Sunday, November 8, 2009

Meeting the Prince of Wales

When my sister Estelle was born, my mother won a carpet. Or maybe it was a blanket; the story is a bit blurred. That is because she was born in England on November 14, 1948, the day Prince Charles was born. A national newspaper offered a new house as a prize to the new mother whose child was born closest in time to the future monarch. Unfortunately my mother couldn't hold on for another 30 minutes. But she won the fifth prize.

25 years later, my Uncle George Geller was introduced to Prince Charles at a business luncheon. George worked for a company called Dexion, and when he was introduced, the Prince asked "what in the world is Dexion?" The conversation became part of our family lore, and a photo taken of Charles and Uncle George was placed prominently on his fireplace mantle. When George died, it was placed on my father's mantle. When he died, it was put on display in my sister's Victoria home.

When Prince Charles last visited BC, my sister was keen to meet him. Using some connections at UBC and in Ottawa she was ultimately successful in getting an invitation to a state dinner, where alongside then Premier Glen Clark, she was introduced to Prince Charles.

For these reasons, Prince Charles has always had a special significance in our family.

I was therefore particularly thrilled when I learned late last week that I too would have the opportunity to meet the Prince of Wales when he visited SFU on Saturday November 7 to participate in a discussion on sustainable development. When introduced to the Prince, as part of a small group that included my friend and colleague Norm Shearing, he looked at my name tag and asked "Now what is The Geller Group". I told him about Uncle George.

I also told him how he had inspired a project that we undertook at SFU. When we were about to cut down the first trees, one of my directors, Bob Anderson gave me a book called onetree, which described the tale of a tree that had to be cut down. Below is a summary:

A number of years ago, in Tatton Park Estate in Cheshire, England, a dying 170-year-old oak was felled—and given new life. In a carefully planned sequence of events, every last part of the oak—down to the bark, leaves and even the sawdust that was left after the timber was cut—was distributed to more than 70 British designers, artists and craftspeople, who created an amazing array of furniture, sculpture, toys, jewelry and books with the wood that they got from that one tree.

The onetree project, as it came to be known, is beautifully described and illustrated in a book by the same name produced by Garry Olson and Peter Toaig and with a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales. Olson and Toaig’s mission is to raise awareness of the need to preserve British woodlands—a sentiment shared by Prince Charles—and their project serves as an inspiring example of environmental renewal.

At SFU, we decided to use two trees: a maple and a cedar, and while we did not go quite as far, our project resulted in 27 wonderful works of art that were put on display at SFU and the HSBC gallery downtown. The project, most ably directed by Rachel Forbes also resulted in a publication. While I considered inviting The Prince of Wales to write the forward, in the end, I wrote it myself.

So it was with great pleasure that I presented the Prince with a copy of our Two Trees publication.Unfortunately, time was short as others were waiting. However, I did urge the Prince to consider incorporating some more contemporary expressions of architecture in Poundbury, his model sustainable village and other projects. As he walked away from Norm Shearing and me he said "this is a conversation we should probably have at another time".

Half an hour later, the Prince joined the general assembly and listened to a dialogue about the success of Vancouverism and related sustainability projects. The final comment and question was asked by Brent Toderian, Vancouver's Director of Planning.

Too often, he said, I hear eight fateful words "We could never do that in our city". He asked Hank Dittmar, the director of the Prince's foundation how he would address that sentiment.

While Hank didn't fully understand what Brent was saying, the Prince did. With great humour he narrated a tale of how others said they could never achieve in organic agriculture what he had achieved farming in Gloucester. The Prince went on to give some very thoughtful and witty remarks, concluding with his joy that his Foundation and SFU were about to enter into a special partnership, adding with a wry smile, "unless my presence and comments today have somehow damaged the possibility of this happening" or something to that effect.

I was thoroughly impressed with the Prince, and I suspect that most everyone in attendance was too. While he has often been mocked and ridiculed by the media, there's no doubt that he's an extremely intelligent man, with a passion for sustainable development and a love of nature. Many people acknowledged afterwards that he's probably always been a bit ahead of his time.

I certainly enjoyed his time at SFU, and am pleased to have received some photos of us together. My sister will probably put one of them next to the photo of Uncle George.

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