If you’re reading this on Sunday, Tony Gilsenan has checked his bags at Pearson Airport and is tucked into a seat, no doubt in hospitality class, and likely by a window. He’s moving to British Columbia. He’s leaving Barrie.

How can Tony Gilsenan leave Barrie? And how will Barrie be without Tony?

The city Tony bade farewell to this weekend five times bigger, much richer, and incredibly more culturally diverse than when he arrived in 1969. In large measure, it’s because of Tony.

Where to begin? Where to begin?

Tony’s life in Barrie sorts itself into communities... education, history, art, and theatre. They fit blend together, and they’ve all demanded much of Tony. This mustn’t read like an obituary because Tony is very much alive, albeit headed to a warmer climate that will be gentler to what he calls the “sobering fact of aging.” It’ll also take him closer to his beloved children and grandchildren.

Education. When Tony moved to Canada from Ireland (via England) he plied his architectural passion almost immediately with the Faculty of Barrie’s fledgling Georgian College. The college had a Fine Art Department; Tony’s central role was to teach architectural drafting to interior design students. At least half his work was administrative and during the next quarter-century, Tony’s teaching role evolved to include career counselling, interviews, as well as general admin.

His teaching community is legion, with many of his first associates now retired... Don Stuart, Peter Dennis, Karen Smith, Pat Hart. His students are now Georgian’s teachers, like Alex Sorotschynski.

Tony sees himself foremost as a teacher, and has incorporated that into every one of his Barrie communities.

With dozens of art students in his classrooms, Tony was frustrated that there was no art gallery available to share with them. While trips to the AGO and McMichael were affordable in the beginning, they became unreachable field trips when money tightened. Tony’s interest expanded itself to embrace two communities... history and art.

Tony was one of the icons in the movement to “save” Barrie’s original firehall. Now a parking lot at the southwest corner of Mulcaster and Collier streets, all that remains is a cylindrical monument proclaiming its location. But Tony saw it as a significant building, architecturally and culturally.

“I’m an optimist and a realist,” admits Tony. “Most people don’t value old buildings.”

Tony worked with young people to refurbish that building, with a vision that Georgian art and design students would have preliminary, affordable studio space in it from which to launch their careers. But as city politicians mostly cheered amidst the rubble of the old firehall, Tony and then- Alderman Janice Laking, formed the region’s first LACAC (Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Community) which has grown into Heritage Barrie, with considerable strength today.

Firehall lost, Tony set his sights on the need for an art gallery. In 1982 he joined with William Moore, Shelley Beech, Graham Knight, Karen Smith, Graham Scholes, later Barb Marshall, to found the Barrie Gallery Project, which moved into a basement on Mulcaster St., then later to Maurice MacLaren’s splendid century home on the second ridge rising above Barrie.

In 1996 when MacLaren Art Centre formed a building committee to turn Barrie’s old Carnegie Library into a modern art gallery, guess who was involved in selecting the architect? And guess who interviewed them, held focus groups to identify the needs of Barrie’s gallery and its ‘people to art’ philosophy? And who served as site manager, spending at least one day a week in Toronto with the architect and the remaining six on site in the midst of tear-down and build-up?
Yes, Tony. A one year building program turned into two-and-a-half years and Tony continued on, his vision blending demands of a heritage building (1912), with a 1960’s addition, and a brand new design, each with unique characteristics.

When MacLaren partied open its doors in September, 2001, it was a stone’s throw from the demolished firehall that Tony fought so hard to save.

“We lost that battle. But, when MacLaren opened in a heritage building, we won the war!” Tony reminisces.

With art came film as Tony pilotted Barrie’s Screen One Film Festival into reality, utilizing community partners to offer film experiences far removed from the general fare. Tony. Strong. Visionary. Committed.

Theatre. Set designs by the dozens have graced Barrie’s stages. In the 70’s for Little’s Hill Players, when 5 productions a year moved from one venue to another. In the 80’s, a decade of sets for the Madcap Players, musical revues sold out before the script is written. The 90’s, South Simcoe Theatre, a tiny Cookstown venue with giant musical presentations, all boast Tony Gilsenan sets. Wendy Hicks’ musical theatres at Georgian College also called on Gilsenan sets. Two Gryphon Theatre sets, back when Vern Chapman was artistic director, celebrated Tony Gilsenan’s visual clarity.

Tony’s favourite? The simplicity of The Mousetrap. And the statement of a plane, hovering over an audience in South Pacific.

Four communities. Growing with Tony G. grace, his ability to conceive a final project and the tenacity to stay with it til it’s there.

When contacted this week, Tony expressed true amazement as the goodbye party held in his honour last Thursday. “I plough a little single furrow on my own,” he said. He thought. “I had hoped to slip out of town unnoticed.”

Oh yeah? Not! Thanks, Tony.

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