Our beloved Dutch mayor


(Ben TeKamp is congratulated in 2006 after being named Citizen of the Year.)

Let's be frank: over the course of 12 years in politics, Ben TeKamp did have his share of haters.

And those of us who followed him in between meetings knew he had the ability – one could also call it a survival skill – to hand it right back to those haters.

These are occupational hazards of the politician, an inevitable consequence of wearing the mayor's chain for three straight terms.

But the fact remains that Ben TeKamp, more than any other politician I have encountered locally, was liked.

In part it was his special brand of self-deprecation: not the unctuous false humility of the career politician but a genuine and particularly Dutch brand of disdain for the brash.

It might have been his propensity for verbal mix-ups: again, not gaffes per se but overly tortuous sentences which, after a while, became endearing.

(When a politician introduces someone at the bottom of a list as “not last, but least,” and everyone in the room knows he means “last but not least,” the folks in the room also know they are not being snowed.)

And most of all, it may have been the particularly human way in which TeKamp rose above such limitations when, fewer than two months after first taking the oath as mayor, he faced the biggest test in a generation of mayors: the Ice Storm of 1998.

TeKamp won our allegiance at the time not because of his assurance, but because of his calm. He came across as a regular guy with no great access to superhuman solutions, but a willingness to muddle through, as we all eventually muddle through.

He was calm and matter-of-fact about it even though he would later admit how, months afterwards when all was back to normal, he got a serious case of the shakes thinking back on the sheer scale of that disaster.

Rising to the occasion, then processing the terror later: that's just how people muddle through.

TeKamp's quiet leadership during the Ice Storm earned him a reservoir of goodwill that lasted the rest of his first term, right up to the controversial decision to sell the PUC.

In some ways, the PUC crisis was a lot like the Ice Storm crisis: in the latter case our hand was forced by the weather, in the former it was forced by the province.

Of course, the goodwill lasted well beyond the PUC episode.

It did so because the origin of that goodwill lay deeper than any one political episode.

It lay in TeKamp's disarming ability to put himself out there in ways most of us would find humiliating.

This came across most recently with all his unfortunate health crises, in particular the kidney transplant from his daughter, Robin, in 2007.

Those stories certainly raised awareness of pressing health issues, but they also laid out personal details for all to see.

For a man genetically predisposed to Dutch reserve, it must have been doubly difficult.

But I am also referring to more humourous matters.

I am referring to such episodes as the image of TeKamp dressed up as some odd sort of giant flower, which circulated in May 2002 in a publicity stunt for Brockville's Communities in Bloom effort; or the fact he dressed up as Elvis for Riverfest 2003; or the fact he was the first Brockville mayor to kiss a pig for RibFest.

All of those were for community causes, but the most humiliating stunt of all is perhaps known only to a select group of community leaders and journalists: we who were present, in late November 2006, at the Chamber of Commerce gala at which TeKamp was named Citizen of the Year.

At that event, only days after TeKamp had left office for health reasons, the crowd was treated to a Chris Puddicombe satirical bit that remains the stuff of legend, a piece of video that must now lie in some consecrated comedy vault.

For those not in the know, well, it would be impolitic to mention it in detail at a time like this.

Let's just say it was a parody of the film Brokeback Mountain, and let us add that, up there above us, finally free of the pains and frustrations of a failing body, our Benny is laughing, not at the parody itself, but at the fact our reserved Dutch mayor actually had the guts to do it.

Yes, those of us in the know have no doubts about why people liked him – and why we miss him so much now.