Skip to content

About a Squamish veteran

91-year-old Gerry Cotter on what the Canadian Air Force taught him and living life well.

The view from Gerry Cotter's stunning cedar sitting room window looks out far above the houses below and takes the breath away: trees in their colourful autumn glory, regal mountains and blue sky as far as the eye can see. 

Inside, Cotter, 91, sits in a comfy overstuffed chair, surrounded by photos and mementos of a well-lived life. A model jet fighter holds a prominent place to his left, a model sailboat behind him. 

On the wall hangs a drawing of a skier in action by his late wife, Joanie, his best friend and constant companion until two years ago. The frame of the skier making a turn on a steep hill is made from wood that was at least 150 years ago taken from a log cabin by Joanie’s nephew. 

Every item in the expansive house seems to tell a story. 

The well-travelled proud father, grandfather, vigorous athlete and twice-widowed local also has a bathroom with more than 125 photos that span his life and adventures with those he loves. 

The phrase "they don't make them like that anymore” comes to mind both for the well-built home full of local wood features and the man who lives there.

After he bought the house decades ago, he pretty much rebuilt it, Cotter said.

In honour of the upcoming Remembrance Day, The Squamish Chief sat down with Cotter for a wide-ranging conversation about his 25 years of military service, which took him all over the world. 

In that time, he eventually rose up the ranks to the position of senior air traffic controller with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The more than hour-long chat also touched on his time in Squamish and lessons learned over his more than nine decades.

When did you get involved with the Canadian Air Force (RCAF)?

I joined the Airforce in 1952. I was born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. That was in the Cold War period. The western world was trying to get used to the idea that the atomic bomb was such a powerful menace.

Kids in school were taught to duck under chairs, and some people were building their own airway shelters in their gardens.

And the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) got very concerned about the western world’s safety.

And then, the Canadian aviation industry started to build aircraft. The vision was that if there was a Russian invasion, it would come from the North. 

That is when the CF-100 was built. 

(The first military jet fighter entirely designed and built in Canada.)

When I got out of high school, I went to Nova Scotia Technical College for a year, and when I got back, everyone was joining the Air Force. 

I joined as an airman at 20 years old and eventually worked my way up to an officer. 

It was the beginning of my adult life; I left home. I was a radio technician. I joined a squadron, and I was transferred to Bagotville, Quebec. I wanted to learn to ski.
 

Eventually, you ended up in air traffic control? 

Yes, I took the course to get to that. I found that was really my niche. So I spent my whole career with jet fighters.

Were you happy in the Air Force? Is that a hard question? 

No, it's not a hard question. I joined the Air Force, and I went through basic training. And I suddenly realized I'm surrounded by a whole variety of very young, bright people — there are people that are collecting stamps, there are people that are building model airplanes, and there are people who are going to be pilots and navigators, and they have a whole training command. And so it was wonderful. Socially, it was great. I learned to ski. I became an instructor. And we had a little ski team in Europe. We skied against the other stations: the French and the Germans, and the other Canadians mostly.

I played drums in a dance band. I had a marvellous time.

The education is amazing. You have to write your exams to get to your levels. And then, if you get promoted, you have to take another course.

My experience is that the people that are in there stay there because they want to. And you get rewarded for your hard work. Getting chosen for Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) meant a lot to me. The pilots loved us.

You can't really do 18,000 approaches without having a whole lot of experiences, some difficult, most not difficult.

The biggest thing was the belief that you are doing what is best for your country.

Did you keep in contact with your Air Force friends after you got out of service? 

I am still staying in contact. One of my friends, I am going to go visit Vancouver Island later this month.

Was it hard for you to transition to civilian life when you left the forces? 

Yes. Mother Air Force: they looked after me. If you had a problem, they would say, OK, you're not feeling well, take a couple of days off. And if you were in a room at a meeting, you could speak and be respected. 

I lost that feeling after.

What are some of the things you learned in the Air Force that you used throughout your life? 

It taught me that the first thing you do when there's an emergency is nothing. That nothing could be just a second — by the time you assess, evaluate and then select. That would come up all the time. Somebody would bang the door, and Joanie would jump. I never jumped. 

I would spill something and just look at it and say, "Oh, that spilled." She would say, "Yes! And you better clean it up." Ha ha. 

And every minute you are on the job, you're doing the absolute very best you can. I'm that way. 

And the other training is you see a whole lot of people, you meet a whole lot of people, and you start to understand characters. I must have worked with 300 people, but my good friends I can put on one hand.

I think you have to be content with your own life. And you have to have somebody that loves you. Joanie and I were inseparable.

You just turned 91. Lots of folks don't make it that long. What do you think is the secret to your longevity? 

I never drank, and I never smoked. And I'm not an athlete, but I'm athletic.

I am a passionate skier. I taught skiing in Whistler until I was 88. And I was always interested in good health. I am soon starting a master's swim program at Brennan Park Recreation Centre. 

Also, I had a job that fascinated me. If there was an emergency, I was anxious to take it, because I wanted to prove to myself I was as good as I thought I was. 

For me, the military was the best thing that ever happened to me. There was esprit de corps, there were ski teams. I had seven years in Europe. On holidays and weekends, we would ski in the Alps, and then in the summer, we went to Norway.

And when did you move to Squamish? 

About 1977. 

My first wife, Elizabeth, started Whistle Stop originally in the little mall. It was called Whistle Stop For Jeans, then.
 

What do you think of the changes in Squamish? You have seen so much since the 1970s. 

When I came here, it was just a little logging town, and you knew everyone, but it was cozy. 

We had to make a lot of trips to Vancouver for things. It's a different world and a different time.

Maybe we — as people — don't have the direction we had after the war: to build our little house and raise our children.

About Squamish, Squamish is in a rush to get built. It's going to be an annex of Vancouver. 

I mean, it is a lovely place to live. The politics are too political to comment on. 

We have to compress people together because we are running out of space. 

I think we have to accept the change.

What are you looking forward to this winter? Will you go skiing? 

I would like to. My sons want me to. I have two boys. One is an architect in Vancouver, and he's just retiring from a big company. And my other one is his master's in education. And he lives here. I have a granddaughter that's in Scotland right now with her partner, and she's teaching special ed. My other son, Patrick — he has two boys. And they've married two lovely girls. One's a registered nurse, a Psych nurse, and the other one's a journalist. It is an amazing family. We're very close. We're all skiers.

About a local is a regular column about interesting locals. If you have someone in mind for the column, email jthuncher@squamishhief.om

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks