History enthusiast helping to bring past to life

By J.D. Booth
Like many before and since, Bob McCarthy isn't technically a native of Sarnia-Lambton.
But he's close.
 
 

Bob McCarthy

The retired schoolteacher, and now author and history enthusiast, came to the area, began by working in several office related positions in the Toronto area, living in the Woodbine East area now called the Beaches.

That all changed in 1969 with a shortage of business teachers, which must have been a bit of a gift for McCarthy, armed with just a high school diploma and a wife and two children in the family, even though the initial pay was less than what he had been earning prior to returning to the classroom.
 
"It was worth it in the long run," says McCarthy, remembering that while he was able to begin teaching in the fall, he had to spend two additional summers getting his academic qualifications.
"I could see that people with degrees were getting promoted faster than I was," notes McCarthy. "At the time I was thinking I should be doing something else, then someone who I was working for left for a teaching position in Kingston. I would soon do the same thing."
The McCarthys—Bob and Jane—would eventually have two children, with Jane staying home to care for them, but for Bob, going into the classroom wasn't the kind of adjustment some might think.
"It was a new phase of life, certainly, but not much of an adjustment," he says. "I enjoyed it right away."
McCarthy's first school was the now-closed Central Collegiate; when the building became St. Patrick's Secondary School, he moved to Alexander Mackenzie Secondary School.
But it was two years before McCarthy took up teaching, in Canada's Centennial year, that McCarthy took on a project that would become the basis for a sustained love of history.
"It was my 1967 Centennial project, to earn about my ancestors and eventually write a book on my findings," notes McCarthy, who took some 33 years to eventually publish the Corneilie Papers, which covers 300 years of history concerning his paternal grandmother's family.
"As the Internet took hold, it became an invaluable tool in my research," notes McCarthy, although he also credits the Family History Centre and various census records as important sources for the project.
"Where the Internet really helped was when I was ready to write the story," he adds. "I knew dates for birth, marriage and deaths, but little else as far as details are concerned."
McCarthy took what he calls "a novel way" to tell the family history, not exactly embellishing the details, but melding what he knew about the family with details on what was happening in a certain place and time—gathered from his Internet searches.
"For example, I knew that Charles Dickens had visited Quebec City during the time my family was there in the 1800s, having come by steamboat from Montreal. Did they meet? We don't know, but they might have and in the book they do."
The story takes on a personal note (as most family histories would be expected), as McCarthy explains how immigrants would come to Canada on the empty ships that were heading back to North America for logs used by British shipbuilders.
"They [the shippers] would charge the people, but they didn't care about them at all."
McCarthy retired from his teaching duties in June 1998, having spent fifteen years at Alexander Mackenzie following the closing of Central in June 1983, teaching all manner of business subjects ("everything but shorthand at some time or another.").
He admits that time involved in teaching duties slowed the writing project down somewhat.
"I was also involved with a bunch of other things, including drug awareness groups, the Optimists, the Safe Communities Foundation and a lot of other things of interest to the community."
When he retired, he cut back on those activities, choosing to concentrate on the writing.
He was involved in the Mayor's Millennium Committee and in 1999 created a game that would help educate students about the history of Lambton County (which that year celebrated its 150th anniversary).
An active member of the Lambton Historical Society, McCarthy meets with the group several times a year.
And he's taken on the role of Contributing Editor to LambtonShield.com, a completely modern version of the newspaper formed by Alexander Mackenzie, Canada's second prime minister, and fellow Reform party member George Brown.
During his school teaching days, McCarthy was a student himself, having earned a degree in history (minoring in psychology) from University of Western Ontario.
Clearly his real passion remains teaching—through history.
"One of my first books was a book I wrote for a grand niece of mine, a girl who had never read any books."
McCarthy's wife Jane, who doesn't necessarily share his writing passion, does help him fill in some of the blanks when she hears something she knows her husband will want to use.
In the meantime, he hopes to help create a culture where history is enjoyed and celebrated.
"If I can take a few facts and put something around them, creating a story that someone is going to enjoy reading, that's something special."

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