The Riverdalian: Tooker Made the Earth a Better Place, by Allan Shute

By Allan Shute, Riverdale Historian, The Riverdalian, Edmonton.

A dear friend of Riverdale and the Earth is gone. Tooker Gomberg, once of Sundance, is believed to have jumped off the Angus L. Macdonald Bridge into Halifax harbour early last month after suffering depression for several years. His bicycle and helmet were found on the bridge. His apparent suicide at age 48 came as a shock to all who knew him and I’m sure we’ll remember where we were when we heard the news.

Our heartfelt sympathies go out to his wife Angela Bischoff, parents Dr. Charles and Bayla Gomberg, brothers Frank, Ben and Avi, and other family members.

It was difficult to believe Tooker would do this. Driven by his passionate crusade to save the environment, he seemed bullet-proof and oblivious to the slings and arrows of his political detractors and the strong arm of the law. He performed his activist stunts with flair, a joy and good humour few could fail to appreciate. Yet, in the end, he wasn’t indestructible.

Tooker was born Richard Daniel Gomberg in Montreal and kept his childhood nickname. In Massachusetts, he studied “garbology,” as he called it, and started one of Canada’s first curbside recycling programs in Montreal. He showed up in Riverdale on his trademark bicycle in the early 1980s, when he worked for Alberta Energy promoting conservation. This was a stepping stone to a life dedicated to making cities healthier. His boundless energy and personal charisma helped him make his fellow earthlings aware of just how precious their planet was.

The way he did it – often by outrageous stunts – didn’t endear him to the status quo or even to the public he was always trying to reach. Tooker would organize bike rides of hundreds of fellow cyclists and take over major roads, making it impossible for motorists to ignore or even pass. Sometimes he would outfit various bikes with light frames that took up the same space as a car and do similar rides, graphically illustrating how much public space automobiles demand, particularly those with just one driver. He once got thrown in jail for putting a sofa in a parking space where he proceeded to read a newspaper. He was arrested on many occasions of principled protest. Tooker was a constant thorn in the side of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, whose agenda was to maximize profit from the same environment that Tooker was trying to protect. His verbal jousts with Klein landed him in hot water many a time; Tooker was once tossed out of Toronto’s tony Empire Club for noisily heckling the premier during a speech.

The other side of Tooker the activist was Tooker the politician. After getting himself elected mayor of a local Montreal park at age seven, he tasted how things could be were he one of society’s leaders. “He loved it,” recalls his mother. “It was the start of those (political) desires.” After achieving status as a single-term Edmonton alderman in 1992, he implemented many worthwhile ecological changes and saved the city hundreds of millions of dollars, but soon ran afoul of fellow councillors who tried to neutralize him and a media who took to mocking him for whatever he said and did. This was to be expected, I suppose, given his unconventional approach to the job and sometimes abrasive nature. He ran for public office several more times, including a very popular shot at mayor of Toronto, when he came second to Mel Lastman with 50,000 votes.

I always felt it was Tooker’s activist side that made the biggest impact because he made us stop and think about our often-wasteful behaviour, but as a politician he was obliged to represent the wishes of his constituency. Back when the Riverdale ARP was being drafted in the 1990s to guide development of the J.B. Little Brickyard, he favoured a higher population cap because the densification made more sense from an overall planning point of view. Down here, his stance caused the solids to really hit the air conditioning.

Yet, when you consider how far our society has come in the twenty-odd years of his eco crusade, you have to give Tooker full marks for dedicating his life to getting the message out and for faithfully living that message. He rode his bike everywhere, even to out-of-town meetings, and often froze his butt. He led a modest life on a modest income, making do with less. His goals were always practical, involving “baby steps,” as he called them, rather than radical and expensive change. He spent his own money on public initiatives such as bike racks for buses. In this way, he prodded us to become better stewards of the land. We now take recycling for granted, expect clean air and water as our right, vote dollars to public transit and are conscious in hundreds of ways an earlier citizenry was not – no small accomplishment.

Yet you can sense how frustrating it must have been for Tooker waiting for us to catch up. And how ironic it was that the Journal write-up of his City Hall memorial ceremony appeared in the same issue as the headline that shouted “Markets resurrect coal mine” – news that the controversial $50-million Cheviot coal project would be going ahead to dig out the eastern slopes of the Rockies just outside Jasper National Park.

Regarding the mental fragility that dogged Tooker these last three years, it’s understandable that he finally succumbed to a lifetime of stonewalling, derision and undercutting by powerful corporations and business-friendly politicians now all the rage. Yet Tooker didn’t miss a beat. He simply took up the cause of the mentally ill by openly discussing his depression, thus minimizing the stigma that unfairly haunts its sufferers and their families.

We owe Tooker, our eco-conscience, big time. Because he’s no longer around to remind us to keep the world a clean and a productive home for our children and their children, we will now have to do it ourselves. Whether it’s composting or voting for candidates with a conscience, or writing letters to the editor, or keeping politicians honest in between elections, we can all do our part.

An appropriate way to remember Tooker is to make the Earth a hale and hearty living memorial. The children of Riverdale School have packaged up handfuls of sunflower seeds – his favourite flower – into envelopes recycled from government weather maps. You can pick one up at Earth’s General Store on the second floor of 10832 Whyte Avenue. You can also remember the eco-group he started with Angela by sending a thoughtful donation to:

And above all, when you are making decisions that will have an impact beyond yourselves, remember Tooker’s goal of a constantly renewing planet. It’s the little things that count. Ride the bus more often or even walk or take a bike. Make eco-friendly choices. Think globally and act locally. Feel the sun on your face and leave the Earth a better place than you found it.