ATYEO email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2007-09-28 published
He represented 'Toronto the clean' - at least abroad
He talked trash with the Soviets and lunched with the Queen while dealing with garbage strikes and layoffs
By Noreen SHANAHAN, Special to The Globe and Mail, Page S9
Toronto -- The man who made green garbage bags fashionable for curbside pickup back in the 1960s was Toronto streets commissioner Harold ATYEO. His mandate also included snow removal and the earliest attempts at recycling - for instance, "bundle up for Wednesday" newspaper pickup. According to former mayor David CROMBIE, who worked with Mr. ATYEO, his colleague's efforts were the likely inspiration behind Peter Ustinov's oft-quoted description of the city as "New York run by the Swiss."
Mr. ATYEO "was an excellent public servant with a strong interest in the city," Mr. CROMBIE said. "In those days, Toronto had a great reputation as a city that works, as 'Toronto the clean,' and Harold made an enormous contribution toward that."
One of his more popular legacies was a service that allowed senior citizens to have their sidewalks shovelled for them, free of charge. He was also involved in restoring the historic St. Lawrence Market and Town Hall to their 19th-century splendour.
It wasn't all laurels, however. As streets commissioner, Mr. ATYEO faced garbage strikes, inclement weather and bad tempers as one of the most picked-on bureaucrats at city hall, frequently blamed for snowdrifts, stinky streets and litter.
Opinions differ as to whether Mr. ATYEO was a visionary or a pragmatist, but his efforts took him as far afield as the Kremlin, New York and Buckingham Palace.
"He was a strong proponent of things that simply made sense," said his son Mark. "In Moscow, he was struck by the non-unionized babushkas picking up street litter with corn brooms."
Harold ATYEO was the second of three children born in Camden, Ontario, to Jesse May (MANLEY) and Frank Wesley ATYEO. In 1920, when he was 2, his family purchased a farm in Lethbridge, Alberta. He told stories about heading into town for supplies with his older brother William and passing a community of Blood Indians, who were living in tepees along the Oldman River Valley.
In 1923, the family moved back to St. Catharines, Ontario, where his father worked first as a blacksmith, then as a hydro linesman until an injury ended his career. As a teenager during the Depression, Harold delivered newspapers and stocked grocery shelves to help support the family. In 1938, he attended teachers college at the Toronto Normal School (now part of Ryerson University) and began his first assignment a year later, on the day Germany invaded Poland and the Second World War began.
He soon became principal of a two-room schoolhouse in Amherstburg, Ontario In 1943, conflicted about not being part of the war, he left teaching and joined Ferry Command in Montreal, where he worked as an air navigation instructor. In 1944, at the age of 26, he realized that because of a punctured eardrum, he'd never get his wings. Hoping to at least get closer to the action, he joined the merchant marine.
The war ended shortly after his first trip across the Atlantic, however, and he returned to the family home, which by then was in Windsor, Ontario He took a job as an inventory clerk at a department store. The war widow who hired him was Margaret Loretta CASSON - they married in 1948 and moved to Fredericton, where he obtained an engineering degree. After moving back to Ontario two years later, he began his career in municipal engineering.
In 1953, he took a position as an engineer with the Township of North York, which was amalgamated into the City of Toronto the following year. In 1964, he took a job as commissioner of the streets department in the city of Toronto and moved into an office in the new City Hall. One of his early tasks included posting newspaper notices urging citizens to "clean up, paint up, don't be a litter bug."
From there, he moved on to being a kind of ambassador for the city, culminating in a trip to Moscow in 1968, in the thick of the Cold War, to meet with Soviet premier Alexey Kosygin and make suggestions about such issues as street cleaning, snow removal and synchronized traffic lights.
Ben GRYS, who was chairman of Toronto's public works department at the time, joined Mr. ATYEO in Moscow. He remembers his colleague as approachable and open-minded, but noted: "He wouldn't mind getting into a real knock-'em-out discussion to prove his point, and in most cases, he was right."
On the way back from the Soviet Union, Mr. and Mrs. ATYEO stopped off for a luncheon hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Although this luncheon made for a good family story, his son said nobody knew exactly why his parents were invited in the first place.
In 1972, Mr. ATYEO instituted another significant change by reducing Toronto's curbside garbage pickup to once a week, from twice. "It would be a nice, clean operation," he told The Globe and Mail at the time.
The schedule shift was an important step along the road toward the kind of recycling and composting initiatives the city has in place today, with garbage now picked up only once every two weeks. Nevertheless, when it was implemented, critics saw it as anything but clean. A union spokesman representing garbage collectors told the Toronto Star that once-a-week pickups would result in the trash "being carted off by maggots… hopefully they'll walk in the direction of the garbage trucks." There were also layoffs.
The streets and works departments merged in 1972 and fell under the jurisdiction of commissioner Ray BREMNER. Mr. ATYEO lost his title and reluctantly moved into a new position in the property department.
One of his last major projects for the city was in 1974, restructuring St. Lawrence Market and Town Hall. "They re-established the St. Lawrence Hall and did a lot of renovation in the South Market," Mr. CROMBIE said. "And here we are, 33 years later, [planning to] change the St. Lawrence Hall into the Toronto museum… Harold would have understood the vision."
Mr. ATYEO left Toronto in 1976 to take a job as superintendent of works in Gravenhurst, Ontario, where he worked until retiring a decade later. The end of his career, however, harked back to his schoolhouse roots: He temporarily went back to work as a supply teacher, teaching shop.
Harold ATYEO was born June 24, 1918, in Camden, Ontario, and died of cancer August 26, 2007. He was 89. He is predeceased by wife Margaret and leaves children Frank, Candace, Susan, Debra, Mark and Jo.
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