Des Deroche at Happy Hour, 2016.
Photo by Craig Thom
from next door.
Des Deroche and the the
Fundamentals of Teaching and Learning
I’ve lived across the street from Des Deroche for 11
years. My Dad was a railroad man and Des was
a railroad official, so we had that going for us
from the start and went on from there. I
admire Des greatly, especially for his
sustained commitment to physical
fitness, brisk 5-mile walk every
day, exercise when he gets
home, and even after his
pacemaker it took him
no time at all to get
back into his
ever think of Des as anything
but fit, and not just physically, either.
When I talk with him, for instance, he is 100%
right there with me. You know what I mean by
right there and with me? I mean he’s right
there. When Des Deroche comes to the table,
he brings Des Deroche with him. All of
him, all of the time. It’s wonderful
to behold and wonderful
I invited Des
and Irene to a talk I gave
last spring at the Vancouver
Institute about interdisciplinary science
programs we’d been creating at UBC: A Decade
of Innovation in Science Education. I knew
they’d be interested, not just because
we were neighbours but because
we’d been discussing much
of what I’d be talking
about for years.
been fascinated by how
people get good at what they do,
for example, and I’d been grilling Des about
it. How does he get good as an railroad official and
an as athlete? How does he help others get good in
each? How does getting good at one thing
help or hinder getting good at others? I
wouldn’t get off his back about it.
Des and Irene were both national level
competitors in lawn bowling and curling.
Fortunately for me, Des wouldn’t
get off my back about it either.
Especially at Happy Hour in
Des’s basement among
railroad artifacts and
Des about the
Saw Filer Guy and we’d
laugh. Or a story about students
facing challenges and how to help them.
Then he’d fire the same story back at me, but
about helping workers become better workers,
or how teamwork develops in athletics, or
what makes things work in marriages.
We lobbed stories back and forth
for years and learned a lot
from it at Happy Hour.
Des and Irene
couldn’t make it to my
talk. It was his 78th birthday
party or something, but a
few days ago I gave him
an audiotape of it.
as I drove slowly
down our street, southward
toward the 41st Steet arterial to work,
nearly to the elementary school, I saw Des,
returning from his 5-mile walk at a near run,
heading toward me – – tall, long-legged, fast on
his feet, speedy in the home stretch, and eager to
get home to his exercises. I beep-beeped him as I
always do, but instead of his usual quick wave
he veered off the sidewalk, crossed in front of
my car with his arm up, signaling me to stop
and roll down the window (they use lots
of hand signals on the railroad),
and, running in place
as he spoke,
told me he’d
listened to the tape twice
and taken notes both times, and
even learned a lot about curling from
the talk (which floored me), – – – – and it
reminded him of when there was a problem
with the men on the railroad he bought them
all coffee, got them talking to each other about
the problem and sat back and listened. Every
time he did it that way they realized what the
problem was and solved it by themselves
without him having to do anything
but buy them coffee and listen.
he said, ‘I’ve got
to get home and do my exercises
and you’ve got to get to work.
Thanks for the tape,’
and he was off.
quick comments from
Des Deroche are among the most
meaningful responses I’ve ever known to
my teaching, and I wasn’t even teaching in
the talk; just talking about teaching,
though if the truth were known I
did want them to learn a
You’d have to
ask them what they learned,
though. Mainly, I just wanted to
tell them a few stories about A
Decade of Innovation in
That’s more or
less what I published in the
Vancouver Observer. To move the
story to my new website I needed a
Featured Image. I emailed a former
neighbour, he emailed a present neighbour
of Des and Irene’s, and Craig Thom took
this photo of Des precisely at Happy
Hour, 13 years, 2 months, and
13 days after my talk.
neighbour, Peter Smith,
reminded me of the second
story I want to tell you. He said
“Are you going to tell the story about
Des Deroche and the Strawberries?”
and as soon as Peter reminded me
of it it was plain as day.
Des Deroche and the Strawberries
year I had strawberries
to give away in Vancouver, which
was the first year I lived across the street
from Des and Irene, I gave Des a bowl of straw-
berries to take home and cautioned him to be care-
ful. When he asked what he should be careful of
I said strawberries are powerful aphrodisiacs,
and, considering their age, I didn’t want to
cause health problems for
either of them.
‘Don’t you worry
about us!, he said, proudly,
‘We can handle anything you
throw at us!’, and marched home
to share them with Irene, and
was back to beg me for
more the next
in those strawberries worked!
It really worked and I’m not kidding!
It was wonderful. We’ve always liked
berries but yours are amazing!
Do you think you could
spare us some more?”
From then until
Lu and I moved away, Des
and Irene considered our strawberries
a very special treat indeed. We never discussed
whether I was pulling his leg about aphrodisia, or
pumping him up to think my strawberries were great,
or discussed whether he’d been pulling my leg when
he came back for more. I don’t think it mattered a
bit to either of us.
Isn’t the placebo effect wonderful?
That was when Lu
still lived across the street next to
Des and Irene and I still grew everything in
my yard. You should see the strawberriesn she
grows here on Quadra Island. They’re twice
as powerful as what we grew in the city!
You wouldn’t believe it.
A picking of June 2016 strawberries.
Photo by Lee Gass.
came from the small farming
and railroad community of Deroche,
in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia.
He died in 2018.
An earlier version was published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited May 2022