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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Tom Weekes retires after making a difference at Cowley Co-op for 46 years

Tom Weekes retirement BBQ on Railway Avenue in Cowley
Photos: T. Lucas, C. Davis, G. Smith, KBPV archives, unknown

Chris Davis - Cowley's population approximately tripled on Wednesday August 31 when over 500 people attended a barbeque celebrating Cowley Co-op Manager Tom Weekes on the occasion of his retirement after 46 years of service at the store.



The original supplies donated by Co-op ran out early so Cowley's Back Country Butchering donated more burgers and buns. In addition Simply Catering donated coleslaw, plates, utensils, and condiments, Harvey Bougerolle donated propane.  Volunteer musicians included yours truly, Noel Burles, Bob "O'Bie" O'Brien, Pat Case, and John Stocorch.  The Village of Cowley mowed the grassy area across the street from the Co-op and organized picnic tables.  CTV Lethbridge's Terry Vogt came out.  All donations gathered at the free event went towards the Cowley Playground.

"This was fantastic, it was beyond my wildest dreams," Tom told me during a lull after the event.  "To see all these people come...  realize how many lives I've touched, and they touched my life... "


"They are such a big part of this, all," he said, extending his arms to accompany the Co-op across the street, the sky, the village itself.  "You just feel like such a part of it all, a part of this community. They are the important ones, not me." He talked about the Cowley Lions crest, which reads 'We Serve'.  "That's what we have been raised up to do, we serve. Somebody needs something, you do your best to help them, whatever it is."


Disclosure:  Tom was my first boss when I moved to "this part of the country", as he so often refers to it.  I believe that generalization in part stems from the broad geographic area actually served by the Cowley Co-op.   As a delivery driver at the time, about a decade ago, I might find myself way up Highway 22 by the Waldron(d) Ranch, at the edge of the Alberta/British Columbia border, in Willow Valley (a prime contender for the windiest place on Earth), filling in for the Pincher Creek store from here to Waterton south and from here to Fort Macleod to the east, or in the Beaver Mines and Burmis areas to the west.  Lots of customers in the Porcupines, and lots of customers shopping over the border from BC because of our lower taxes in Alberta, with Cowley Co-op often their first and/or last stop.

I was 4 when Tom became an official Cowley Co-op employee, but some of the older folks remember Tommy hanging around the store and helping out long before then.  He denies it.

Cowley sunset - C. Davis file photo


Tom was the best boss ever.

Back then he really had no fixed idea of what he might do come retirement time.  That hasn't changed much.  "I don't have any other work or career plans, but I intend on being a regular pest. I want to do some things I haven't had the time to do for the past 20 years."  That includes visiting with family and friends, and fishing.

 "I'll be around, I gotta come for coffee."

Cowley Co-op makes mighty fine coffee by the way, and they just give it away, every day.

Cowley Co-op circa 2000 - C. Davis photo
Tom saved the obituaries displayed on the store's main door, going back to the 1970s.   "It may seem morbid, but it was out of respect, keeping them."



Tom was in it for the long run throughout his long run.

Talking about the view through the front window of the Cowley Co-op, Tom said "You look out the window to the north here and boy, oh boy, it just doesn't get any better than that."

The view is grand, but it's all about the people for Tom.

"Everyone asks why I stayed here so long. It was mostly the people. Everybody came, supposedly, because it's my retirement. But it's everybody coming together as a community. It's all those people. Johnny Driesen right there, he lives in Innisfail. I used to work for John (Sr.) and Jenny Driesen." He said he worked on their ranch with their daughter Sandra out at Massacre Butte, which is just north of Cowley. "What a place for a kid to grow up. It was a great place for a kid to grow up. We picked square bales, by hand. I worked there on weekends, and summers there until I was about fifteen."  At 15 he decided to opt for more financially rewarding and steady employment at Johnson Brothers Sawmill, Cowley's biggest employer at the time. "Good Lord, piling lumber. What a job. I thought I was going to die in the heat, but what an education."

