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COMMENTARY: A remarkable custodian of Nova Scotia’s rich history

Garry Shutlak is a kindred spirit. Like me, his obsession with history dates back to his childhood. In his case, it was dynamically inspired when a junior high school teacher took him and a few other history-minded classmates to the Nova Scotia Archives.
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Garry-Shutlak
Garry Shutlak is senior reference archivist at Nova Scotia Archives: "In the past, (people) wanted only 'the bones' of their ancestry. Now they are putting flesh on their family trees.” (novascotia.ca)

By DOROTHY GRANT

When we were little children, my terrific father would take us for long walks. During those very pleasant excursions to places like Point Pleasant Park, he would share with us historical yarns that we found absolutely captivating. These cherished adventures proved to be a priceless gift, since I’ve never lost the urge to explore history in its many thoroughly intriguing dimensions.

This probably explains why I have always admired Garry Shutlak, the senior reference archivist at Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management.

In fact, while I was working on the final draft of Amazing Medical Stories, a book I co-authored, he was an invaluable source of very significant information that I used in a chapter that told the tragic story of many of the Titanic victims who were brought to Halifax.

Shutlak is a kindred spirit in another sense. Like me, his obsession with history dates back to his childhood. In his case, it was dynamically inspired when a junior high school teacher took him and a few other history-minded classmates to the Archives.

It was during that tour that the late Phyllis Blakeley, a renowned scholar of Nova Scotia history, stimulated the "history genes” in his young mind. Not surprisingly, she eventually became his most highly respected mentor.

He vividly recalls the day in 1970 when he was offered a position at the Archives. “I had taken a course from Dr. Bruce Fergusson, the provincial archivist, and candidly, while I was at university, I bugged him a lot until he gave me a summer job. That year, thanks to him, I was thrilled when I was given a full-time position.”

Today, he is very grateful for the guidance he received from Blakeley and Fergusson and acknowledges it played a major role in him gaining extensive knowledge of the architects and builders who, over time, built and created Halifax. He has also attained extraordinary insight into Halifax’s history and the lives of the famous and infamous.

The Titanic disaster and the impact it had on Halifax has also been an irresistible historical challenge for him. Being a modest man, he probably would be hesitant to make this claim, but there is little doubt he has acquired enormous knowledge of this terrible tragedy, the details of which he has often graciously shared with many young Halifax students.

One thing that Shutlak especially enjoys is helping people who are researching their roots.

“Years ago, people were mainly interested in births, marriages and deaths. Now they want more. They ask: Do you have photos? Where did their ancestors live? Do we have any of their correspondence? In the past, they wanted only 'the bones' of their ancestry. Now they are putting flesh on their family trees.”

He laughs when he speaks of an amusing coincidence that happened a number of years ago.

“A man came to my desk to tell me he was doing research on his family and trying to get hold of a Mildred MacRae. I had to advise him that he would not be able to do this because she was my mother, who is no longer alive. Turns out the man was my first cousin, once removed, who for some time had been living in Montreal. Fortunately, I was able to provide him with a lot of material and also take him and his sister to a cemetery where a number of our family members are buried.”

One thing that does somewhat bother Shutlak is the realization that countless Nova Scotians have never set foot inside the Nova Scotia Archives. When I ask him to explain what this persistent oversight represents for him, he replies in an animated voice: “People are missing, perhaps, a chance to read the diary of an ancestor, or see a document they signed. There are so many wonderful opportunities — like reading a personal letter from someone like Joseph Howe or Charles Tupper. And, if any of your ancestors were killed in the Halifax Explosion, you can bring your children to the Archives and they can read about it in old newspapers, or on a website. We also have a huge collection of government and court records, some dating back as far as 1759.”

Indeed, the Archives even has letters written by American Civil War president Abraham Lincoln and also by Irish playwright Oscar Wilde, who visited Halifax in October 1882.

In October 2006, then-premier Rodney MacDonald presented long-service awards to civil servants who had 30 or more years service. Included among the recipients was Garry Shutlack, who received a plaque, a photograph with the premier and a stainless steel watch with the coat of arms of Nova Scotia and "Thirty five years" etched on the dial.

What is especially poignant about Shutlak’s outstanding work as an archivist at the Archives is learning that, early in his career, the late Blakeley who had become his mentor, shared a touching moment with him.

It seems she told him that some day she was going to retire and she felt the individual who would replace her would have to become extremely knowledgeable about Halifax’s history. "She told me that she believed I was a good candidate to fit that role.”

Looking back at Blakeley’s observation, it is now obvious that not only was she a brilliant historian, but also a wise and astute judge of character when it came to selecting the ideal candidate to fill her shoes and to continue to nurture her priceless legacy.

Dorothy Grant is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax.



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