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Changing Whistler: Two dreams and countless hours

Joan Richoz and Florence Petersen presented with Freedom of the Municipality



Whistler is being invited to come out an honour the town's latest distinguished residents — Florence Petersen and Joan Richoz.

Mayor and council will honour them this Monday at the Whistler Conference Centre with the "Freedom of the Municipality" award.

“This is the highest honour a town can bestow,” said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. “Florence Petersen and Joan Richoz will be honoured for their outstanding contributions to the community. The Freedom of Municipality Award gives both of these women the power to vote in Whistler elections regardless of property ownership or if they live here.”

A couple of months ago, beloved historian Petersen was updating Whistler's short but distinguished list of recipients honoured with the award.

The list is a who's who of Whistler: Myrtle Philip, Pat Carleton, Al Raine, Drew Meredith, Garry Watson, Trevor Roote, Chester Johnson, Franz Wilhelmsen and Jim Godfrey.

Each has played a significant role in shaping Whistler — politicians, the creator of the Valley Trail system, the developer of the ski resort.

Never in her wildest dreams did Petersen imagine that she would soon be on that list of nine. "I was absolutely flabbergasted when Nancy (Wilhelm-Morden) called," she said. "I was really thrown for a loop because that's a very high honour and unexpected and appreciated. It was a big surprise, I must say."

The sentiment is shared by her fellow recipient Richoz, Whistler's first librarian and a long-serving member of the Whistler Arts Council.

"I'm so happy that Florence is receiving it at the same time," said Richoz. "I was thinking afterwards — we've got arts, culture and heritage all together in the two of us there!"

The move to honour both long-standing community contributors was spearheaded by Wilhelm-Morden. She suggested Petersen and Richoz as worthy recipients and council agreed.

If they share anything in common, Richoz and Petersen, it's that they both created something lasting and significant in the community out of essentially nothing.

Imagine just $10,000 to fill empty shelves on the walls with books, creating a collection worthy enough to be called a library. That's exactly how much money Richoz had in 1986 when the library opened in the basement of municipal hall.

"It was amazing but a great responsibility at the same time," said Richoz, who remembers panicking about what to buy. "What if I bought all the wrong books and nobody takes them out!"

She didn't. What she did do was start with all the latest fiction and non-fiction — the seedlings of a collection, which has grown from 2,500 books in that first year to roughly 45,000 items today.

She thinks back to the surprise when people came into the library expecting dusty, out-of-date paperbacks, the kind left behind at closed up cabins, only to find a barely creased collection of brand new books.

Through all her years as librarian until she retired in 2006, and still to this day, Richoz has been an active and key player on the board of the Whistler Arts Council, having a hand in shaping the success of local arts and culture over the years.

"I've loved it," she said. "It's been an amazing experience with all kinds of different people over the years."

The same year the library opened, Petersen was thinking about starting a museum with absolutely no funding to speak of. There was support, but not a lot of money.

She remembers paying for stamps, envelopes and training conferences out of pocket with the goal of creating a museum to preserve Whistler's history — that fast fading time before the ski lifts were installed, when Whistler was fishing lodges and logging camps.

Now the museum, which has long operated out of a trailer in the village, has so many artifacts there isn't enough room to display everything.

The dream remains alive, however, to have a permanent museum one day. It was originally supposed to be part of the library building but funding pressures quashed those plans. It remains in the trailer.

"That would be the dream — to have a proper museum one day," said Petersen. "It won't come in my day but hopefully it will be there in the future.

"To have it come to this, it's just been so exciting to see. It's beyond what we ever thought would happen."

The Freedom of the Municipality award ceremony will take place on Monday, June 4 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Whistler Conference Centre. After there ceremony there will be a reception. The event is open to the public.