Instead of counting down the days to retirement, Dave Thomson ticks off the check marks in his favour through a varied career as a teacher and principal.
Yesterday (Jan. 31) was his last day at Oak Bay High after serving as the principal for nearly 15 years.
“From the very beginning of his career as a teacher in 1974, Dave devoted a great deal of time to coaching and supporting student activities,” says Piet Langstraat, superintendent of schools. “For the past 15 years Dave has been extremely dedicated to Oak Bay High School, and he has always put the needs of the school before himself.”
Thomson is seen as a leader among his administrator peers with an impact felt across the Greater Victoria School District, well beyond the Oak Bay High walls, Langstraat says.
“He has been instrumental in bringing the dream and visions of what a new Oak Bay High School could be to reality … and he continues to do this to this day,” Langstraat says. “Dave has an incredible heart for students and it has been evident throughout his career.”
In a system where principals routinely shift venues, Thomson credits the board with letting him finish out his career in Oak Bay.
“It’s been an amazing opportunity and what a great ride.”
Thomson started as a teacher in Abbotsford, but played for the Shamrocks lacrosse club that worked to score him an interview in Victoria. Originally slated to start at Lansdowne, Thomson wound up working at Arbutus the fall of 1974.
“If I’m not at Arbutus I don’t get to be Steve Nash’s coach. (That’s) lucky charm number what?” Thomson says.
He calls it serendipitous, his connection with several high-profile professional athletes from Greater Victoria.
While coaching his son in baseball, Thomson took a leadership role with now major league baseball player Michael Saunders.
His years coaching also included leading youngsters who would later work with him, including current Oak Bay teachers Rich Fast and Brent Garraway.
“I’ve got bunch of people here I taught either at Arbutus (like Fast) or Oak Bay (like Garraway),” he says. “It’s all about the good fortune that comes our way.”
Until today, Thomson was the only principal Oak Bay High teacher Garraway worked for – and credits with his “amazing job.”
“He has assisted the development of the four pillars of Oak Bay that have enabled students to excel academically, athletically, in the arts, and through a multitude of humanitarian opportunities,” says Garraway, who also played basketball for Thomson back in 1993. “I feel that students are celebrated for whatever their strengths may be at Oak Bay. This is the culture that Dave has played a massive role in creating. Students are more than just students here. They are part of Oak Bay Nation. Dave has fostered the growth of this identity, and for that I can’t thank him enough.”
Fast was part of the only team that won a provincial title under Thomson’s leadership.
“It was his only national championship, even the year Nash played they didn’t win,” Fast says.
Thomson also gave him his first job. “He invests. It’s not fake … he wants to put people in the right positions,” Fast says.
Thomson recommended Fast for his first job teaching PE and First Nations studies in Ucluelet before hiring him south again at Central.
“He hired my wife 1998, he hired me in 1999. Four years later we got married and five years later we had our first child,” Fast says.
Thomson served as their wedding MC.
“He was one of the first people I invited. I owe him my life,” Fast says.
“I grew up without a dad after I was seven, so he filled that role for me when I was a troubled teenager. He provides a lot of leadership and guidance and support,” Fast says, adding they don’t always see eye to eye. “When I’ve had problems or there’s issues, I turn to him and there’s unwavering support.”
Finding the Oak Bay niche
In September 1974, Thompson started at Arbutus Junior Secondary where he also served as the vice-principal of Summer School for three summers. After 18 years at Arbutus, he became acting vice-principal at Oak Bay in the fall of 1992, working six years alongside then principal Doug Shaw.
Thomson moved to Spectrum as a vice-principal for fall of 1997, shifting that summer to principal of Central Junior Secondary. He moved to Lansdowne as principal in February 2002, knowing he would be transferred – when Shaw retired later that year – to Oak Bay.
Most administrators stay five to seven years, Thomson says, but then there was talk of upgrades to Oak Bay High and on and off planning. Then plans started enter the realm of reality.
“The project ended up needing more money than comes in a formula (from the government) and the community wanted it and got behind it. You’re not guaranteed that when you step in. There’s lucky check mark No. 43,” he says. “Everybody worked on how it could happen. This school is a very important part of the fabric of the community.”
