Eganville – The legacy Preston O’Grady leaves behind is vast, including his involvement with Fairfields, the Bonnechere Museum, the Geo-Heritage trail, doctor recruitment in Eganville and the generations of minds he moulded at Opeongo High School (OHS) as an English teacher.
However, the word which most people associate with him is that of gentleman. For he was a dignified gentleman in all facets of life as he interacted with the public as a teacher, volunteer, activist pushing for affordable senior housing and primary healthcare and local historian.
He died of heart failure in the early morning last Wednesday at Renfrew Victoria Hospital. He was 81.
Born on the family home in the O’Grady Settlement in Hagarty Township, he was the youngest child of P.J. and Clara (Holly) O’Grady. The family moved to a farm on the Sand Road outside Eganville when he was two and it would be his home for much of his life. He married Kathleen Narraway and they raised a family of three sons: Sean (Christine) of Hamilton; David (Anne) of Ottawa and Brian (Jennifer) of Guelph, later being blessed with four grandchildren, Clara, Liam, Barron and Maeve. Both were teachers and the O’Gradys were known as the backbone of an incredibly strong English department by many students at OHS for a generation.
He gave back to the community in numerous ways, including the Eganville Rotary Club and the Renfrew County Catholic School Board. He was the face of the Bonnechere Museum for many and his in-depth knowledge of local history made him a popular speaker, tour guide and local source of knowledge.
As chairman of the Eganville and Area Long Term Care Corporation, Mr. O’Grady worked for the establishment of the Fairfields Assisted Living Facility. As if affordable housing and housing for seniors was not enough, he worked tirelessly in doctor recruitment, being instrumental in bringing nurse practitioners to the village.
While volunteering following his early retirement due to health issues in 1995, he was busy on the farm. He raised cattle and grew crops, managed the forest and enjoyed hunting and fishing. A faithful Catholic, he served his congregation of St. James the Less Roman Catholic Church in various capacities.
For many in his home community of Eganville the news of his passing was very unexpected and as people who interacted with him in various capacities reminisced, they recalled a man who loved history and storytelling, volunteered tirelessly for the betterment of his community and treated people with kindness and dignity.
“He was a class act, a gentleman,” his friend Tom Adamchick said. “A tremendous family man and good friend.”
The two bonded especially over hunting and Mr. Adamchick was invited to hunt on the O’Grady property each year.
“For Preston, he took it more seriously than most,” he recalled. “He started a spreadsheet on where he saw deer each year.”
They would then carefully assess which way the wind was blowing and take off into the property for what was usually a very successful hunt.
“I must say it was the highlight of the year,” he said. “He loved his property and knew every inch of it. He would monitor it.”
Mr. Adamchick said he was very honoured to be invited to hunt on the property.
“It was family, and I was the only outsider,” he said. “Prior to that I was hunting alone on my property and just pushing deer around.”
Mr. O’Grady had blinds constructed on the property on stilts and one of their last acts together during hunting season this year was moving one of the blinds, he recalls.
“One of us suggested moving the blind as a project,” he said. “We took the afternoon off and moved the blind.”
At that point Mr. O’Grady was using oxygen and while it slowed him down, his friend noted, “he did not grumble.”
The hunt was also a bit of a family reunion for the O’Gradys, he noted. His brothers would come, as well as his sons and his sister, Zita.
“Family was very important,” he said.
Keeping History Alive
Jack Rosien worked closely with Mr. O’Grady at the Bonnechere Museum and Geo-Heritage Trail, working together up to the last on grant applications and current improvements which have been taking place on the trail.
“He was keenly interested in the progress of things and I had an email from him the week he died about a grant,” he said.
The two men have a long friendship which dates back to the days when Mr. Rosien was a student at Eganville District High School and his teacher Mr. O’Grady mentored him in public speaking.
“He got me polished,” he recalled. “I could write the speech but he knew the proper gestures. It was all Preston’s polish.”
Mr. Rosien was remarkably successful, entering a contest in Ottawa and later going to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he won.
“Then we went to the North American finals in Dallas/Fort Worth where I represented Canada, coming in third place,” he said.
Winnings from the speaking contest paid for his first year at Carleton University, plus a bit to spare. His friendship with Mr. O’Grady also encouraged him to go into teaching.
“We were neighbours as well and he was more like a big brother to me,” he said.
In recent years, Mr. O’Grady mentored Mr. Rosien with his involvement in Fairfields on the board to replace him and also encouraged his involvement at the Bonnechere Museum and in turn the Geo-Heritage Trail.
“His knowledge of local history amazed me,” he noted. “The scope of his knowledge was amazing. He could talk for hours on a subject.”
One of Mr. O’Grady’s tasks was teaching the summer students the history of the museum and the objects there, as well as local history. Leading up to this summer, due to health issues, they realized he might not be able to do it in person, so he recorded his notes for the staff.
“It took over three hours to do the upstairs and he was still going, except Kathleen came in and said it was time to go, or he would have kept going,” Mr. Rosien noted. “He could tell you something about everything we had.”
When it was time to do the downstairs exhibits, that recording was probably about two hours, he added.
“The museum was very important to him and the museum would not be there but for Preston,” he said. “He started it and kept it going and the rest of us said we would not let that slip away.
“He put so much passion up to the end in what he was doing,” he said.
“He was a friend, a colleague, a mentor,” Mr. Rosien said. “You can’t replace that type of person with his passion and commitment to the community.”
Suzanne Scheer also sat on the board with Mr. O’Grady at the museum and noted his deep commitment to the museum.
“He would check in with students daily in the summer and in the winter he was always working on a project,” she recalled.
