In Appreciation of Gerry Zipursky Upon News of his Departure from CityU Canada

A tribute to Gerry Zipursky written by Arden Henley

So long as the wind blows off the ocean onto the coast in these parts and so long as our ‘not so new legs’ carry us, you will find Gerry and me walking down the road to community well-being for all. This continues to be the central meaning of our over 40-year collegial relationship and friendship. It seems somehow fitting that we slip out the side door of CityU at the same time.

It all began in the mid-seventies when Gerry was the founding Executive Director of South Vancouver Neighbourhood House and I was an idealistic nomad looking for work. Gerry did many things in this position, including establishing one of the most comprehensive programs for seniors seen at that time and developing an enterprise in which Sikh women could find both employment and a daily opportunity to be with one another outside the home. Together, we developed a unique day program for ‘at risk’ youth called Southtown that went on for over 30 years.

But here is something I’ll bet you did not know about Gerry and me. After South Van, in another context, we developed a group home program for sex trade workers called Blue Heron. People teased us about the name, likening it to the name of a late night bar. Blue Heron was one of the first programs in Vancouver to provide free condoms for sex trade workers.

After his work at South Vancouver Neighbourhood House, Gerry began working at the Jewish Community Centre. At that point the JCC was housed in a desultory, grey, one story building on 41st near Oak, and the level of activity inside was commensurate with the feeling communicated by the building. Over his 22 years at the JCC, everything changed. As the Executive Director of the Vancouver JCC, Gerry raised the money for and did the work to totally transform the building, the culture and the services of the organization. He rebuilt the JCC in every way – spaces accommodating numerous programs; exercise facilities, including gym, pool and basketball court; café; art gallery; and world class theatre – a community centre that not only serves the Jewish community, but the community as a whole; an inclusive vision that Gerry has always insisted on, a template for what a thriving community centre looks and feels like.

Then he retired…….well, not actually.

I remember meeting with Gerry at the White Spot that was formerly located near Vancouver’s City Hall, after he had ‘retired’. He had noticed while visiting his father at VGH late one night, the number of homeless people sleeping on the street. He couldn’t get the image out of his mind. This led to a new odyssey. He began walking the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In what is very typical of Gerry, he got to know the people on the street and the police. Before any of us, his colleagues and friends, could turn around he was the Chief Operating Officer of the Odd Squad, a group of Vancouver police, famous for its vivid depiction of life on the street through the eyes of police on the beat in the video documentary, Through a Blue Lens. With Gerry’s leadership, further educational documentaries on youth drug addiction and gang life prevention were produced and the Odd Squad became a non-profit organization called Odd Squad Productions.

Simultaneously, Gerry became a part of an organization of prominent Vancouver community leaders called Building Communities Society with the avowed aim of supporting the communities that make up the Downtown Eastside in their efforts to build on their many strengths and to address the current issues of poverty, homelessness, addictive and mental illnesses, and crime. As an Associate Director of BCS Gerry played a pivotal role with the founding Board of the Aboriginal Mother’s Centre in the development and construction of a multipurpose community facility for aboriginal women and their children. During this period, he also volunteered with Building Without Borders and travelled to Haiti to assist in earthquake recovery.

In 2013 Gerry joined CityU Canada as an Associate Professor and Director of Business Operations and Continuing Education. Gerry extended our reach into the professional community, particularly in the non-profit sector that employs the majority of our counselling graduates; breaking into the continuing education market; and diversifying our program offerings. He designed an Executive Leadership: Non-profit Sector certificate program that, over four iterations, attracted 64 executive directors and senior agency personnel from virtually all the major non-profit societies in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Distinguished faculty in this program included the former Mayor of Vancouver and Premier of BC, Mike Harcourt and well-known author and community development leader, Michael Clague. We continue to benefit from this initiative. Most recently, Gerry put together a report reflecting an inclusive approach to re-designing the CityU Canada Vancouver space.

But there is the something else: the ‘seldom spoken of’ because of its intangibility, visible only in the way that trees bending make the wind visible. As Jill and Charles correctly point out, Gerry is a mensch; this term, from the Yiddish, literally a person of integrity and honour. There is no rest, no retirement, no liberation nor release for such persons as long as a single homeless person sleeps alone and hungry on the street, no young person denied access to education, no executive so caught in materialism that he or she has strayed from the way, no patient in the hospital unvisited, no person left to die alone. This restlessness is the ‘price’, as Gerry refers to it, that he continues to be so willing to pay. The thing is, there is no spreadsheet that can capture this, no timecard to represent it, no outcomes with which to evaluate it. But, we all know when it is there and when it is gone.

As a reflection of their deep respect, some of Gerry’s colleagues ranging from Ujjal Dosanjh, former BC premier and federal cabinet minister and Darren Entwistle, CEO of Telus have nominated Gerry for the Order of Canada.

Thanks for everything, Gerr.

Arden Henley, Ed.D, RCC
Vice President and Principal, Canadian Programs