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A Team of Two Bret(t)s

Calgary icons champion the library together

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W. Brett Wilson and Bret “Hitman” Hart

Steel beams – so enormous it’s difficult to fathom their size – stretch high above, part of an intricate maze connecting huge concrete pillars and a complex truss system. Scaffolding scales the height of four storeys, providing a striking approximation of the future building’s light-filled atrium. Hexagonal glass panels are placed into position on the exterior like a jigsaw puzzle, each individual pane being slightly different from the 484 others. And two massive cranes sway back and forth in the sky while down below 150 construction labourers work day and night.

The scene of Calgary’s New Central Library is an awesome one. After one year of construction, the gigantic skeleton of concrete, steel and glass bears little resemblance to the eventual 240,000-square-foot space expected to be finished in 2018, though it definitely gets the heart pounding.

Begun with encapsulation of the LRT track which now sits in the belly of the building, the New Central Library is the baby of the City of Calgary, Calgary Municipal Land Corporation and the Calgary Public Library. The $245-million project is intended to transform the library into a world-class facility, and is part of the East Village redevelopment.

It is also the catalyst for Add In, the Calgary Public Library Foundation’s campaign for Calgary’s library system. “The campaign is a bold, audacious vision to take a great library system and transform it into the best in the world,” explains Brent Buechler, vice president of the Library Foundation. “The $350-million city-wide campaign will build capacity for each and every community library and ensure that the New Central Library is a place of unbridled possibility.”

To date, the campaign has raised $298 million and in early 2016, the Library Foundation surpassed 10,000 individual and corporate donors.

And now two of Calgary’s finest have joined the campaign. Bret “Hitman” Hart and W. Brett Wilson – known across Canada and the world for their innumerable accomplishments – are the tag dream team for the library. “They are the best at what they do,” says Buechler. “Iconic Calgarians who love this city, are committed to make a positive difference for it, and align together around the library cause as a critical part of Calgary and its future.”

Hart hardly needs an introduction: a seven-time world champion professional wrestler throughout a 23-year career; the most famous member of Calgary’s Hart family (the eighth of 12 kids), whose patriarch Stu Hart pioneered the sport with his Stampede Wrestling; a survivor of countless wrestling injuries and a debilitating stroke in 2002; a supporter of many charitable causes; a father and grandfather who is today, 16 years post-retirement, still considered to be one of the best pro-wrestlers of all time.

Perhaps less well known is that Hart is also a writer. In 2007 he published his autobiography Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling in which he recounts, in great detail and with stark honesty, his life from childhood until the death of his father in 2003. It took him seven years to write – entirely himself – the product of 100 tapes he had dictated, every couple of days or so, throughout his career.

BRENT BUECHLER, VICE PRESIDENT CALGARY PUBLIC LIBRARY FOUNDATION; BRET HART 2016 BOB EDWARDS AWARD RECIPIENT; ELI MATHIESON, STUART OLSON; BRETT WILSON 2015 BOB EDWARDS AWARD RECIPIENT; AND CARSON KOTNYEK, STUART OLSON. PHOTO SOURCE: EWAN PHOTO VIDEO
BRENT BUECHLER, VICE PRESIDENT CALGARY PUBLIC LIBRARY
FOUNDATION; BRET HART 2016 BOB EDWARDS AWARD RECIPIENT; ELI
MATHIESON, STUART OLSON; BRETT WILSON 2015 BOB EDWARDS AWARD
RECIPIENT; AND CARSON KOTNYEK, STUART OLSON.
PHOTO SOURCE: EWAN PHOTO VIDEO

It’s his writing achievements, along with many others, that landed Hart as this year’s Bob Edwards Award winner. The award is handed out annually at the Library Foundation’s signature event to “a provocative individual who is not afraid to speak his mind.” Past winners include Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley and Wilson, who won last year and will MC this year’s gala on November 4.

Winning this year’s Bob Edwards Award is, Hart says, a sweet victory – the long-awaited recognition of his writing skills. “I’m very honoured,” he says. “It’s an award that I’ll cherish and take great pride in. I take great pride in my book.” He recalls how his high school English teacher, biased by the Hart name, didn’t believe he was handing in his own work and failed him. “It made me mad because I was doing my own work.”

A lover of books, Hart is enthusiastic in his support for the library. “It has helped a lot of people and it’s something worthwhile to be a part of and to check out.”

Choosing Hart as this year’s Bob Edwards Award recipient was a no-brainer. “Bret has always answered the library’s call to help promote the importance of reading and literacy to children,” says Buechler.

Wilson’s success comes from altogether different accomplishments. As a co-founder of FirstEnergy Capital Corp., he became one of Canada’s most successful investment bankers; today he invests in various industries through his company, Prairie Merchant Corporation; he was a panellist on CBC Television’s Dragons’ Den; his philanthropic efforts are legendary – he has supported numerous causes including the Alzheimer Society of Canada, Battlefords’ United Way, Little Warriors and Juno House, to name a few. He too has published a book – Redefining Success: Still Making Mistakes, recounting his experiences and lessons in business and life.

