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Catching up with Norm Jary: a familiar voice of leadership for generations of Guelphites

In this Following Up feature we visit with Norm Jary and look back at his 40-year career in broadcasting and his memories as Guelph’s longest-running mayor

Guelph’s longest running mayor and city councillor, Norm Jary, met a lot of politicians during his 37-year career in public office and he has some sage advice about what to look for in a candidate.

“Quite a few people used to ask me over the years, who should they vote for,” Jary recalled. “Well, don’t necessarily vote for somebody I say to vote for, but I always like to check into their background. How does that person treat their wife or their girlfriend and their kids and family because, if they treat them properly, then they are probably going to be pretty good in politics too.”

It’s a standard he held for himself.

“I always put family first,” he said. “I credit my wife Jean with a lot of my success because of her love and support. It makes a big difference to know there is always someone there that is on your side.”

They were married for 64 years and had four children together, but his love for Jean began the instant he first laid eyes on her.

“I walked into this room in the basement of a church one day and I saw her,” he said. “That was it. There is such a thing as love at first sight.”

Jary wasn’t going to let inexperience and a few years difference stand in the way of destiny.

“It presented a bit of a problem at the time because she was three years older than I was,” he said. “I was only 15. I was just a kid yet. We went together for seven years until I grew up. Then we got married. I always wanted to prove I was worthy of her so, I always wanted to be as successful as I could.”

Jary loved to read and write and had a keen interest in news and politics. He was also blessed with a voice for radio and a talent for public speaking, which helped him to graduate with honours from Ryerson’s Academy of Radio and Television Arts.

“I wanted to do something that involved the people.,” he said. “I always enjoyed public speaking and writing and like to keep people properly informed as to what is going on.”

In 1951 he and Jean moved from Toronto to Stratford where Jary got a job with CJCS Radio. It is there that he began a life-long friendship with another legend of Canadian broadcasting.

“That’s where I met Lloyd Robertson and I helped him get started,” said Jary. “I gave up a couple shows I was doing at the time so he could do them.”

Jary keeps a hard-cover copy of Robertson’s autobiography on his nightstand and recalled a chapter in the book where Robertson asked him for some career advice.

“I recommended he go to CJOY in Guelph because a lot of well-known people at that time had gone through CJOY,” said Jary. “So, he went to CJOY and got the job and later on when they were looking for a sportscaster he told them to try to get a hold of Norm Jary from Stratford, which they did.”

Jary would spend the next 40 years at CJOY and retired as the news and sports director in 1994. His iconic voice remains familiar to generations of Guelphites.

“As soon as I talk people say, 'oh, I remember you from the hockey broadcasts, the newscasts or something,'” he said. “Of course, I did a Friday afternoon school broadcast that was piped into a lot of the Guelph schools.”

Jary provided the play-by-play for the Guelph Biltmores for many years and even did some television work for the New York Rangers. He was the announcer during an historic NHL game in 1966 at Chicago Stadium when Bobby Hull scored his 51st goal breaking Rocket Richard’s record of 50 goals.

His entrance into politics began with two unsuccessful runs as the Progressive Conservative candidate in Guelph. He had better luck when he threw his hat in the municipal ring and in 1963 was elected alderman. In June 1970 mayor Ralph Smith resigned and Jary took over as interim mayor. He was officially elected mayor seven months later and was repeatedly re-elected – a couple times uncontested – until 1985 when he chose to run instead as councillor for Ward 3. He was elected and re-elected as Ward 3 councillor until his retirement from politics in 2000.

His 15-year term as mayor was eventful and he hosted visits by many powerful people including Prime Ministers Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark and John Turner, governor generals, lieutenant governors, Princess Anne, the Shah of Iran and the premier of China to name just a few.

Not all of the city guest were politicians and Jary recalled meeting Colonel Sanders and greeting Terry Fox in 1980 during his famous Marathon of Hope run across Canada

Jary and his wife Jean were very active in the community and often hosted or attended as many as 12 events per week, but Jary’s work as mayor wasn’t all galas and celebrity visits and he is credited for making big changes to the way city council operated and ushering in what came to be known as the Civic Revolution

“I encouraged people to come and speak to the council about their beefs or their suggestions and so on,” he said.

That effort earned him accolades from the press and he keeps a printout of two editorials from the Guelph Mercury where he is praised for, “promoting honesty, fairness, approachability and impartiality” and “as a public speaker he has no peers in municipal government in Canada’

Jary remained active in the community after his retirement through a number of charitable causes

He became honorary chair for the Multiple Sclerosis Super Cities Walk, a disease that claimed the life of his daughter Sandra in 2006.

He also hosted the The Norm Jary–ARC Industries Golf Tournament, a fundraiser for Guelph-Wellington Community Living that raised nearly $1 million over 42 years.

He has received several awards over the years and one of his biggest honours came in 2000 with the dedication of Norm Jary Park.

“I am very proud because it is something permanent.,” he said. “If I ask, who was the mayor 25 years ago? Nobody could tell you. But the park, hundreds of people use it all the time.”

Jean remained his biggest supporter until she passed away in 2015 and Jary now lives at The Village of Riverside Glen retirement centre where he looks forward to visits from his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren

“I have a nice little patio that I can sit out on in the sunshine,” he said. “Part of my life now is looking at the birds. I have five feeders on one pole there. I’m over 90 but I still drive my car.”

He lifts weights and walks up to 10,000 steps a day and keeps his brain healthy by reading and doing sports and health searches online. He also follows the news and has some observations about the modern political climate.

“It seems more divisive today than it was,” he said. “I’m not talking about Guelph. I’m talking about politics in general. Maybe the people we elected back then were partly responsible for the lack of polarisation. We didn’t want it ourselves so we didn’t foster it but now a days it seems to be the politics of personal attack, which I don’t happen to like.”