Retiring Ron Austen reflects on Cowichan's parks, rec and culture sector
Memories of mud wrestling, KGB agents, naming the Cowichan Capitals, and seeing Dizzy Gillespie will fill Ron Austen’s head when he retires Tuesday.
After 35-plus years as Cowichan’s point man for parks, recreation, and culture, Austen calls it quits Jan. 28 to travel, read, spend time with his far-flung family — and maybe return to his trombone.
“It’s a tough decision if you think responsibly and decide what’s best for yourself, the organization and especially your family,” said Austen.
“Those were the criteria I used — in no particular order.”
A major factor was realizing he’d finished tying five divisions of the Cowichan Valley Regional District into a new Parks, Recreation and Culture Department.
It will be run by his replacement, now being sought.
His 2008 mission saw Austen (who joined the CVRD in September 1979) amalgamate the Island Savings Centre, Cowichan’s arts-and-culture division, parks and trails, plus Cowichan Lake and South Cowichan’s recreation divisions, into one well-oiled department.
“It’s a realistic way to maintain services when budgets are being cut.”
Affable Austen was clearly happy with his departmental quintet boasting nearly 300 full-time, part-time and volunteer staffers, under a $27.1-million budget.
“I’m proud if being a servant to the community, and promoting good, healthy things,” he said.
“No one’s ever forced to go into a community centre, take a walk on a trail, or go into a theatre.
“The department and all the decisions are well-meshed, and that challenge has been fulfilled.
“For me to go to the next stage and do maintenance — I’m just not into that,” said Austen, who turned 65 in July.
The workhorse’s second reason for retiring was quality home time.
“My family had to put up with a lot from me over the years; my hours are all over the place, like being a photographer or a reporter,” he told the News Leader Pictorial.
He and wife, Holly, are stoked about visiting grandchild two due this spring Down Under.
“Our daughter, Emily (husband Mick), lives in Perth, and it seemed like an opportune time to have an extended visit in the spring and be around for the birth of our your second grandchild.”
That newborn will join sister Elle, 3, in the land of Oz, a place Austen and Holly have never been.
The Austens’ eldest son, Nigel, is principal of a Canadian-owned school in Dalian, northeast China. Their youngest, Tyrone, is a health-information scientist living in Calgary.
Austen aims to reach all compass points.
“We’ll plot it out one at time, and go with the flow. We’ll start keying in where our kids are living,” he said, noting Australia will mark the 30th country he’s travelled to.
“I’ve had a lifelong wanderlust, and Holly does too.”
The next chapter in Austen’s life involves more books.
“I’m a great reader with a whole shelf of books I’d like to crack,” said the former Penticton high school horn player.
“I’ve had my trombone buried in a closet for years, and want to build my embrasure back up, and maybe join a community band.”
But he’ll take measured steps back to his mouthpiece.
“Basically, I’ll take some time off to refocus on what’s important for me and my family before taking requests to join societies, groups, and boards of directors.
“I’d probably like to ease back into volunteering, schlepping work, rather than director’s work; I spent 40 years managing organizations.”
His golden years will likely see self-deprecating Austen employ the same work ethic as in his working life.
“I like to work hard by being more of a plodder than a race horse,” he said. “I work from the bottom up, not from top down.
“It’s been a lot more fun gathering momentum rather than pressuring people into doing things they’re not comfortable doing.”
Austen was most satisfied seeing Cowichanians using their facilities.
“The thing is having bums in seats, buildings full, and getting a good cross-section of programs and activities that are handicapped accessible, to people of limited means.”
He cheered CVRD division managers, and his boss, Warren Jones.
Meanwhile, Austen was satisfied saying he always enjoyed his job.
“It may sound corny, but I look forward to whistling to work everyday.
“I’ve been blessed with having the best job in the world; I’m a pretty lucky guy.”
Anecdotes from an active career
Naming the Capitals: “I’d left Oak Bay (parks and rec) and moved to Cowichan in 1979 when the B.C. Junior Hockey League created a new franchise called the Victoria Capitals. Before the owners signed a new lease for Esquimalt Arena, I signed them up for Cowichan Arena. They already had their jerseys and name, so they went overnight from the Victoria Capitals to the Cowichan Capitals.”
Canucks in Cowichan: “The Vancouver Canucks were in Victoria training camps. I went to Vancouver, and invited them to Cowichan. They brought the Canucks over for four seasons under Pat Quinn. It polluted the bleachers and dressing rooms on arena’s west side from guys smoking those big stogies.”
The Great No One: “The L.A. Kings had an exhibition game in Cowichan after Gretzky had just joined. We had a sell-out, but Gretzky wasn’t even in town.”
Acrobatic Antics: “Trapeze artists were also riggers who would shinny up metal posts and race across the ceiling beam without any harnesses.”
Motocross Mayhem: “The arena sold out really well but, the arena air was literally blue with all that smoke; it literally gassed out patrons.”
Dirty Reporting: “Graham Morton was assigned to cover the Chicago Knockers female mud-wrestlers in the theatre. We filled the place. The public was invited to wrestle these ladies and Morton was coerced to take part; he got beat up, and darn-near drowned in the mud.”
Theatre Picks: “We had lots of performers on their way up: k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Nickleback, Roy Forbes (Bim), David Foster. My favourites were Dizzie Gillespie, Moe Kaufman, and Anton Kuerti. Herb Doman was a real Wilf Carter fan, and was instrumental in signing him for the theatre.”
Moscowichan: “Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet had six or so KGB guards everywhere backstage. We dodged those guards who asked staff to go and buy a couple of buckets of KFC.”
Talk Ain’t Cheap: Andean group Sukai’s female singer was hopelessly in love with her boyfriend back in South America. She talked all night to him. Our phone bill was hundreds of dollars but their management eventually paid up.
Airshed Action: The 2004 Clean Air Concert, with Neil Young, The Barenaked Ladies, Randy and Tal Bachman. “I give lots of credit to Tracy Hamilton who worked with Randy putting it together. It was huge act for our centre, and our community.”
Big Stick: “I credit Dick Drew, Len Goodman and other neat people in the community — Dick was the driving force who talked to the right people, then had it barged over.”