Leaving behind a legacy

Joel
Joel van der Veen
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Over the last few weeks, city residents have watched the drawn-out process of the demolition of our fabled arena.

Its fate was confirmed months ago, but like the hockey teams it hosted, the Civic Centre isn’t going down without a fight.

I’ve stopped over to shoot pictures a couple of times, and I’ve witnessed others snapping photos, driving by slowly or getting out of their cars to watch.

Someone was selling honey from a car parked against the fence, offering a hint as to how many spectators have been by to watch the Civic Centre’s slow death march.

When architect Joseph Pettick designed the arena in the 1950s, he likely wasn’t imagining the day it would be demolished. It was built to last, and it shows, but it’s coming down just the same.

If I’d become an architect, that’s the way I’d do it: design my buildings to be such a pain in the butt to tear down that wreckers will decide it isn’t worth the trouble.

We might try to deny it, but most of us are aware of our mortality: the fact that we won’t be around forever, no matter how hard we try to exercise, eat healthy and avoid bad habits.

Even so, a lot of us want to leave something behind for which we’ll be remembered, whether it’s a magnificent building, a great scientific discovery or a donation to a worthy cause.

My work will likely outlive me, since it’s preserved in multiple formats. The stories and pictures we file are archived electronically and also transferred to microfilm, a physical format used by archives and libraries.

I remember my reaction when I realized my work would be preserved on microfilm. Today, I can visit the library and use this format to view papers a century old. I’m not sure how I’d feel about my words being read by researchers in 2112 (must resist Rush reference).

(In researching this column, I realized one of my articles is currently referenced in a Wikipedia article. This strikes me as a less-than-indelible honour.)

But none of this is truly permanent. Archives can be destroyed, electronic storage can fail, buildings can be torn down.

Memorials or tributes can fade over time. A great work of art can be ruined by a well-meaning parishioner. Even groundbreaking inventions can be abused or adapted for evil purposes.

We can work all we want to establish a legacy for ourselves, but once we die, it’s out of our control for good. So what’s a person to do? 

The Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel was faced with this question. A prosperous man after his invention of dynamite, his death was announced prematurely by French newspapers in 1888.

“The merchant of death is dead,” one headline blared. It’s thought that Nobel, who lived another eight years afterward, took the opportunity to consider how he would be remembered upon his death.

He then used his wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes, bestowed annually to honour great achievements in several fields.

Ultimately, though, each person’s greatest legacy comes not through the tangible things that survive us, but by the lives we’ve lived while we were here.

If you want to leave something meaningful behind, try leaving it with the people around you: your spouse or partner, children, friends, family, co-workers or even strangers on the street. We only get one shot at this, remember, so make it count.

In the end, it’s really not about how long it took to demolish the arena you designed — though if it was, Joseph Pettick would put the rest of us to shame.

Joel van der Veen can be reached at 691-1256.

Organizations: Civic Centre, Wikipedia

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