Behind the Scenes: Gary Holmes, the go-to logistics guy

Jane Reddington

Sounder Staff

Tuesday, May 3 2016

Gary Holmes is working in his garden when I arrive at his property, keeping his hands busy. “I like doing things with my hands,” he says once we’re inside. “I gravitate toward moving or building rather than talking about things.” Holmes has devoted himself to volunteering for the Gabriola Arts Council (GAC) for the last four years.

“Gary is my go-to logistical guy,” says Alina Cerminara, Events Coordinator for GAC. “The Gabriola Theatre Festival is a solid week of work, from morning to night. We love Gary and GAC events would be much more difficult to do without him.”

This year the Gabriola Theatre Festival will run from August 18 to 21 with an Ancient Greece theme. “We create the theatre out of the thin air,” says Holmes. “It’s a parking lot for 51 weeks of the year. My job is to get the chairs and risers in place. The stage components come from the community hall and the elementary school. Every year I say it’s going to be my last,” he laughs. 

I get the feeling that Holmes would take on just about any community project. “I get a lot out of it - the personal satisfaction of being involved with community events. There’s a great bunch of people on the island and it’s easy to get involved with things.” 

Holmes also helps with other events like the Studio Tour, Isle of the Arts Festival, last year’s winter theatre and the annual fundraiser. Just this week he signed up for two more volunteer positions helping with the AnchorRage community forum and a new Canada Day event.

The quiet, unassuming locomotive engineer spent 30 years in Prince George riding the rails through the Rocky Mountains. “The wildlife and the wilderness were pretty special.” Holmes was on the BC North Line in the Robson Valley between Prince George and Jasper and used to help organize the Santa train at Christmas. 

In 1997, he transferred to Vancouver and found a piece of property on Gabriola around the same time. His wife had spent time at her grandparents place on Berry Point as a child so they chose to retire here.

Knowing that Holmes is a dedicated volunteer is only half the story. The other half is about his guitar and singing. He reminds me of Bob Dylan and Neil Young as he picks up his guitar in the other room and starts singing a Fred Eaglesmith song, “The Oxford County Line,” like he’s been on the radio for years. 

“Those old farmhouses rise out of the ground like monuments to the sky,” he sings with a voice so sweet it might break your heart. “Distant thunder and the rolling clouds make you think of days gone by. I once knew a girl there, she stole all my time; she lived in a great big house on the Oxford County line.” 

One can imagine him riding the rails with his guitar, looking out at the Canadian wilderness and finding inspiration in the simple life. With his guitar and music Holmes is transformed and when I ask if there is a CD I might buy - because he really is that good - he says he’s content just to play folk music and alternative country rock. “I like singing, I find it very cathartic.” He doesn’t need any accolades.

Holmes has played music since he was 12 years old and his dad played guitar listening to such greats at Hank Williams and Merle Haggard. “Back in the day on the railroad, before cell phones, Prince George had a party line. I would sit by the phone. I had a guitar and amused myself waiting for it [the phone] to ring.”

“I’ve been in concert production, promoting folk concerts as a hobby.” When his kids were young he helped with minor lacrosse and the ski team. It’s been a life of helping. Holmes is also involved with Roots on the Rails, North America’s Moving Music Adventure at www.rootsontherails.com.

For the past three years, Holmes has been the lead singer in a band called the Snake Island Railroad, which will appear at the Surf Lodge on April 29.

Behind the Scenes is an ongoing Sounder series, looking at individual volunteers on Gabriola who are making a difference on the island. To nominate someone for a Behind the Scenes profile, please email jane@soundernews.com