Vern Fleming wasn't really sure if Andrew Burns was serious when the Tillsonburg District Chamber of Commerce president called to tell him he was Tillsonburg's 2016 Citizen of the Year.
"I asked if it was an April Fool's joke," Fleming laughed. "I'm still in shock. 'Who me?'
"It's just something that's hard to describe. We do so many of these things... somebody comes to you, like The Salvation Army, you help."
And that's actually his motto. 'If somebody needs something, and you can help out...'
Partly, he said, it came from his job as an OPP community services officer, which he retired from 26 years ago.
"People phone us for something, we just do it, if we can."
Fleming, from Toronto, joined the OPP in 1962, one of eight recruits. He recalled the first recruit was assigned to Smooth Rock Falls (north of Timmins).
"I was the next one in and I was thinking, if he got Smooth Rock Falls, where am I going? Kakabeka Falls? Sioux Lookout? He said, 'you're going to London.'"
London assigned him to Tillsonburg, and he asked, "Where's Tillsonburg?"
"Driving down Hwy 19, through Salford, I was thinking 'oh boy, it's got a mill here and a little restaurant. Then it was open fields. Then I get to Mount Elgin. Okay, it's got a little more. Then Ostrander... then I drove into Tillsonburg. We had one traffic light, one overhead bridge. And I've been here 54 years."
Fleming, 81, has been a member of the Tillsonburg Lions Club for the past 28 years, and will be Lion Chief for the third time in September 2016. He was also on the Air Show Committee for a number of years, helping to bring eight air shows to the local airport.
"That's going way back," said Fleming.
He was on the Par Excellence Golf Tournament committee, supporting London Health Sciences.
"That was also town connected.
"Right now we do the Ride the Big Bike for Heart and Stroke Foundation. I'm not riding it," he laughed, "but we hand out T-shirts, paperwork, etc."
"What was the one on Wednesday?" he asked his wife Terry, who he automatically includes with 'we' in service to the community. "Terry's behind me all the way - never forget that... Oh, cleaning windows at Tim Hortons, one of my favourites. Cleaning windows at the drive-thru. Me, Hank Harley and Jim Matthews, we started that 14 years ago. We have the buckets set up and we collect money for the Camp Day (supported by RE/MAX).
"We do Blood Services. When people donate blood, we hand out the goodies, which also serves a purpose. After they give blood, we watch the people for any signs of discomfort."
In the Bahamas, there are groups that do Bicycle Rodeo Safety from Fleming's initiative.
"And certainly in Jamaica, they know about Tillsonburg," he said, recalling a donation that Fleming delivered to Falmouth, near Montego Bay. "People here helped me with that, with clothing and all sorts of good stuff."
He also supported the Canadian Diabetes Association's Clothesline program.
"We do the kettles in town for The Salvation Army," he added. "I did driving for a while, taking people to appointments for treatments. And I was on the first committee when the Helping Hand Food Bank started"
Fleming is quick to note his community service is not for the accolades and recognition.
"You must be careful that you don't break your arm patting yourself on the back - I read that somewhere. I like that one, feel free.
"No brownie points. When I speak to groups, which I occasionally do, that's my opening line - 'there is no halo over my head.' You just get into it. We all have our faults, but when you can help, you do."
He recalls the words of his neighbour, Rita, who passed away two years ago. 'We're supposed to help each other, aren't we?'
"There's a lot of people like me, we're not alone in this."
Fleming said his aunt was a role model.
"My aunt was a missionary all her life - in Canada and the United States - and I think some of that rubbed off on me. She ended up in California with Aimee Semple McPherson."
The one project he is most proud of is school bus safety.
"Quite a few years ago, on Hwy 59, just south of Otterville. The brakes failed on a school bus, it went through a stop sign and got hit. And in the middle of that, here comes a bread truck and plows into the whole mess. Three children died, injuries you wouldn't believe, kids yelling...
"Nobody had shown the kids anything about bus safety. Nothing was being done."
Fleming made it his mission to change that, and with support from local bus companies, students in Oxford and Elgin Counties received "real bus drills - on the bus."
"I was involved in two cases, at least, where they did it," he said, recalling a wintertime accident near Mount Elgin where the children 'got away from the bus in case of a fire.'
"I'm very proud of that one. School bus safety was one of my pet projects every year."
Citizen of the Year Celebration
You can join Vern, his family, and friends at his Citizen of the Year Celebration tonight (Wednesday, June 22) at The Carriage Hall, 25 Brock Street West. The social is at 5:30 p.m. with a formal program beginning at 6 p.m. Light refreshments served.