Thetis Island paid tribute Saturday to a remarkable officer and a gentleman.
The man fitting both personas is one and the same, Pete Rees, who died March 23 at the age of 97.
Born in Croydon, England, Edmond Cleaton (Pete) Rees was a sailor, aviator, rancher, firefighter and storyteller with every stage of his life a story in itself.
The Thetis Island Volunteer Fire Department facilitated the memorial service for Rees, a long-time resident and founding chief of the fire department 40 years ago. The Cowichan Valley fire Honour Guard attended and the ceremony gave the community a chance to come together at the newly-refurbished Forbes Hall in his honour.
Rees is survived by wife Audree, cousin Janet, sister-in-law Geraldine, and nephews Ken and Jerry and wife Pat.
The tributes have been pouring in both publicly and privately since people learned of Rees’ death earlier this year.
“Pete, an honourary lifetime member, and I, were members of the Nanaimo Flying Club, and flew for many years together,” noted Rick Koeppen. “It was Pete who first got me initiated to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. For many years together, we were the maintenance and operation committee for the rental plane at the Nanaimo Flying Club. Drawing on his vast experience and sensible know-how, Pete had interesting ways to problem solve issues with the plane. We had made lots of plans for the summer and to fly further up Vancouver Island. He will be missed.”
“He was a great character and had a huge impact on how Thetis developed as a community,” added Veronica Shelford. “He represents the passing of an era – of service and self-sufficiency.”
Rees was a merchant marine as a younger man, travelling around the globe on various ships working as an engineer while experiencing many exotic places from Fiji to India and beyond.
He was awarded medals for his service in the Second World War as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the Prime Minister and Minister of Veterans Affairs for selfless acts of service and sacrifice in defence of Canada. Part of his life was spent as an engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy.
Rees served with the Vancouver Fire Department for 29 years before retiring, starting out on the Vancouver fire boat and for a period driving a fire truck. He became influential in the evolution of the Thetis Island Volunteer Fire Department, alongside his pal and fellow VFD retiree, Harry Armstrong, before retiring again in 1994 after 12 years as the founding chief.
Rees and wife Audree were both sailors and got called on many times by friends to crew their ketches on voyages all over the globe.
The Rees’ built a 42-foot sailboat in Vancouver. Audree constructed a small mock-up of her dream house that looks exactly like the house they eventually built on Thetis Island, with the beams for the house ferried over on the sailboat.
Rees essentially documented an early version of his autobiography in 2003 when he wrote for the Island Tale Winds newsletter. He shed more light on his life after leaving England at an early age.
“I spent my childhood in Chile and Peru,” he wrote. “We moved to Canada in 1932 and I was schooled in Toronto before joining the navy there in 1942. I moved to the west coast for training as a gunner and volunteered for service on armed merchant ships to England and Australia.
“On discharge in 1947, I returned to sea, ending up in India in the time of partition of Pakistan. I then returned to Vancouver by way of Turkey-England-Gander and New York by Pan American Airways Constellation. Back home again, I shipped aboard a large yacht called Cossair and was shipwrecked in Mexico. Returning home once again, I applied to join the Vancouver Fire Department, was passed ‘fit’ and spent five years on the Fire Boat No. 2 before moving uptown.”
While sailing around B.C., that’s when Rees and wife Audree found their land on Thetis Island that would become their long-time home.
“Not having power to the site in those days, the house was built with hand tools, cement being mixed in the wheelbarrow,” Rees noted.
“In the latter days of my time with the Vancouver Fire Department we moved to Thetis and I commuted by BMW motorcycle to work every four days (except vacations) for 15 years, without missing a shift and never being late.”
Six years into retirement while his wife was away visiting friends, Rees got bored and decided to take a discovery flight in Victoria.
“I got hooked, passed my medical and tried the local flying schools,” he wrote. “They turned me down. Too old, they said. The Victoria Flying Club said OK, though, so I commuted from Thetis twice a week, flying in the morning and attending ground school at night. I would fly again the following morning and then go home. The next day it was off to the VFC for more of the same. This routine I kept until I soloed. I then rented Cessna 152 and 172 aircraft and got my ticket.”
His tales of flight only became more incredible over the years.
“You are never too old to try new things or follow your dreams,” he confided at the time.
Many things about his uncle stood out for nephew Jerry Gildemeester.
“Engines, engine rooms were his thing, his comfort zone,” Gildemeester explained in a summation. “He showed me the engine room on every ferry we rode on explaining all the inner workings, expanding my little mind.
“During the house building and clearing on Thetis they brought us three boys of Audree’s sister over to Thetis many times, by sailboat, speedboat and motorcycle. The Royal Van Yacht Club was where my brothers and I spent a lot of time with Pete and Audree on and around the sailboat that they built. I have fond memories of the seven-hour trip to Thetis from downtown Vancouver, going out on the tide.”
Shenanigans happened while they were away that Gildemeester is sure are remembered by some Thetis residents.
“I drove the tractor on the road to the marina thinking no one would notice,” he recalled. “You noticed. Took the speed boat out water skiing and used up all the gas. You noticed. Dispatches were sent on Pete and Aud’s return. Was read the riot act, so to speak. Lesson learned, eventually. Teenagers, eh?”
The more the family looked into Rees’ past the prouder they were of him for his voluntary military service that Gildemeester indicated he never spoke about much. The medals he received and wore proudly were earned doing public and military service, he noted.
“The last years as things slowed down, he kept the property looking like a manicured park,” Gildemeester added.
“Every day at 9 a.m. Pete did the ham radio daily net check-in with his buddies. We all miss you incredibly Uncle Pete.”
The same can be said by so many whose lives he impacted.