Rees led a full life whether on land, at sea or in the air – Chemainus Valley Courier
Thetis Island paid tribute on Saturday to an outstanding officer and gentleman.
The man who corresponds to the two characters is one and the same, Pete Rees, who died on March 23 at the age of 97.
Born in Croydon, England, Edmond Cleaton (Pete) Rees was a sailor, aviator, rancher, firefighter and storyteller, with each stage of his life a story in itself.
The Thetis Island Volunteer Fire Department held the memorial service for Rees, a longtime resident and founding chief of the fire department 40 years ago. The Cowichan Valley Firefighters Honor Guard was in attendance and the ceremony allowed the community to gather at Forbes Hall recently renovated in their honor.
Rees is survived by his wife Audree, his cousin Janet, his sister-in-law Geraldine, his nephews Ken and Jerry and his wife Pat.
Tributes have poured in both publicly and privately since people learned of Rees’ death earlier this year.
“Pete, an honorary life member, and I were members of the Nanaimo Flying Club and flew together for many years,” noted Rick Koeppen. “It was Pete who introduced me to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. For many years together, we served as the maintenance and operating committee for the rental aircraft at the Nanaimo Flying Club. Drawing on his vast experience and no-nonsense know-how, Pete had some interesting ways of solving problems with the aircraft. We had made lots of plans for the summer and to fly further afield on Vancouver Island. We will miss him.”
“He was a great character and had a huge impact on how Thetis grew as a community,” added Veronica Shelford. “He represents the passing of an era – of service and self-sufficiency.”
Rees was a merchant seaman in his youth, traveling the world on various ships working as an engineer while discovering many exotic locations from Fiji to India and beyond.
He received medals for his service in the Second World War as well as a certificate of appreciation from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Veterans Affairs for his acts of selfless service and sacrifice in the defense of Canada. He spent part of his life as an engineer in the Royal Canadian Navy.
Rees served with the Vancouver Fire Department for 29 years before retiring, starting on the Vancouver fireboat and driving a fire truck for a time. He became influential in the evolution of the Thetis Island Volunteer Fire Department, alongside his friend and retired VFD colleague, Harry Armstrong, before retiring again in 1994 after 12 years as founding chief.
Rees and his wife Audree were both sailors and were called upon by friends many times to outfit their ketches on trips all over the world.
The Rees built a 42-foot sailboat in Vancouver. Audree has built a small model of her dream house that looks exactly like the house they eventually built on Thetis Island, with the beams of the house transported on the sailboat.
Rees essentially documented an early version of his autobiography in 2003 when he wrote for the Island Tale Winds newsletter. He shed more light on his life after leaving England at an early age.
“I spent my childhood in Chile and Peru,” he writes. “We moved to Canada in 1932 and I was educated in Toronto before joining the navy there in 1942. I moved to the west coast to train as a gunner and volunteered to serve on armed merchant ships in England and Australia.
“When I was released in 1947, I went back to sea and ended up in India when Pakistan was partitioned. I then returned to Vancouver via Turkey-England-Gander and New York via Pan American Airways Constellation. Back home, I boarded a large yacht called Cossair and was shipwrecked in Mexico. Returning home once again, I applied to join the Vancouver Fire Department, was declared “fit” and spent five years on Fire Boat No. 2 before moving to chic neighborhoods.
While sailing around British Columbia, it was then that Rees and his wife Audree found their land on the island of Thetis that would become their longtime home.
“With no electricity on the site at this time, the house was built with hand tools, with the cement being mixed in the wheelbarrow,” Rees noted.
“In the last days of my time with the Vancouver Fire Department, we moved to Thetis and I commuted on a BMW motorcycle to work every four days (except holidays) for 15 years without missing a beat. shift and never be late.”
Six years after retiring while his wife was away visiting friends, Rees grew bored and decided to take a discovery flight to Victoria.
“I got hooked, passed my medical and tried out local flight schools,” he wrote. “They turned me down. Too old, they said. The Victoria Flying Club agreed, so I would commute from Thetis twice a week, flying in the morning and following ground school in the evening. I was resuming the plane the next morning and then I was flying home. The next day it was off to VFC for more of the same. I kept this routine until I was solo. Then I rented Cessna 152 and 172 planes and got my ticket.
His tales of theft have become more incredible over the years.
“You’re never too old to try new things or follow your dreams,” he said at the time.
A lot of things about his uncle stood out for nephew Jerry Gildemeester.
“Engines, engine rooms were his thing, his comfort zone,” Gildemeester explained in a summary. “He showed me the engine room of every ferry we traveled on, explaining all the inner workings, expanding my little mind.
“During the construction and cleaning of the house on Thetis, they repeatedly brought us three boys from Audree’s sister to Thetis, by sailboat, speedboat and motorbike. The Royal Van Yacht Club was the place where my brothers and I spent a lot of time with Pete and Audree on and around the sailboat they built.I have fond memories of the seven hour trip to Thetis from downtown Vancouver, following the tide.
Shenanigans occurred while they were away that Gildemeester is sure some of the people of Thetis remember.
“I drove the tractor down the road to the marina thinking no one would notice,” he recalls. “You noticed. I took the speedboat out to water ski and used all the gas. You noticed. Dispatches were sent when Pete and Aud returned. The deed was read. riot, so to speak. Lesson learned, finally. Teenagers, huh?”
The more the family looked into Rees’ past, the prouder they were of him for his voluntary military service which Gildemeester said he never talked about much. The medals he received and wore proudly were earned through public and military service, he noted.
“The last few years, as things slowed down, he kept the property looking like a well-maintained park,” Gildemeester added.
“Every day at 9 a.m. Pete did the daily ham radio check-in with his buddies. We all miss you incredibly, Uncle Pete.
The same can be said by so many people whose lives he impacted.