You either grasp this title or you don’t! I was so inspired by a very special weekend that I had to write a very self-indulgent blog and without attempting some cryptic messaging, the “YRHS” is the Yorkton Regional High School in Yorkton, Saskatchewan Canada. The school opened in 1966 but as the first graduation class was 1967, so this year is “The Regional’s” 50th, so why not have a birthday party? Of course, it had to happen at my busiest time of year so even though I had a speech in Calgary on Friday and a trip to Northern Alberta Monday, I decided on a 2,200 km road trip to attend this event and am I ever glad I did. By the way, I didn’t just decide on Thursday. I was informed about the event last Fall (2016) because I am humbled to be on the YRHS “Wall of Fame” and thus, asked if I’d like to be one of a select number of special guest speakers. How could I turn that down? So, even though I could have had a paid gig, I knew this was much more important but not so “I could grace the crowd with my presence”, but to acknowledge the “huge” role my high school played in my life. Clearly, I’m not the only one.
Over 600 people showed up for a banquet and dance in the biggest venue in Yorkton, The Gallagher Center, named after one of Yorkton’s big whigs. My favourite part of the weekend wasn’t the gala, it was actually the school tour. I attended YRHS from 1975 to 1978, when I graduated. Considering the place opened in 1966, you’d think the place would be completely different and updated, or worse, run down and aging, like so many of its graduates! It was incredible. It was like a museum display. Nothing had changed! It was pristine. Even the floors installed fifty years ago looked brand new. They had also installed wooden benches permantly along the walls of some of the walkways between wings. I found one I used to sit on close to my locker (it was identical too) and commented to our tour guide it looked exactly the same. He replied, “Because it is!” Wow! By the way, our tour guide was Dennis Nesseth, who is also one of the vice principals for the school. I was in shock that this was the same bench and all that had been done was new paint so I asked Mr. Nesseth how its even possible for it to be in such great condition. His answer said it all; “School pride has an amazing ability to police itself!” Cool. Dennis added that if we hadn’t noticed, the lockers had no graffiti, no carving on desks and no holes in walls or doors. Incredible.
So I walked around with 25 others from various years and Noreen and Barb from my grad class and just kept saying “Wow!” Obviously, I am biased but I need to state this right here. For 36 years, I have spoken at schools around the planet. The bulk have been in North America and the pace may seem “made up”to brag, but I never lie or embellish. I have spoken in over 5,000 schools in my career and counting. I haven’t seen very many over 50 years old as pristine as the YRHS and while the custodial staff all deserve medals, it is the students and staff who make this possible. The school’s motto since 1967 has been “Pursuit of Excellence!”, and while all schools have mottos, the YRHS should be the poster child for what it can actually mean. So that’s what I wanted to speak about in my 5 minute talk. But my plan was altered and not by me! Let’s just say that there were several guest speakers including one from the first graduation class in 1967 who stretched his five minutes to thirty five and another went thirty. My point is not to be critical of the other speakers. I’m a professional so I have learned, the hard way, how to respect the clock. My point is I wanted to use this space to say what I wanted to say on Saturday night.
