WEST BAY ROAD: Local residents are paying tribute to a long-time teacher, musician, historian, and photographer who used his many talents to shine the spotlight on the music, culture and geography of Cape Breton over his eight-plus decades of life.
John Wallace (Wally) Ellison of West Bay Road passed away at the Strait-Richmond Hospital in Evanston on July 25, nearly three months before his 82nd birthday. His funeral service took place five days later at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in West Bay Road, with traditional hymns supplemented by the Celtic music Ellison so lovingly played on his bagpipes and several smaller variations of the pipes at hundreds of public events across the Strait area.
Described by fellow musician Patrick Lamey as “a modern-day renaissance man” and “a man of action who got things done,” Ellison’s legacy includes a passion for photography that culminated in the publication of several books showcasing the natural beauty of local communities. His gifts for photography and prose were also on display in Ellison’s long-running newspaper column “This Is My Cape Breton,” which most recently ran in The Reporter .
“A conversation with Wally was entertaining, informing, enriching and humorous,” recalled Lamey, who played alongside Ellison at venues as diverse as Port Hawkesbury’s Tuesday Night Ceilidh series and the town’s Tim Horton’s restaurants.
“We are all beneficiaries of his passion for knowledge and his strong desire to share his discoveries. We are all richer for his friendship and special personality, and I am a better person for having known him.”
Lorraine Shaw of West Bay Centre, who had Ellison as her Grade 9 science teacher during his 30-year career at SAERC, fondly remembered his passion for teaching and his dedication to his students.
“If anyone wanted to learn about nature at its finest, Wally was the man – he had so much patience and you could tell he loved his career,” Shaw reflected.
“He was always eager to answer any question regarding geography. One time, when he took us on a nature trip, he explained to us about the different types of rocks and the water level and all the different types of trees…. His eyes would just gleam as he was answering your question. He definitely chose the right profession, even though he was a man of many talents.”
Because of Ellison’s extensive knowledge, partially gleaned through his training at St. Mary’s, Dalhousie and Ottawa Universities and his completion of a Master’s degree in curriculum development at StFX, Shaw recalled him as a quick-witted teacher, well-guarded against classroom pranks.
“He would always have maps on his desk and books, so at any given time even if you tried to trick him, that was not possible,” Shaw commented.
A participant in the original “100 pipers” that crossed the Canso Causeway upon its official opening in 1955, Ellison revisited this iconic moment by taking his bagpipes across the Causeway along with the hundreds that participated in the link’s 50th anniversary celebrations in 2005.
“He will be sorely missed by many,” Lamey predicted.