The building became a way to give back to the amazing staff, students and community that helped him overcome major illness and afforded opportunities along the way.
“It was kind of the way I could repay those folks providing me the energy and care,” Thomson says. “I’m never going to forget what they gave me. They gave me my life back.”
He even feels lucky about that 2010 heart attack. Lucky to be in a place like Victoria, have medical staff he connected with personally at a top cardiac care centre blocks away.
“I was fortunate enough to get the David Letterman treatment,” Thomson says. “I got healthy again because of the staff and students, their energies and caring … I was motivated by all that.”
The road to a new school
Fast is among those who credit Thomson with sticking to the new school project. Open in September 2015, the building features a state-of-the-art theatre and competition gym. A social staircase, made with wood sourced from the old school building, aims to build community in an airy central location adjacent to world-class studios for the performers of the student body.
Thomson says everyone engaged in the process with an eye on the prize. Collectively they shot for not just what was doable, but what was best. In a project so large, it’s impossible to list everyone, when you have teacher Steve Price tackling theatre management and years of vice-principals like Garrett Brisdon bearing additional day-to-day work, while fundraising in the off time.
Outside the building, the municipality leaped on board from ‘go.’
“Christopher Causton, he dove in and when he retired as mayor and Nils (Jensen) stepped in, that didn’t change,” Thomson says.
The municipality ponied up $1 million for the Dave Dunnet Community Theatre alongside the ongoing support by alumni.
“Oak Bay High School and the municipality have a long history of working well together, and never has this been truer than when the school was under Dave’s leadership. I was fortunate to be mayor when the planning started for the new Oak Bay High School,” says Causton. “It was Dave who was terrier-like in his determination that not only was this going to be the best school for his students, but that we also had an opportunity to create something very special for the community. I loved working with him as he was eternally optimistic, with a never -say-die attitude.
“I was also privileged to be invited to each year’s convocation and was witness to how much this man was loved by his students,” Causton says.
Service clubs pitched in, and continue to outfit the school with additional equipment. Bays United soccer partnered to make a turf field feasible. The state-of-the-art building is his tangible legacy, inside lies the true legacy.
“That’s the crowning achievement people can see. For me the crowing achievement isn’t the school, it’s kids, it’s grad rates … it’s what happens inside and around it,” Thomson says. “Our kids are successful and they achieve as Oak Bay graduates have historically. I don’t worry about our world when I think about our kids here.”
He’s enjoyed 14-plus years of high-calibre entertainment – basketball games and volleyball matches, musical theatre, music ensembles and choral presentations, talent shows and dance recitals. “I gotta figure out how I can keep getting that without being a pain in the butt.”
Inside the building is a staff of “over the top” educators with passion and ideas on how to make learning better for students; how to build a place “where they find one of our four pillars meets a need.”
Thomson feels they’ve built a place, and attitude, where kids want to be. “I leave the place with an amazing staff and leadership,” he says.
Today Oak Bay High graduate Randi Falls takes the helm.
Today, Thomson starts retirement.
“It’s a sense of wonder and questioning as you step through the stages of your life. You don’t know what it looks like … I don’t know what I don’t know and that’s the stuff that bites ya,” he says. “You also reflect on how lucky you’ve been.”
Finding the silver lining in retirement
Dave Thomson feels blessed to share a workspace with his wife for more than 14 years.
Twyla retired a couple weeks ahead, leaving him to his “mistress” Oak Bay High – a longstanding joke between the couple. She understood what he faced each day, what he was up to late at night when not at home.
“She says it’s OK because I go home every night to her,” Thomson says with a chuckle.
The pair became grandparents two years ago. Where some might see a dark cloud looming when their son and daughter-in-law applied for placement with the RCMP in Iqaluit, Thomson’s working out the silver lining.
Perhaps visiting somewhere he never thought he’d go, or more likely, meet ups in a warmer climate.
He plays a little golf and hopes to do some more of that during retirement, but is truly playing it by ear.
“I don’t know how I react to every day being a weekend.”