"Then I worked for Jim McKay."

When I worked for Tom he often spoke of Jim McKay, who was mentor and role model to him, to some degree.  Six years ago when I interviewed Tom for the Echo after he received his 40 year commendation from Pincher Creek Co-op he made sure McKay was part of that story too.  "Jim started in the farm machinery department (located where the Source store is now) after the war, and eventually moved to the Cowley store. I worked for him until 1984, when he retired, and then I took over as manager."

Tom worked part time in the 1960s for Co-op and started full time in 1970. "The highways were full of people, walking. They wanted to see Canada, see the world. It was the peace movement. The highways were just full of people hitchhiking. And they were getting picked up. Now, you don't stop for hitchhikers, but in those days, you just hit the road, and whatever happened, happened."

At that time the staff was Jim, Tom, and Andy Dumont did deliveries. In the '70s the team was joined by Gina Melvain. "I'm telling you Chris, you would have just loved that man (Jim McKay). He was wonderful, and so smart. We had a small yard then. We didn't sell lumber in those days, Johnson Brothers was in town." The store's focus was hardware and serving the community. "We had gas pumps on this front sidewalk here, in front of the store. The tanks were underneath, and we had another tank dug in by the fence. When I started they had one of those old gas pumps that had the glass thing that went up above it. I never pumped gas out of there, but a few years before they did, because I remember it being used." It was donated to the Gatto Brothers who had a museum in Bellevue. "We sold quite a bit of gas, at the time UFA was supplying all our gas, and all our oils." Tom took over managing after Jim retired circa 1984. "He passed away in '91, or 92."

Although offers came his way to move up in the Co-op organization, and therefore away from Cowley, "I never wanted to go farther up the ladder. I felt I was at a comfortable spot where I got to meet and talk with everybody, see all my friends, and it is all about your community. They are a part of you, you are a part of them. The employees, I have worked with some wonderful people for the most part."

"The people are the best part of the job."

He admitted the paperwork and doing inventory were some of the things he liked least about the position. In an odd twist for me, the first time I saw Cowley Co-op was as part of the inventory team doing our sweep of southwestern Alberta. I didn't realize that until my old bosses showed up there one day with their crew.  I can attest to inventory being no fun, particularly in the winter months with a yard full of lumber.
Young Tom
"Tom Weekes IS history" - KBPV Curator Farley S. Wuth
above and below photos courtesy Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village archives from the Pincher Creek Co-op photo collection

Manager Tom
"Retired" Tom with Jake
T. Lucas photo
Apparently Cowley Co-op continues to be a viable business. After being much quieter in the "old days" things picked up in the '70s and '90s, with an influx of people into the area and expansions of the store's size.  Cowley is now a central location for the kind of business Cowley Co-op does, serving the surrounding general population, ranching industry, and construction industry.  "Its been really good. There have been good times, some really tough times with different people, and the economy doesn't always stay level or grow. We have had some booms, and busts, and some of them were a little bit tough at times. It's always about the money..."

(Gerry Smith photo)
His replacement in the position of Manager has not been announced. "Our department is doing very well, we are at about 17% over last year's sales which were up from the year before, and you know how that goes... We do big business, considering we have three and a half employees. The work they do, is truly amazing."

Cowley Co-op crew circa 2016: Shannon Culham, Tom Weekes, Rose Lang, Ataya Zeller, Jake, and Reba (T. Lucas photo)

Co-op originally had a meat locker in what is currently the Cowley Apartment building. "That would have been n the '50s. Then they had a grocery store there." Under General Manager Bob Nishikawa they built a grocery store which is now Back Country Butcher Shop. "It is really a shame it didn't survive, because today it would survive, but it's tough in a small place."  We've had conversations about the issue in the past.  If the consumers of a small area don't buy their milk at their local grocery store, the milk goes bad and they stop ordering milk.  Ditto bread, etc.  Eventually, that drive to a store "in town" isn't a choice anymore, it's a necessity, because the store in the village is gone.

