 in 2018 and bumping up to 30 last year.

“We find out once in a while who’s retired,” said Simmonds. “We still phone them all and let them know it’s on. You get a nucleus of fellows who go to the majority of them.”

And Phil Dobson, the most popular manager at the mill of all-time, still makes the effort to come over from Vancouver for most of them.

“He was very highly thought-of,” noted Simmonds. “He was just one of the guys. You knew how you fared against the other crews.”

“We ran with the team concept,” added Heyes.

“I couldn’t have had a better 38 years,” he summed up.

As time goes on, the significance of the breakfasts weighs heavily at times.

“We have guys that have terminal cancer that come into the breakfast and two months later, they’re dead,” noted Burmeister. “It tells you how important that once-a-month breakfast is to a lot of people.”

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