Tom Gosnell: The Gift of Access

FOR MANY, FORMER LONDON MAYOR TOM GOSNELL’S passing came as a shock, but in truth he had been struggling for some time. In numerous coffee shops, offices, homes, over the telephone and online, people shared their thoughts of someone who led this city through some important years and left his mark.

So many tributes and memories have been shared in the media that leave a clear sense of the man and his gift for administration and leadership. He cut an imposing figure, but was never small in spirit. He loved the rough and tumble world of sports, but was repeatedly gentle with his colleagues and visitors. Though clearly good at building a team, he nevertheless could stand alone on difficult issues because it was his belief that London deserved a chance at whatever he was fighting for.

Tom became mayor in 1985, during the precarious few months when the London Food Bank was launched. We often forget how difficult those times were economically. A recession had gripped the province and London felt the weight of it.

I had never met him before that year, though we shared numerous friends on the fire department and police services. As the new mayor, I felt it was essential to get his read on whether the city truly required a food bank. He did his research before I even entered his office for that first time. Speaking in advance with numerous social agencies and his own economic team, he made it clear that he believed a food bank was essential and asked if there was any way he could be of help. It ended up being the first of numerous trips to his office over many years.

Look at the picture on this page. We were so young then, almost 30 years ago.  Even now the photo fills me with emotion and gratitude.  It was from our very first food drive in 1986 and Tom was everywhere during that event, even assisting with picking up food from the fire stations. On one occasion a couple of years later, he drew together some of the city’s key business leaders to gain their support for one of the food bank’s initiatives on getting people back to work.

The first food drive launch - 1986

The first food drive launch – 1986 (London Free Press)

He merely had to stand at the front of the room asking for their help and they gave it without question. I’ll never forget that meeting, or the way he kept in touch with them to keep them in the loop.

When he discovered that another social agency was experiencing difficulty, he called me in and asked how he could be of help. He followed up in every detail and that agency moved forward. When, on the other hand, he believed a certain sector of the city wasn’t pulling its weight, he listened intently as Jane and I presented evidence to the contrary and quickly changed his approach. And when he believed I was wrong about something, he let me know in no uncertain terms.

Jack Burghardt was deputy mayor and a friend. One day at lunch he told me of how Tom had approached him, asking that he take on the role of keeping the council team together, along with the management team in City Hall, and preparing them for votes and challenges ahead. “He reasoned that I was good with people and he gave me a role I cherish. I respect him for that willingness to share the leadership.” That was Tom’s style – share the load, share the credit. It is the memory of many that this was one of his great gifts.

In an age that preceded social media and large efforts at citizen engagement, Tom Gosnell had an office that was always open. If, in his journeys around the city, he encountered individuals or groups that required help, they inevitably ended up in his office, guided in by the mayor’s welcoming staff. It is vital that we don’t underestimate the importance of this in a time when so many Londoners were reeling from the economic downturn.

There are numerous organizations like the London Food Bank that owe so much of their success to this mayor who didn’t just show up at press conference, but who followed up with frequent calls and continual offers to help. Like few others, Tom Gosnell offered this community the gift of access – to his office, to city expertise, to his time, and ultimately to his willingness to be a politician who felt politics was not only about vision, but about the very people who would live it. He taught so many of us by his clear example that being mayor isn’t about rank or power, but responsibility to use both of these privileges for the sake of the people who elected him. He comprehended that if he didn’t live attentively today, then tomorrow wouldn’t matter.

Tom Gosnell’s life can never be counted merely by the things he did, but by the people he challenged and enabled to lead in the city. He was a gentle giant, yes, but with a firm grip on the need for politics to prove productive and collaborative. He did it well, so well, in fact, that even the grief at his death has drawn us together – just as did his life.