A robust voice for the Alberni Valley has gone silent. Jim Sawyer was a longtime city manager, 65-year Rotarian, volunteer with myriad organizations and, for more than eight decades, a vociferous advocate for Port Alberni.
Sawyer died Sept. 4 at West Coast General Hospital. He was 93.
Sawyer first started working for Port Alberni city hall in the early 1950s before moving briefly to a job with the City of Nanaimo. He returned to Port Alberni in 1955 as city clerk and retired in 1988 as city manager.
Sawyer hired Ken Watson to run the public works department in 1986. Watson, who retired as city manager a few years ago, remained friends with Sawyer ever since.
“The most amazing thing about Jim, to me, was what a people person he was,” Watson recalled. “He had the single most amazing memory of anyone I know.
“He knew every single employee in the city, not just their name but their situation, their family…he was just a real Port Alberni guy.”
Sawyer had many friends from the city as well as elsewhere, Watson said.
Randy Fraser met Sawyer through his father: the elder Fraser and Sawyer were part of a group of friends who shared a small duplex cabin at Sproat Lake in the 1960s. When Randy’s father passed away, Randy assumed his position with the “lakers,” and had a close relationship with Sawyer until his death.
“Jim became known as the mayor of that area,” Fraser recalled. He spent a lot of time with Sawyer at the lake, making improvements to the area. Traditions were big: Thanksgiving, Easter dinner, burger and corn feasts, Labour Day weekend. It was a summer place: a place for the close-knit group of buddies to share campfires, card games, beer and a sauna. “He carried on with that right to the end.”
“When Jim made friends, he made them forever,” said his wife Erika. She recalled stories of Sawyer and close friend Jim Hume, a longtime Vancouver Island journalist who died in April 2022 at the age of 98. The pair met in Nanaimo when Sawyer was working at Nanaimo city hall as a clerk and Hume was a sports editor with the Nanaimo daily newspaper. Many may know that Sawyer was a longtime basketball coach and referee, but Hume met him when he was manager of a lacrosse team in Nanaimo. They became friends and called each other every few weeks up until Hume’s death.
Don Ferster was only 16 years old when Sawyer walked through the back door of Ralph’s Men’s Wear on Third Avenue one night following a city council meeting. “We formed a friendship over time,” said Ferster, who now owns Jim’s Clothes Closet in Port Alberni. “I’ve been friends with him for 45 years…we have a respectful friendship. He was a great advocate for the city and Port Alberni in general.”
When Sawyer retired from the city he continued to drop in on Ferster after Rotary meetings. They talked about a variety of subjects, including the trips Sawyer took around the world while serving with the Port Alberni Port Authority (PAPA). “He loved going on what he called junkets to other ports, conventions every year. He found it fascinating to meet new people and learn as much as he could along the way.”
Colleen Sawyer, one of Jim’s eight children, said she and her seven siblings (Doug, Karen, Dean, Don, Kim, Wendy and Terri) are learning more about their father as people share their memories. She said his travels while with PAPA are poignant for her. “I didn’t know all the places he went when he was with the port authority,” she said, adding that she has learned more since she has been going through photo albums from that time.
“He saw a large part of the world. He actually got out there and saw a bit of the world, which is awesome.”
While he enjoyed travelling, Colleen said her father has always loved living in the Alberni Valley. He was born in Chemainus, an only child to Doris and Frank Sawyer, but lived his whole live in Port Alberni. “He had a deep-rooted love of the community and us as kids feel that as well.”
A celebration of Sawyer’s life will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18 at the Alberni Athletic Hall, 3727 Roger St. In lieu of flowers, donations in his name may be made to the West Coast General Hospital Foundation.
The City of Port Alberni lowered its flags at city hall to half-mast in honour of Sawyer, and Mayor Sharie Minions called for a moment of silence before the city council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 6. She offered condolences to Sawyer’s family and said that Sawyer was “always positive and supportive” during her time in office.
“He was a long-time local government contributor and a people person,” she said. “I’ve never met anybody who knew Jim who didn’t consider him a friend—and that Jim didn’t consider a friend in return.”
Sawyer was also the only city employee to ever have been given the title of Freeman of the City, on Nov. 23, 1987.
“I think it really speaks to just how positive of an influence Jim had and has left on the City of Port Alberni,” said Minions.
— With files from Elena Rardon, Alberni Valley News