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Excellent adventure awaits retired ‘syrup sucker’

By Don Fennell

Published 11:11 PDT, Tue July 16, 2019

An ardent traveller, Ted Townsend is about to embark on an excellent adventure.

An ardent traveller, Ted Townsend is about to embark on an excellent adventure.

Getting a selfie sitting on a camel—not for long, mind you—is foremost on his bucket list.

“I’ve read many romantic stories about the Sahara and the great adventures, but I’ve also read parts about camels being mean, nasty animals that aren’t very comfortable to ride on,” he says. “I want the picture and the experience, but as soon as that’s done I want to move on.”

Recently retired as the City of Richmond’s communications guru, the popular Townsend spent 19 years at the post. It was a time of great change and growth in the city, that also included the building of the Olympic Oval that during the 2010 Winter Games hosted long track speed skating. As part of the Olympic legacy, the massive structure was then converted for community use.

“Working on the Olympic was a big high,” he says. “It was something I was very passionate about and I was a big supporter of the bid both personally and professionally.”

Townsend lauds city council and senior leaders vision shared of what being part of the Olympics and building the oval could mean for Richmond.

“I remember the first day the (Canadian) speed skating team was able to get on the ice,” he says. “It was like, ‘It’s all coming together.’ Then at the opening we saw the different parts of the community, and those who were going to become future users of the oval.”

Townsend says not everyone was aboard at the start, with many people seeing the oval as a facility only for elite athletes.

“We kept telling them, ‘No, it’s going to be so much more than that.’ But it was hard to convince them of everything that facility could provide, and that we were going to be able to have basketball, hockey and table tennis side by side at the same time.”

As Richmond’s communications director during the Olympics, Townsend was inspired to help boost interest in the Games. One of his ideas literally took on a life of its own.

Crafted during off hours, Townsend penned an intentionally humorous letter to U.S. tv talk show host Stephen Colbert in late 2009 in which he began by describing himself as “a proud syrup sucker” (maple syrup being a universal Canadian symbol).

Responding to Colbert’s monologue about speed skating, Townsend invited Colbert via the letter (in which he described him as “Dear Cousin” to be our guest at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Colbert ultimately did make his way to the oval.

“It was an unbelievable story in the sense of the impact it had,” Townsend says, who still feels a bit sheepish when people comment on the brilliance of the letter. “Even today I run into people who I’ve never met or not seen in a long while and they’ll bring that up. I wasn’t really sure it would go anywhere, but it took off and went far beyond what I had ever imagined.”

As he prepared to courier the letter off to The Colbert Report via the comedian’s network studio in New York, Townsend concluded it wouldn’t get impact by itself. That’s when he decided to include a pink tuque (like maple syrup, another symbol of Canada), thinking Colbert might just use it as an on-air prop. Or that the letter and tuque may just land on the receptionist’s desk and that might be the end of it.

Colbert didn’t create a sketch around the tuque, and only responded to the letter later on air, crating another wave of publicity when he announced he was coming to Vancouver. But the media immediately loved the vision. For 48 hours, the syrup sucker story dominated the news cycle.

Townsend never did get to meet Colbert when he came to town, but he remains humbled and appreciative that so many people remember and appreciate his efforts.

Richmond has enjoyed many positive spin-offs from participating in the Games. Notably, it significantly raised the city’s global profile and tourism and established Richmond as a culinary destination.

In many ways, Townsend has helped to “write” the history of Richmond. His association with the city began in the 1980s as a reporter and then editor of the now-defunct Richmond Review newspaper. It concluded with him chronicling the goings-on at the city.

“When I decided to make the shift to work for the city it was natural for me,” he says, an opportunity in his way to help make the community a better place.

Townsend, whose 19 years in newspapers matched those at the city, says it was a fulfilling journey that featured many highlights.

“When I look back at the how the city has changed, I believe they have been very positive in terms of facilities and the services and quality of life we have. But I have really just been a conduit.”

Never one to pat himself on the back, Townsend instead praises the efforts of his colleagues. He calls it a privilege to have worked with so many talented and dedicated people.

“I was constantly impressed by their talent and commitment. And the community partners are incredible. The amount of time put into giving back never ceases to amaze me. Richmond is blessed.”

Among his most cherished memories is (while editor at The Richmond Review) supporting the late Bob Carkner, then principal at Steveston Secondary, and teachers establish a salmon hatchery at the school. Townsend remembers the project as a precursor to a better understanding of our environment and the role we play in protecting and preserving that. He is also proud of working with Elizabeth Specht and others to grow the Richmond Christmas Fund, and throughout the years has been a been a staunch supporter of the arts community.

Townsend admits he’s going to miss Richmond.

A lot.

“I’m going to miss the people most,” he says. “Certainly Richmond has been a part of my life. I first came here in 1983 and while I haven’t been here all that time since, I’ve been living or working here most of the last 30-plus years. I’ve had a lot of success and great experiences. I owe a big debt of gratitude to Richmond.”

Richmond also owes a lot to Townsend.

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