It was 1995 when I first successfully tendered to deliver the federal government’s Self Employment Assistance Program in the Barrie Region. In fact, that first year Orillia was also within my mandate. The next year, delivery of the Orillia contract moved back to the Orillia Area Development Corporation and into the hands of Gina Hardy Butson. Gina had worked on the contract for several years prior to its flip to me, and it was good to see it go back to her.
We didn’t know each other, but after the contract moved back to her, Gina and I had an awkward meeting. I’d won a contract from her. She’d won it back from me. And now we wondered if we could meet regularly to share the things we were doing that worked really well, so each of us would grow strong programs to help people who wanted to start their own businesses.
I remember our first business meeting. Then our second. And over the years we included other companies around the region who had the same contracts, in an attempt to build a loose affiliation of people who could benefit from each other and ultimately benefit their client base.
While other Self Employment delivery agents came and went, Gina and I continued to meet, two or three times a year. We talked about proposals, about contracts, about solutions to legislation, about our pride in the achievements of our clients. I visited the small business association that Gina started in Orillia to be a guest speaker one night. Gina returned the visit to one of our Self Employment Assistance Program pot luck dinners and networking evenings. Her entrepreneur trainer has become one of my most popular speakers.
And over the years, we became friends.
Gina lost the Self Employment contract two years ago when it was awarded to a Markham company. With the contract went her job with the Orillia Area Development Corporation, just days after she’d signed the papers to buy a house. And shortly after that I got an email from Gina telling me in her soft way that she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She knew it was terminal. She knew there was a barrier being built across her road of life. And she spent time connecting with her friends.
Last fall I received a call, and an invitation, from some of Gina’s friends in Orillia. They’d been chatting among themselves about funerals, and about how unfortunate it is that we dress up, buy flowers, go to the funeral home and say wonderful things about a dead person who never gets to hear and see the accolades for them. And so these friends decided to have Gina’s funeral early, so to speak. They rented a room at Kelcy’s Restaurant. And one by one Gina’s friends arrived… bearing flowers and cards and hugs. And Gina stood there in her own receiving line, looking absolutely resplendent in “her” maroon outfit, and quipped, “this is incredible.”
That day she was gifted with the words, emotions and attitudes of scores of people whose businesses had their roots in her energy. She heard the words that people wanted to say. And as people visited, and laughter wafted across the room, Gina’s little grandchild popped in and out, over and under, scampered after by Gina’s daughter.
I tried to think about what I would want if it were me living the months ahead and I put my arms around Gina and said, “if this were me, I’d want not to spend time with peripheral people. I’d want to conserve my energy for those closest… my children, my grandchildren, my partner, my intimate friends, my family. So, unless you call, I’m not going to press you for a visit. I’ll email. I’ll phone now and then. But I want to give you this important time for the really important people.”
“Thank you for understanding,” she said. And then I pressed my “mush note” into her hand, gave her a long hug, and headed down the highway to my own training night for my own group of small business clients.
In January, in typical Gina style, she got married. She said she was going to live as well as she could for as long as she could, and take the limitations each day had to offer. And she and new hubby Bob sure must have had some long talks about the road ahead for them.
Last Monday, Gina died. Her daughter was with her. Bob was with her. And her friends were there in spirit. We knew she’d stopped getting up. We knew her email-box was full, to be unanswered. We knew she’d gone to hospital.
So, what’s this woman’s legacy? She taught us all how to face a life tragedy head on. She didn’t flinch in the face of a shortened future. She didn’t hide behind euphemisms. She was honest and upfront. She protected herself when she needed to, and she protected those she loved always. She gave us a marvellous opportunity to hold a truly meaningful funeral, long before she died.
Her legacy to the community of Orillia lies in its economy. So many of the vibrant businesses in Orillia area today are there because of Gina’s energy, vision, commitment and her ability to ensure her clients had terrific training and contacts as they moved into self employment.
Her legacy to herself? To thine own self be true.
And she was.
Thanks, Gina. Goodbye for now.