'A damn fine man': Jack Avery, soldier and oilsands pioneer, dies at 92

Jack Avery, a man who survived the Second World War and went on to help found the Alberta oilsands, has died. Avery passed away on Sunday. He was 92 years old.

'Jack lived the kind of life you can't quite sum up in a nutshell,' says long-time friend

Jack Avery worked his way up the ranks of Suncor during a career with the company that last more than 20 years. (Paul Swanson)

Jack Avery, who served in the Second World War and was among the first workers hired in the infancy of the Alberta oilsands, has died.

Avery passed away on Sunday at the age of 92.

He will be remembered as one of the forefathers of the Alberta oil industry, and one of the founders of modern Fort McMurray.

"Jack was definitely a force in the community," said Pat Duggan, president of Fort McMurray's Royal Canadian Legion Branch 165. Avery served as branch president for many years and was a friendly fixture inside its walls for decades. 

"He was just a damn fine man. Whenever he started talking, people would stop and listen."

Avery started his 20-year career in the Fort McMurray oilsands in the fall of 1966, working for the Great Canadian Oil Sands company.

GCOS would later become industry giant Suncor, but when Avery first arrived on site the refinery was still being pieced together.

"I helped start up Suncor," Avery said in an interview with CBC News last year. "I got to turn the lights on. My employee badge number was five, so I've been around for a while."

The company was using water, instead of oil, to test the equipment. Leaks were common and Avery said when temperatures plunged on Grey Cup weekend that year, the gas lines on the processing plant froze solid, and didn't thaw again until mid-February.

"Oh, there was just the odd problem," he recalled with a laugh.
This photo shows construction of the Great Canadian Oil Sands Plant in 1965. (Supplied )

Avery was born on Feb. 23, 1925, in Lacombe, Alta. After graduating high school, he enlisted in the army as a wireless operator in 1943 and spent two years serving overseas in England and the Netherlands.

Discharged after the war ended in 1945, he moved back to his hometown and helped out at his father's bakery.

Two years later came a fateful meeting with the love of his life.

Just hours before a party in 1947, Avery's date backed out but offered to set him up with her friend instead.

The rest is history.

"I went to where Olga lived," Avery said last year.

He knocked on the door, she answered.

"She looked at me and said, 'You're it?' And I said, 'Yes.' "

Soon after that unusual blind date, the pair fell in love and settled into a marriage that lasted 63 years. The couple had three children together, Mary Lynn, Bill and Barbara.

The couple moved to Medicine Hat, where Avery got a first job with Northwest Nirto Chemicals.

He started as an accountant, but when construction on their ammonia plant began, he asked for a job. He was hired on the spot, and soon moved up the ranks. Within a few years, word about the oilsands was out, and Avery starting looking north.
Fort McMurray's downtown in the early 1960s. About 2,000 people called the town home when Avery and his wife, Olga, arrived in 1966. (Provincial Archives of Alberta )

'He will be missed'

Once he and his wife arrived in Fort McMurray, they immersed themselves in hard work and community life.  He was an avid volunteer and became the Fort McMurray public school district's longest serving trustee.

Olga frequently volunteered within the school board while working as a teacher aide and a secretary. She died in  2012. Avery had lived alone ever since. 

His health began to suffer after the wildfire last spring, and he moved to Okotoks to be closer to family, Duggan said.

Those who knew him well will remember Avery as a man of quiet strength and strong character.

"Jack lived the kind of life you can't quite sum up in a nutshell," Duggan said. "But once he set his mind to something, the job was going to get done. He will be missed."

Avery's funeral will take place at the McMurray Gospel Assembly, near the corner of Manning Avenue and Main Street, on Monday, Sept. 4. After the funeral, the legion will host a celebration of life and fly its cenotaph flag at half-mast in Avery's  honour.

Looking back at his long career as a soldier, oilsands worker, school trustee, legion executive, husband, father and grandfather, Avery was a man of few regrets.

"I was lucky," he said last year.  "It was quite the adventure."

With files from the Petroleum History Project.