These days Cowley Co-op faces the relatively sedate Railway Avenue, and across the street is a green space, railway tracks, with ranch land and the Porcupine Hills off to the north.  At one time the view through the front window was quite different.  "This originally, before my time, was Highway 3.  Highway 3 came down out of the Southfork, and it came right through town here."

"Dad was a school teacher. I was born in North Edmonton and he taught there in Whitecourt, Sangudo, Rochford Bridge. We moved to Lundbreck, I think I was about four, and we lived there for a year. Then we moved to Cowley."

"There were no kids in town, not too many."  Since then he's seen Cowley transform into a much more multi-generational community.

 His father taught in Cowley, Lundbreck, Pincher Creek, Pincher Colony and Springpoint Colony. "My mom was a Dutch war bride. They got married in 1946 and she came here. My dad was born in a place called Pakan near Fort Victoria is on the North Saskatchewan. Supposedly, my dad and his four brothers lived in a tent for the first seven years of their lives. Talk about true Albertans!" Tom has a brother in Coalhurst and a sister in Vernon.

Tom attended grade one and part of grade two in Cowley at a one room elementary school house that was later moved to 3rd Street to become half of the now-closed restaurant there.  His Cowley teacher was Selma Tustian.  He then attended school in Lundbreck. I asked him if he played basketball there because Sabres.  Turns out, he did. "We were the first Boys team to win the Provincial Championship in 1969-70." He remembered two of his basketball Coaches, Phil Nemeth from Oberlin Kansas and Gary Poulson, from north of Cowley. "We didn't quite make it to the Provincials the first year, we got beat out by Stirling in the final. The next year with Gary Poulson we went all the way."

Tom also served for approximately 10 years as Cowley Fire Chief.  He and his neighbours used to build and maintain a hockey rink west of town. He helped coach hockey in Pincher Creek for around ten years, and can still frequently be spotted catching a game at the MCC arena in town.

Tom married Lorna in 1988.  They have two children, Jennifer and Michael.  In 1992, with the children still little, they moved to Pincher Creek.

Rose Lang has been behind the counter at Cowley Co-op for over a decade, working at Tom's side. "It has always been a pleasure," she said. "He's consistent, and he will always support you, he always had your back. Right or wrong, he always had your back. You can't beat a boss like that."

One person really can make a difference.

I visited the Cowley Co-op on Tuesday morning September 6 to see how the place was getting along without Tom.  That fact-finding (coffee-mooching) attempt was foiled when he walked through the door in his Co-op uniform, midway through inventory,  helping customers in his path and in his wake.

Apparently you can't take the Co-op out of the man, or the man out of the Co-op.

Some traveled a long distance to be here for the event.  Many others later expressed their regrets at having to miss it.  Everyone had Tom stories to tell, and please feel free to add them to the comments below or email them to me at pinchercreekvoice@gmail.com or call us at 403-751-0025.  For those who are mobility limited, we can get to you.

Thanks for everything, Tom Weekes.

Cowley Co-op's Tom Weekes and Shannon Culham (Gerry Smith photo)
Cowley Co-op's Tom Weekes, Rose Lang, Ataya Zeller. Jake, and Reba


"The people are the best part of the job." - Tom Weekes

2 comments:

  1. Anonymous8/9/16

    Great article about a great guy.By the way Toms Dad taught me in highschool in Lundbreck.You couldnt meet a finer gentleman. Incidentally Tom played hockey with the famous?? Lundbreck-Cowley Weasels. He was apretty fair hockey player and I never saw him get angry or upset. In one of the above pictures he is wearing the Weasels jacket. Thanks Tom for many years of service to the community. Doug Connelly

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous11/9/16

    Hey Tom, Congratulations on your well deserved retirement. 46 years...absolutely amazing. Working with you and Jim Mckay was truly the kickstart of my career. I learned so much from both of you and hold those years close to my heart. All the best to you and Lorna. Enjoy your time!

    Gina (Milvain) Funfer

    ReplyDelete

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