Special exhibits like the Founders Series and the Stopping Places project provided new information about the community and area.
“He was a great promoter of tourism and community,” she said.
Mr. O’Grady loved music and enjoyed having musical entertainment at the museum. He was also instrumental in keeping the various art shows and quilt show exhibits organized, she noted.
“He was a fun character,” she added. “He was a very busy guy with no paycheck.”
Recalling many fun events over the year Mr. O’Grady started, she said some of the fun ones were the Rhubarb Fest and the Christmas Tea.
“Preston was always involved and his right-hand-lady, Kathleen, was there with him,” she recalled.
The logo for the museum was something Mr. O’Grady was very proud of, she added.
“Written in stone, carved in wood, silvered in water,” she said. “He was trying to encompass everything the museum was trying to do.”
Chris Hinsperger was a student of Mr. O’Grady at OHS, and he kept learning from him in the years since.
“I was a terrible student, but I was a good student of his as a grown up,” he said. “He taught me love of community. How to tell stories. The importance of telling stories and the importance of those stories to our culture.”
Like many former students, he considered Mr. O’Grady a friend.
“Through how he lived his life his students became his friends and he embraced that,” he said.
The two worked closely in the formation of the Geo-heritage Trail in Eganville. It was a collaboration between the Bonnechere Museum, Bonnechere Valley Township, The Ontario Highlands Tourism Association, the Ottawa Valley Tourist Association and Bonnechere Caves, which is co-owned by Mr. Hinsperger.
“Preston was invested in finalizing that partnership,” he said. “We have the trail now and it is wonderful.”
The OVTA recently awarded Mr. O’Grady the 2021 Marilyn Alexander Tourism Champion Award.
“He saw the need for tourism as a conduit,” he said. “He was a storyteller. He saw stories were important to celebrate our culture.”
The partnership with Bonnechere Caves and the museum also saw Eganville named the Ordovician Fossil Capital of Canada.
“He put so much effort into the museum, for people to celebrate the history of Eganville and the Ottawa Valley,” Mr. Hinsperger noted.
Leader Publisher Gerald Tracey said he will remember Mr. O’Grady for many things, not the least being his involvement in the building of Fairfields assisted living facility.
Although he knew Mr. O’Grady all his life, he said their friendship really developed when they both became members of the Eganville and Area Long-Term Care Corporation about 1998 after being recruited by then Eganville Reeve Zig Mintha.
“The organization had been trying for several years to get a long-term care home for the Eganville area and kept running up against all kinds of barriers,” he said. “Eventually Preston would become chair of the board. We had a dedicated group of people who were determined to build a facility here for seniors and we worked well together to eventually see Fairfields come to fruition.”
Mr. Tracey said it was at Mr. O’Grady’s suggestion the facility be named Fairfields. An avid local historian, Eganville was first known as Fairfields and much of the original development was close to the present site of Fairfields.
Although Fairfields is not a long-term care facility, it has allowed hundreds of local seniors to remain in their community with assisted living services provided by the province through Marianhill Inc. of Pembroke.
“Each board member had a talent, or a specialty and Preston’s was his patience to deal with bureaucracy, his ability to wade through complicated government policies and programs, and to spend hours upon hours at his computer, understanding government jargon and filling out forms and reports,” he said. “When Fairfields had been established for several years, Preston understood the affordable housing program for seniors better than many civil servants.”
Although the committee faced many obstacles and setbacks, Mr. O’Grady’s determination and patience were key factors in the ultimate success of the project.
Mr. Tracey said he will remember Mr. O’Grady for many things, but enduring legacies will be Fairfields, the Bonnechere Museum and the John Egan Geo-heritage Trail.
“When you look at those three projects, they all intertwine: our history and our heritage, and our elderly population who provided many links with the past,” he said. “Preston worked tirelessly to preserve our past and record our history.”
Susan Taylor also sat on the Fairfields board with Mr. O’Grady and noted his leadership skills.
“He was such a calm presence on the board,” she said. “He was able to bring opposing views together and come to a compromise.”
Dealing with bureaucratic requirements was challenging, but Mr. O’Grady persevered, she said.
“He had endless patience. He was very calm and a great leader,” she said.
Touched Many Lives
Bonnechere Valley Mayor Jennifer Murphy said the community has lost a great volunteer.
“You said Preston and everyone knew who you were talking about,” she said. “He was involved in so many things and touched so many lives, whether it was Fairfields or the museum or the Bonnechere Valley Health Committee.”
Mr. O’Grady was honoured with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for volunteerism by the municipality.
“I remember him as the most kind, knowledgeable, friendly man,” she said. “He was a great support to me. He worked so tirelessly. I often wondered where his energy came from.”
His legacy in doctor recruitment, which dates back to before she became mayor, is important to note, she said. The village now has a Nurse Practitioner with the West Champlain Family Health Team and Nurse Practitioner with ConnectWell, she noted.
“Preston wrote such brilliant and important briefs to the province, saying we need this,” she said. “His work, along with Merv Buckwald and Zig Mintha, was very important.”
He also was very closely associated with the museum, and Mayor Murphy said she understands he was even working recently with a grant proposal for the museum.
“And he made Canada Day so lovely for everyone with the Pontoon Boat rides,” she added.
His knowledge of the history of the area was tremendous and something he shared willingly with the community.
“He had so much institutional knowledge about Eganville. He could recall facts from decades ago and you knew his story was accurate,” she said.
Mayor Murphy said Mr. O’Grady was a wit and a gentleman.
“He was very diplomatic. I never saw him in a bad mood. He always kept his composure and always had a kind word,” she said.