What you think of Fred Thomson probably depends on how many quarters you plugged into the parking meter.
For 31 years, Thomson walked the streets of downtown Nelson as a bylaw officer. And despite having developed a thick skin necessary for an unpopular job, he knows exactly what drivers thought when they spotted him near their car.
“People are never happy when they see the yellow jacket,” he says.
But that didn’t bother Thomson, who retired Friday. Early in his career he engaged more with irate residents, but as he grew into the job Thomson, now 59, learned how to be diplomatic.
No, he never liked writing tickets, which he calls the worst part of the job. But he also learned not to judge people who lost their cool over a $10 fine.
“The best ones were the ones when they apologized, and they said, you know what, I was just having a bad day, and that was just (lighting) the match to the dynamite.”
Thomson never expected to spend over three decades on Nelson’s streets.
After his daughter was born, Thomson was working for the city at its warehouse when he decided the hours were getting in the way of family time. A parking enforcement position opened and he applied, thinking he’d do it for a year before moving on to something else.
But the job grew on him. He got to know the city and developed relationships with business owners, employees and the street community. He might say hi up to 500 times a day, and the exercise wasn’t bad either.
“I wonder how many times over those years that I’ve actually walked around the equator of the Earth,” he says.
Nelson has three bylaw officers, who Mayor John Dooley describes as the eyes and ears of the city.
They are the ones who spot infrastructure issues like broken sidewalks and relay that to city employees, remind noisy neighbours not every speaker needs to be turned to 11, and even assist the Nelson Police Department when needed (Thomson was among the officers who chased bank robber Andrew Stevenson through the streets in 2014).
Dooley calls Thomson, who has been doing the job longer than anyone else, an ambassador for Nelson.
“Fred’s been at that for a long time and has been a volunteer in the community as well in different areas, and he’s just been a great employee over the years,” says Dooley.
As a student of Nelson’s downtown, Thomson has also seen how it has changed since the early 1990s.
It’s busier now, he says, and attributes that to the introduction of angled parking that allows for more visitors. Residents are also younger, in his opinion, and a little more quick to confrontation.
He still loves the job, and is healthy enough to continue. But he’s also decided the department could use a new voice.
Thomson wants to get into volunteering, spend more time on the golf course and at the curling rink, where he has represented B.C. at four national championships including the Brier in 2005.
Even so, Thomson admitted to feeling emotional as he drove into work Friday.
He had an extra day off to take, but instead Thomson wanted to walk downtown once more and spend it saying goodbye to the people who he says looked out for him as much as he looked out for them.
“When you walk away from a discussion with somebody, you look over your shoulder and they’re right there, and they just say, ‘We were just keeping an eye on things.’ So it was always good.”
He also ended up writing two tickets on his last day. One of them was for a driver who had spent the entire day parked in one spot without plugging the meter.
Thomson may have never liked handing out tickets, but there wasn’t any regret writing his last one.
“I didn’t feel too bad about it,” he says.
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