By Bob Kaups
Rye employee has volunteered for countless organizations for over 30 years.
He has helped pull everything from tires to 200-gallon oil tanks out of the Don River. He has conducted tours of the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres in Toronto. He has given lectures on strange and unique tools from bygone eras. He has even spent three years bending and shaping iron beams to create a rail-track loop for an electric railway museum, Maybe you’ve noticed him once or twice: Bushy grey beard and piercing eyes, pushing a cartload of boxes in the halls of Jorgenson. Maybe you’ve seen him a hundred times in the bookstore. His name is John Laraway. Now, you may be asking yourself, who the hell is John Laraway and why should I care? Well, John Laraway has been a Ryerson employee for 17 years, in the shipping and receiving area of the Ryerson bookstore. He’s held a wide range of jobs in his life, including time as an accounts payable clerk and an appliance repairman. But where he has worked in his life tells only a fraction of the story of John Laraway.
The rest of the story is found in what (and how much) Laraway does in his spare time.
Laraway has lived all his life in one house in northeast Toronto, near the forks of the Don River. When I ask him if he lives close to the Don Valley, he chuckles and replies, “Am I close to the vally? From where I live, I can go north, east, or west and in each direction I can get to a branch of the river.”
Laraway’s proximity to the Don River system goes a long way to explaining why he volunteers with the Friends of the Don, a non-profit organization that works to protect the Don River through clean-up and education.
“The way a lot of people think about the environment is that if an area is beneath eye level, ‘let’s just dump, dump, dump.'”
Laraway recalls a time a couple of years ago when they found a spring-mounted rocking animal from a children’s playground that someone had dumped in the river. The thing was still attached to a massive concrete base and was so heavy that Toronto’s Metro Works needed a crane to fish it out of the river. While clearly somewhat bemused by how some people can go out of their way to pollute, Laraway also takes the Don clean-up very seriously.
Recalling the time they recovered a leaking 299-gallon oil tank, still two-thirds full of oil, Laraway, his voice full of disbelief, says, “there are companies a person can call, and they will come and take away a tank like that for free and dispose of it properly, And yet, someone chose to take this thing and dump it in the river.”
In addition to helping keep a section of the Don clean, which means maintaining a close and nearly constant watch, Laraway has also spoken at numerous neighbourhood events about the importance of keeping the Don River clean, the key message being that everything that goes into the Don goes directly into Toronto’s water supply.
While the Don River is a key local issue that is important to Laraway, the biggest portion of his years of volunteerism has been with the Ontario Electric Railway Association and the Halton County Radical Railway.
Since the late 1960s, Laraway has been volunteering to help preserve an era of Ontario history which saw a high-speed streetcar running from Guelph to Toronto from about 1915 to 1930. Volunteers at the Halton County Radical Railway work to restore railcars, ranging from cars built in the 1960s to others built over a hundred years ago. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to ensure the restorations are historically accurate. But Laraway sees the time he invests conducting museum tours and restoring railcars as his attempt to preserve something of a disappearing history; something he feels the Canadian government doesn’t take seriously.
“I went to a Heritage Canada conference a few years back and a couple of bureaucrats actually made the claim that architecture is not built heritage. When we called them on it and asked them to justify their comments, after some mumbling and backpedaling, they said that they would have to study the issue in committee.”
During a lull in our conversation, I ask Laraway what other organizations he has worked with. His answer comes in the form of a riddle.
“Do you know what is on the back of the Canadian dime?” he asks.
“Sure, it’s the ship, the Bluenose,” I reply.
“That’s right, but in 2001, a different design was used for the back. Find out what that design represents and you’ll have another charity that I’ve been active with.”
He sits back and smiles, and I soon realize that no amount of prodding will get him to reveal his secret.
As it turns out, the design on the back of the 2001 dime commemorates the Year of the Volunteer. The image is a profile of three women, symbolizing the “Marching Mothers” who would go door-to-door in the 1950s to solicit donations to fight polio in a March of Dimes campaign. Today, the March of Dimes still works to provide services like wheelchair repair and counselling for people with all forms of physical disabilities.
Near the end of our conversation, Laraway pulls something from his jacket pocket, He holds out his hand, revealing a lapel pin with the number thirty and a gemstone set in it. It’s the trillium pin from the Ontario government, he explains. He received it at an awards dinner last December in honour of his 30-plus years of volunteerism. I ask him how he felt that night, and he replies, “after doing this stuff for so many years, really, it was just a night out.”
For Laraway, it’s the “doing” — commitment of time and effort — that is important, not the recognition. In fact, the time he has volunteered doesn’t compare to the immeasurable impact of his work.
In addition to the Friends of the Don, the Halton County Radial Railway, and the March of Dimes, Laraway has also been involved with the Ontario Heritage Foundation and the Tool Group of Canada (dedicated to preserving old and unique tools).
I ask him how he finds the time to do all of these things.
“People consider themselves bored, with nothing to do,” he says, as if he’s trying to understand how anyone could feel this way.
For Laraway, finding time to volunteer for organizations he feels passionately about is not an issue – it’s a way of life.