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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Loss of community leader should inspire

First published: March 13, 2009

The recent death of local businessman and community volunteer Bob MacCoubrey was a huge loss to the community deserving a moment of reflection by all residents in West Northumberland.

Mr. MacCoubrey touched many people from those with the most humble background to the most powerful in the area. It was fitting for Cobourg Mayor Peter Delanty to take a few seconds in his year-end address at the New Years Levee to recognize his contributions. He died on Dec. 27.

For a small rural community, Mr. MacCoubrey was someone who was larger than life and leaves behind a legacy of generosity and community service.

However, it is vital to recall the manner in which Mr. MacCoubrey touched so many lives. Through his funeral home business, he connect with people at a time when they feel incredibly vulnerable, suffering the grief of losing a loved one. His compassion must have been bottomless to spend all those years assisting people. He was one of the first to adopt grief-counseling services, exemplifying his commitment to alleviating the suffering of people.

But, it is his long record of service as a fundraiser and volunteer that makes this loss particularly devastating to the community. While he helped organizations as diverse as Rotary, the Cobourg Public Library and the Northumberland Hills Hospital, it was more than just a matter of public service. It was a moving feeling, possibly reflecting his deep religious values and service to Trinity United Church. He expressed this during a speech at a fundraising event in 2005, reflecting on his accomplishments for the new hospital.

“For me, it was something close to a spiritual experience to realize so many people care as much as we do about this dream. This has got to be the most exciting experience in my life. And most of these people have never opened their hearts or their wallets to this extent before,” he said.

This was borne out of a strong sense of community. One other time, he told a reporter what it meant to him to live in West Northumberland.

“I feel I am so lucky to live in this community. We have got a large family in the area, four generations, and have been so fortunate to live here,” he said, in 2001.

There are many people in the community who raise money, but few belong to an elite group who raise large sums for good causes. As Bill Patchett, a fellow Rotarian and the new hospital campaign chair, said when he worked with him to raise $12.5 million for Northumberland Hills Hospital, Mr. MacCoubrey had a “deft touch”. He would be responsible for seeking donations of $100,000 or more.

Mr. MacCoubrey left behind some pretty big shoes to fill. The diversity of causes and his ability to raise significant sums for worthy organizations will be missed. Certainly, there are many people in the community who volunteer, donate generous sums of money and help raise funds for good causes. But, as anyone who has tried to ask for donations knows, it takes a special kind of person to reach out in the way Mr. MacCoubrey did. Those people have a special talent that must be recognized and honoured.

When academics talk about community development, it is normal to talk about economic capital, like income, investments, retail and commercial sectors, industry and so forth. What is not discussed very often is something called social capital, as demonstrated by volunteerism, recreational activities, social organizations, service clubs and so on.

West Northumberland has a long and deep tradition of having a high level of social capital. In the late 18th Century, a British traveller wrote about Cobourg, commenting on all the great community organizations that existed. There were lots of churches, groups to help the poor; some that helped newly arrived immigrants, among others. It was viewed as a sign of sophistication for such a young town.

Little has changed over the years. To look at the massive numbers of people who give of their time and resources is astounding. From sports coaches to Girl Guide leaders to service club members to library helpers, people in West Northumberland are generous. This builds the regions social capital and makes it a good place to live.

However, the economic downturn threatens this social capital, not just economic capital. United Way executive director Lynda Kay expressed it so clearly last month when she announced a possible shortfall to its annual fundraising drive for $845,000. People were giving generously, but it was still not enough.

Other organizations may face the same troubles. And, while there are so many good groups that do outstanding work to help those who are less fortunate or in need, the current economic climate cannot impact our spirit. Two things may need to be considered during these tough times.

First, organizations must consider lowering expectations when it comes to fundraising. With businesses and industry closing or facing tough times, there will be a lot less than before. This may shift the burden of giving to individuals, but, again, there may not be as much as people lose their jobs or face economic tribulations.

Second, organizations may need to reset priorities. Many of the galas, which are famous for raising huge sums within a single event, may not be possible for a while. It may mean a return to smaller events raising fewer dollars, but doing them more often. However, while people may not have the same amounts of money, they may be able to volunteer and give time, instead. And, these are only a few of the myriad of issues these organizations face.

In reflecting on the passing of a great community leader, Mr. MacCoubrey’s life sets an admirable example. As West Northumberland pushes forward in these uncertain times, we should not forget the giving spirit of our predecessors and make sure that is never lost.

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