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John Grills — setting the right path

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'Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.'

- Henry Ford

He just felt it was time. He'd been around for a while now. He was committed to the town's future — had actually been an active player in Whistler's growth and development during the last 25 years... had created such iconic dining spots as Zeuski's Taverna and Thai One On. Now he wanted to see the place succeed.

And though he was maxed out with work and family and coaching and volunteering and life and... the longtime Whistler restaurateur felt he needed to get involved in the political process.

For some time now, he'd had reservations about the current administration's ability to navigate the troubled waters of Whistler's Post-Olympic realities. Not to mention knowing how to stick-handle the game-changing aspects of the Great Recession. He felt the Olympics had masked some serious issues behind all the global hype and spectacle. But now the time of reckoning had come.

He had no choice, really. He owed it to his friends, his neighbours — even to his three kids. He had to do the right thing. He had to run for Whistler council.

So that's what he did.

And now? "It's a big step to get involved in politics," admits first-time councillor John Grills. "And quite intimidating." He pauses for a beat. "There are plenty of folks here who should be involved in the political process. Really good people with lots to offer. But there's a fear, you know... you're really putting yourself out there when you step into the political ring. Suddenly you're a public figure — totally vulnerable."

He sighs. "And the learning curve... oh my goodness. I just can't believe how much stuff we have to cover every week." He stops. Shakes his head. "I knew this was going to be hard, but... Still, I really like being on top of things — I don't like to let things slip. And you know, I just think it's a natural step for me. I really believe in giving back. And serving on Whistler Council..." He stops again. Laughs. "Well, that's giving back in a big way..."

Fortunately, he adds, there are positive elements to the job as well. "It's just so exciting to be in a position to make real changes in the community you live in. The fact that I could actually be involved in affecting its growth, its change, its future directions... that never ceases to inspire me."

Like most Whistlerites, John made a number of forays to the valley before he finally managed to settle down for good in Sea to Sky. He grew up in the east end of Toronto. Didn't start skiing until he was in his teens, he tells me. But he got pretty keen on the sport pretty fast.

"We'd planned this school ski trip to New Hampshire," he recalls. "But it got washed out. So some of my buddies decided to go to Aspen instead. And they convinced me to go with them." A long pause. "From skiing in Blue Mountain to skiing in Colorado: that was a huge step for me! I remember being at the top of Snowmass, you know, in this whiteout/blizzard where the only way you could see the trees was by hitting them." He stops. Laughs some more. "I just couldn't get enough of it."

Alas, Southern Ontario's mountain-challenged geography wasn't doing it for him. "I remember being in a local pub," he says, "and reading this crazy story about this wild ski place on Canada's West Coast. And I thought to myself: 'Hey that sounds pretty cool. I could hang out in a place like this.'"

But first he needed to get out of Toronto. "I'd just spent a summer working in Jasper," he explains. "And I realized that living in the city just wasn't for me... at least not for now." It was January 1975. John had graduated from high school a couple of years ago, and so was pretty open to anything. "A friend suggested we head west and try skiing Banff," he recounts. And laughs. 'The first day we skied at Sunshine, it was 55 (degrees) below zero. That did it for me. We heard there was this big race happening in Whistler. Maybe there'd be work for us there." He shrugs." So off we went."

Of course, the trip wasn't at all like they'd planned. "Highway 1 was closed because of slides," he explains, "so we had to take the American route — through Spokane and Seattle." He sighs. "That was quite the journey..."

But finally they made it. "Yeah," he says. "Spent our first night in the Vancouver Youth Hostel, and then slowly made our way up to the mountains. That was amazing." Turns out Grills' timing wasn't too bad either. "I found a job right away at the Cheakamus Hotel, and me and my buddy ended up sleeping in an empty construction trailer out back." He pauses for a beat. Shakes his head. Laughs. "And then there was this Aussie fellow we knew who had to leave town really quickly... and he'd left us the keys to his Fairlane 500." It was the kind of winter, says John, that ski bums usually only dream about. "We lived large. Shredded powder all winter, had free accommodation, drove our illegal car, even used our Aussie friend's ski pass... it was awesome."

And then he pauses. Smiles. "I've always wondered what would have happened if it hadn't been -55 degrees in Banff the day we skied there..."

The West Coast had definitely grabbled Grills' attention. For the next few years John bounced back and forth between Vancouver and Whistler. Tried his hand at a bunch of stuff. Had lots of fun, of course. But nothing really stuck. In 1979, he started work as a bar manager with Keg Restaurants in Vancouver. And for whatever reason, that job clicked with him. John had finally found his place. The food and beverage business would pretty much dominate his life for the next thirty years.

Now I'm not going to bore you with all the details of his early enterprises. Let's just say that between coming back to Whistler in '83 to open the Keg On the Mountain (after the fire) and returning to Vancouver to manage the Irish Rovers' many drinking outlets at Expo 86, well, young John kept himself immensely busy.

It just so happens that Lorraine decided to enter his life at that very moment. "I met her at Stamp's Landing," he says. And laughs. "My whole world that summer revolved around the False Creek area. That was ground zero for me."

Whatever. Work was one thing. Love quite another. And meeting Lorraine, says John, had nothing to do with work. "She was a physiotherapist," he recounts. "Had actually studied in school with (Whistler legend) Suzie Young. But when I met her, she was planning on moving to Australia."

Australia? John was crushed. Still, the two decided to keep seeing each other. And after a few months, the Australia plan somehow had morphed into a Whistler plan. "It was Lorraine who convinced me to return to Whistler," says John with a straight face. "She'd been offered a job at Whistler Physiotherapy and she was keen on taking it. And frankly, I really didn't have any objections."

John had only one condition. Lorraine had to marry him first. Which she did in due course. And the newlyweds arrived in Whistler ready to set down serious roots.

They never left. John buried himself in his work... eventually opening Zeusski's in 1992, followed by Thai One On two years later, while Lorraine continued to apply her magical touch to Whistler's ailing and/or injured bodies at WP (where she still works). Meanwhile three very active young Grills soon appeared on the scene. And mom and dad were kept even more busy.

There's more to the story of course. After all the Grills have been living in Whistler for 25 years now. Still, what fascinates me most about John's decision to run for council is just how passionate he is about defending Whistler's unique way of life. "Most of us," he says, "came here with the same attitude — we were a risk-taking, mountain-loving, fun-focused group of young people. I mean, look at this place. Look at all we have here. It's just so beautiful." A long pause. "My main job, as far as I see it, is to keep that culture alive for future generations."

He sighs. "It's so easy to complain, you know. But we've made great things happen here. Like the Olympics — I mean, look what a great success that was! Now it's mostly adjustments that we need. We just have to figure out how to make the best use of all our great gifts ... while still being respectful of our surroundings!"

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