“The Pusuit of Excellence is not very original. When you Google it, a 1980 book by Terry Orlick comes up along with a hockey school and various iterations. In 1966, there was no Google and the expression then was also not the first use of it. But the Yorkton School Board decided such an Excellent school needed and Excellent motto. It is a bit of a cliche but I have made an incredible living in the world of cliches. But let’s not get too deep here, the dance awaits. I think we all know a cliche doesn’t work without action. And let’s also be blunt, not everyone who attended our beloved Regional pursued excellence. But I truly believe the clear majority of the thousands of students who passed through its hallways respected it. It was actually a “feeling” and it was palpable. I felt it today as we toured the school thanks to Vice Principal Dennis Nesseth. Sure, today was emtotional reminiscing and you tend to forget the bad stuff. But for me, “Excellence” at the Regional was exhibited by something very personal for me. I belonged! Let’s please remember that while most of you here kinda know me, I was still the first armless student in the history of the Yorkton schools at the time. Remember the school for the handicapped? I was supposed to go there in 1966 but because of my beloved parent’s Pursuit of their own Excellence for me, I went to St. Al’s, then Dr. Brass and St Joe’s Junior High’s then in 1975, the Regional. It wasn’t always a smooth ride in Junior High but who can’t relate to that, huh? I even see a couple of my old bullies in the room tonight. You know who you are! Seriously, we’ve moved on guys, haven’t we? Even with the bumps in the road, there was never a day I didn’t want to go to school. I loved the place. Today I missed the place but when Noreen and Barb and I were in the music wing, it really hit. Band room, Choir room, even the Anne Portnuff Theatre stage, all brought back thick memories. But here’s what shocked me. I felt a powerful surge of emotion in the practice rooms down the back hallway behind the theatre stage. Seiously? The Practice Rooms? What’s with that? So, I’m not starting my seminar now, okay? But listen up, okay? Excellence needs to be a habit, not a cliche. It needs focus, dedication, persistence and most important…Practice! I have lived those words but tonight’s not about me, is it? Okay, it’s a bit about me, that’s why I’m up here and you aren’t! Okay, I have one “me” story.
On May 14, 2016, I experienced the most surreal day of my entire life. Like all of us here, we can pick out the really amazing days of our lives and I’ve been so blessed to have a ton, but that day was one I could never, ever have seen coming. It happened at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London England. That’s, of course where the Beatles recorded, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and on and on. It also where the famous crosswalk is from the Beatles Abbey Road Album. Indeed, got a photo on that crosswalk too. I wasn’t there on a tour. Turns out you can only go into Abbey Road Studios is if you are recording there. That’s what I was doing there. Actually, that’s what “We” were doing there. Yes, my amazing wife and business partner, Darlene, was there but the “We” I mean is “The Superhuman Band”! Perhaps you’ve heard I was asked to play drums along with a dozen other musicians often described as “handicapped” in a music video promoting the 2016 Paralympics in Rio for the official British Television carrier of the games, Channel 4. Well, you may know how I feel about being called “handicapped” but that’s not my point.
The band was comprised of musicians from all over the world. Our lead singer was from Australia, a piano player from Brazil, and others from everywhere. Darlene asked me what it felt like to not be the only amazing gimp in the room! But this was my favourite part that day. I had two technicians helping adjust my very high end drum set and microphones. I told them I needed a music stand. They both gave me a funny look. One guy said, “You can read drum music?” To which I responded, “Yes”. To which he replied, “Where’d you learn to do that?” To which I replied, “Yorkton, Saskatchewan in Canada”. To which he replied, “Who taught you?” To which I replied, “My drum teacher, Eric Nikiforoff. He taught me that if I want to be taken seriously as a drummer, I need to read music!” To which he replied, “Ringo would be jealous!” Ringo Starr would be jealous of me? Never thought I’d have that thought! As we began laying down the drum track, and yes, that’s “my” drumming on the soundtrack of the video, my thoughts flashed back to my basement at home on the corner of 5th and Henderson. I’d play my drums for hours, even putting on Canadian Tire flood lights to pretend I was on stage in front of screaming fans. Of course, many of you know I didn’t play drums in school band, although I did compete on snare drum and play in percussion ensembles at the music festival here in town. I played trombone, of course. That wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for people like Blaine McClary and Cindy Burham, my band directors. But this isn’t about band, trombone or drums. This is about what the culture of excellence has meant to countless students who passed through the doors of the Yorkton Regional High School and why we are here tonight. Happy Birhday YRHS! We can’t get you a gift, although new seats in the Portnuff Theatre will be nice. All we can say is “Thanks for all you did for so many of us who will be indebted to you forever! Cheers!”
For any of you wondering why I didn’t just give this speech. Well, it wasn’t written down and the way things played out, I just decided to make fun of the long winded ones and get off the stage deferring to those who followed my slot. Besides, and I truly meant it. The evening wasn’t about me but about the school that would influence the success in my life that is on display every day of my life.
“The Pursuit of Excellence”…what a great roadmap for life!