Wilson was asked to be this year’s MC, Buechler explains, since he is a provocateur in the tradition of Bob Edwards. “He captivated, cajoled and provoked our gala guests last year with his acceptance speech.”

NEW CENTRAL LIBRARY PHOTO SOURCE: CALGARY MUNICIPAL LAND CORPORATION
NEW CENTRAL LIBRARY
PHOTO SOURCE: CALGARY MUNICIPAL LAND CORPORATION

The cause is close to Wilson’s heart. “As a kid I was small for my age; I got picked on to the point where I wasn’t comfortable in the playground,” he says. “The library was where I could hide on a Saturday – I was a voracious reader. It was a place of solace.” He later revelled in taking his own kids to the library. “I have some pretty fond memories.”

Since taking over the Bob Edwards Award in 2012, the Library Foundation has raised more than $820,000. Proceeds from this year’s gala will be invested in a comprehensive early literacy strategy. This year’s title sponsor is TD Bank Group. “It is critical to the success of the city to call out the important work the library is doing,” says Brian Gervais, SVP Prairie region of TD Canada Trust. “Whether it’s their dynamic programming, their move to make library cards free for everyone or their push to create lifelong learners, the Calgary Public Library isn’t afraid to take risks. And that’s because they have an exceptionally bold goal. They’re looking to be the best library in the world.”

Friends for some time now, Hart and Wilson recall how prostate cancer first brought them together. Hart’s encounter with the disease – his elevated prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels were detected in 2013 and he underwent a robotic prostatectomy this past February – prompted him to reach out to Wilson, who has battled the disease twice.

“I sent an SOS out to Brett as [my surgery] got closer,” Hart explains. “I really wanted someone to tell me what I was going to deal with and lay it out for me in layman’s terms.” Wilson was honoured. “I had the privilege of Bret opening up to me and I did the same in terms of my journey – because he had some very personal concerns and questions.”

Initially reluctant to go public with his experience, Hart eventually did so. Wilson is full of praise. “For Bret to open up I think was a big thing,” Wilson says. “[He] went from having a very private journey to being one of Canada’s leading spokesman in terms of celebrating the testing and awareness that’s required around this disease.”

PSA testing is something both men advocate strongly. Wilson believes it saved his life. “I was diagnosed at 43 and at the time the Canadian Cancer Society said they didn’t recommend testing until age 50. As I point out, they would have had to dig up the body to do the tests if I had relied on that data.” He laments the misinformation coming from the medical community. “Knowledge won’t kill you. In other words, get the test. Ignorance might kill you.”

Hart’s surgery was a success, and his PSA levels are currently zero. “I had a lot of fears and doubts about what my life would be like afterwards, but everything’s been pretty positive,” he says. “I wish I could say the same about my hand surgery.”

Last November, Hart underwent surgery on his right hand related to an old wrestling injury. He believes it severed a nerve. “I’ve lost the feeling in my finger and my thumb, and it’s driving me crazy because I can’t write or draw,” he says, referring to his passion for writing and his talent as a cartoonist.

Beyond their names, prostate cancer, the fact they’re both authors and two of Calgary’s most successful and famous men, the Bret(t)s share a few other commonalities. They were born a day apart – Wilson on July 1 and Hart on July 2, 1957 – and are approaching their 60th birthdays.

“I measure my life as two-thirds done, which means I’ve got another great 30 years,” says Wilson. “I’m emotionally ready and I think I’m physically ready.” He plans to continue to use his platform to raise the profile of cancer, the library and many other causes. “There are a lot of overlapping things that look pretty interesting.”

Hart too is looking forward. “I feel like tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my life. I don’t have any obstacles, I have lots of goals. I don’t rule anything out. I’d like to write another book. I’d like to win the world title two more times,” he chuckles.

He describes a duty he feels to live his life for the many wrestlers – little brother Owen Hart among them – who didn’t survive the industry. “I want to be remembered more for doing positive things here in the community. I want to try to make the best of everything I’ve got and never waste a day.”

Despite so many laudable accomplishments, both men have no trouble identifying what they hope for their legacies.

“Three kids,” Wilson says with emotion. “How they interact with society is a pure reflection of the values that their mother and I put into them. I really don’t have much else that I care about.”

“I’d like a legacy of being a great Calgarian,” Hart says. “To be remembered as a great Canadian. I want to carry the Hart name. I’m very proud of what my dad built, and what I carried forward.”

Unapologetically proud of his talent and skill, he notes he never injured another wrestler in roughly 6,900 matches (approximately 300 matches per year). “I stand by my work as a professional wrestler,” he says. “Sometimes it’s misunderstood – my ego about pro-wrestling – but I really think that I was the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be.”

A dynamic duo if ever one existed, any cause would be lucky to have both Hart and Wilson in their corner, let alone one of them. Today, the library is that fortunate cause. No doubt there will be more to come.

For more information on the Add In campaign visit addin.ca.

1 COMMENT

  1. Awesome read!! Both men have come a long way, and their passion for the library, as well as so many other common factors, is pretty fascinating! The Calgary Library is very fortunate to have their support!

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