For more than 40 years, he’s dealt with cultural challenges all over North America, from the eastern Arctic to Richmond and from Idaho to Vancouver, before coping with the growing pains of a city.
Last Friday, June 28, was the last time Ted Townsend would be referred to in the media as a “spokesperson for the City of Richmond.”
Often found at the front end of a TV news camera or giving a quote to a newspaper, Townsend retired last week after 19 years as the city’s director of communications.
Asked what he’ll miss most when he woke up Monday morning a “free man,” Townsend said “the people.”
“But I am looking forward to no one (at the city) asking me for my opinion on something,” he laughed.
As for being the name many people connected with city hall, outside of mayor and council, Townsend said he enjoyed it, even though criticism occasionally followed.
“I was from Dawson Creek, who came to the big city because I had this idea I could tell stories,” said the former newspaper editor.
“And that’s what I still do today. But the very first day in journalism class, we were told that you’re going to need to develop a thick skin.
“I learned quickly that it’s just part of the job and not everybody’s going to agree with the decision (of the city). Of course, there were some people who couldn’t separate the messenger from the message.
“I was somewhat reluctant to do this interview, because people credit me with a lot of stuff, because I’m the public face of the city.
“But I’m just telling the story of the hard work that has been done by other great people in the city.”
Prior to taking the communication reins at city hall, 60-year-old Townsend honed his skills over 21 years in the newspaper game.
His colourful career kicked off with an internship at The Province newspaper in 1979 (which lasted three weeks) before taking a paid version at the Vancouver Sun, all while studying journalism at Langara College.
After graduating in 1982, the only jobs available were in small towns, which saw him take on a daunting role as the sole reporter on Baffin Island, in the far eastern Arctic.
“I thought, ‘what’s going to be more interesting on my resume? Kitimat, Castlegar or working in the last frontier?’” said Townsend.
“The paper was bilingual, printed in English and Inuktitut. The paper went all over the eastern Arctic. I was writing about land claims, territories being divided, gas exploration. Translating was a challenge.
“Ironically, here I am, 40 years later with a similar challenge in Richmond.”
In the spring of ’83, Townsend spent three days working for a paper in the western Arctic, before being offered a reporter’s job at the Richmond Review, where he took only three years to work his way up to editor.
And in the late ‘80s, his career took an unexpected turn when he accepted the publisher’s role at a small daily in Idaho.
“It was in Blackfoot, the potato capital of the U.S. That was fun,” recalled Townsend.
“I was 30. I was only there for a year. It was a different culture down there, a very different country and I missed Canada.”
In 1990, the opportunity of editor arose at the Westender in Vancouver which, at that time, was the polar opposite of Blackfoot.
“Blackfoot was heavy Mormon territory, very conservative and then coming to the Westender, where there was one of Canada’s largest gay communities…” he laughed.
“Vancouver was hosting the Gay Games and the Westender had a special edition.
“I opened up a copy in Idaho and I said to myself, ‘you’re not in Idaho anymore.’”
Townsend returned for a second stint as editor at the Review in the late ‘90s, before being head-hunted in 2000 for the birth of the communications role at city hall.
But, if you lead communications in a rapidly growing city for almost two decades, there are bound to be challenging times.
None more so, said Townsend, than the scandal of the early 2000s, where female firefighters at Richmond Fire-Rescue took extended sick leave, en masse, amid allegations of harassment from male colleagues.
“It was extremely difficult as there were significant issues that needed to be addressed quickly,” said Townsend.
“During the middle of that, I woke up one morning and walked downstairs to get my newspapers at the front door. There was a screaming headline in The Province about the fire-rescue saga and a screaming headline on the front page of the Sun about...how the Olympic Oval may sink...after being built.
“Here were these two huge (headlines). Two crises on the same day!”
Scandals and sinking buildings aside, there were many gratifying days for Townsend.
“There are so many memorable moments from the Olympics and the Oval,” he said.
“(Two of them were) the first day we were able to get the national speed skating team on the ice and the opening day of the Oval.
“That was an emotional day. As was the first ship sailing up the river for Tall Ships 2002.”
And it comes as no surprise that, since he started as a reporter at the Review in ’83, he’s acutely aware of the changes Richmond has experienced.
“It’s not just Richmond that has changed. The whole region and the country has changed. I love diversity…I love it here,” said Townsend.
“Are there still challenges? I think there’s still transition. Not everyone embraces change. Some people struggle with it, so there are challenges with that.
“Richmond was a great community when I first came here in 80s and it had certain characteristic then, many of which no longer exist.
“But it’s great for different reasons now. I think it’s a much more vibrant community now than ‘Ditchmond,’ (as it used to be known as).
“And Richmond is no longer described as the ‘city where the airport is.’”
So what’s in store for Townsend now?
“I’m going to visit Vimy Ridge, where my grandfather fought. None of my family have been there,” he said, adding that he’s also planning a trip to Morocco and Spain.
“I lost a lot of weight in the last two years and now that I’ve got my health back, I’m planning to walk the Honolulu Marathon in December.”