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"PEM" 2002 Obituary


PEMBER o@ca.on.york_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2002-12-04 published
Civic leader triumphed over dyslexia
Councillor, mayor of Woodstock, Ontario, grasped the issues by talking to people
By Randy RAY Special to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, December 4, 2002 -- Page R9
Joe PEMBER could barely read and never learned to write more than his own name but his lifelong struggle with dyslexia didn't stop him from rising to the pinnacle of local politics in Woodstock, Ontario, where he also ran a successful business.
Mr. PEMBER, a long-time city councillor, and mayor of Woodstock for six years, died on October 2. He was 59.
Friends, colleagues and family praised Mr. PEMBER as a colourful and remarkable civic leader who overcame stiff odds to make a name for himself. Because of an incurable disorder, all letters and sentences he saw appeared jumbled, yet still managed to help run a city and operate a profitable and vital business.
Joe PEMBER Jr. said his father's dyslexia was in large measure responsible for his success.
"He endeared himself to a lot of people -- and a lot of people out there gave him help. Later in life, he committed much of what he saw to memory. Because of that, he was able to organize his thoughts very quickly and could think better than most."
Mr. PEMBER was born in Toronto and moved to Woodstock at age four. He started school in a special class that included mentally handicapped pupils, but dropped out after Grade 3 and, at 14, landed a job delivering telegrams. By age 17 he was washing ambulances. Later, he became a driver, then paramedic and finally manager of Woodstock Ambulance Ltd. By age 21, he owned the company.
Mr. PEMBER struggled with his condition and considered himself a "freak." When he was 30, a London, Ontario, neurologist finally diagnosed him as dyslexic.
He was first elected to city council in 1973 and made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1976. He was back in 1979 and was elected mayor in 1985 and re-elected in 1988. As mayor and a Woodstock councillor, he served for several years on Oxford County Council. He later stepped down as mayor, but stayed on city council until the day he died.
Whether he was at city hall or running the ambulance business with his wife Alice, Mr. PEMBER never acquired a special assistant to help with day-to-day duties. It was Joe Jr., his wife and those he worked with who often read agendas and other material to him.
"It's remarkable how he compensated," said his long-time friend Suresh DIXIT, a Woodstock physician. "He was like a one-legged man who won every race."
Dr. DIXIT said Mr. PEMBER got around his dyslexia by developing memory and listening skills. Because he could not read the council agenda, he simply talked to citizens or city staff to get a grasp of the issues.
Joe PEMBER was "apolitical," said Phil POOLE, who spent 34 years on the same council.
"He was forever helping people, whether dealing with issues on council or during his everyday life. He had a very generous spirit," said Mr. POOLE, who remembers Mr. PEMBER handing a $20 bill to a needy person on the street.
As a politician, Mr. PEMBER's legacy includes spearheading a drive to build the Springbank Street bridge, which joined north and south Woodstock and opened up the city's industrial land to development.
In the mid-190s, he was also instrumental in bringing about the Woodstock District Community Complex that gave the city two double-pad hockey arenas, a meeting hall and space for a gymnastics club, a community college campus and a day-care centre.
Chris NIXON, city hall reporter for The Woodstock Sentinel-Review in the late 1970s, remembers Mr. PEMBER as a "reporter and editor's dream" -- especially on a slow news day.
"If you needed colourful quotes to juice up a story, he was the go-to guy. The subject didn't matter -- you'd just background Joe on it and he'd shoot from the lip," said Mr. NIXON, now an editor with The London Free Press. "Here was a guy who really did care about his community and who truly believed that what he was doing -- and saying -- was for the betterment of the community."
When Mr. PEMBER couldn't find the right words to express himself, he often resorted to "Pemberisms" -- made-up words and expressions, such as "flusterated," a combination of flustered and frustrated.
"He knew what he wanted to say, so he put it into his own word," said Mr. POOLE. " You knew exactly what he meant."
As a paramedic, Mr. PEMBER was often the first to arrive at hundreds of grisly accident scenes.
"He had an uncanny ability to deal with the injured and help their families," Dr. DIXIT said, adding that Mr. PEMBER kept his cool at accident scenes but was sometimes haunted by what he had witnessed -- especially if it involved young people. Mr. PEMBER retired from the business on Jan. 1, 2001.
Mr. PEMBER leaves his wife Alice, daughter Heather and sons Joe and Jay.
Joe PEMBER, local politician and businessman; born in Toronto on June 28, 1943; died in Woodstock, Ontario, on Oct. 2, 2002.

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