René Robitaille (St. Lambert), Governor

René Robitaille
René from St. Lambert, third governor of our Association

Third President, 1996-2003

Birth

I asked myself a number of times where to begin since the career of our new Governor is rather imposing. Let's first go to Cap Rouge where a big, blond baby boy was born on December 10, 1935. Believe it or not, he was quite BEAUTIFUL! René has always been tolerant and conciliatory so he decided to be born between two critical periods of recent history: the Great Depression and World War II.

Studies

This little boy entered elementary school at the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph Academy in Cap Rouge, a school run by the Sisters of Charity. In third grade, the boys were moved to Saint Alphonsus College, also in Cap Rouge, where there were two split classes: one including Grades 3, 4, and 5; and the other Grades 6 through 9. A rather bizarre anecdote deserves mention here. After third grade, at the beginning of the next school year, a new teacher did a census of the students asking them to raise their hands when he called out their grade level. After registering those in Grades 3 and 4, the teacher said, “Now those who are in Grade 5 raise your hands.” It was then that René realized he had missed his turn. Not wanting to be forgotten, he raised his hand and gave his name for Grade 5. That's how he avoided having to do Grade 4. Overcoming his shyness and his fear of failing, he spoke to the teacher about this about a month later. The teacher replied, “It's going well; keep it up.” And René led his class right through Grade 9.

Next he headed for the Academy of Québec to take the Secondary Modern course in English and French. This was similar to the classical program (cours classique) but without Latin and Greek. Coming from a country school where the academic level was not that high, he had to work hard to keep up. But after only two years, he was once again at the head of his class.

During this period he took up the game of curling and took part in provincial competitions. He was a member of the only French-speaking junior team in Québec. On weekends, he skied at Lake Beauport. At the outset he had skis without steel edges. This was rather like an extreme sport, since once one started down from the summit of a slope there was really no way to stop.

Next he went to Laval University to study geological engineering; but a year later he switched to civil engineering. At the end of his program he decided to specialize in Soil Mechanics at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago.

Holidays

During summer vacations, René did construction work for his uncle in Massachusetts. He hitchhiked to Florida with a friend during the Christmas break. He also worked as a letter carrier for several weeks before Christmas, delivering the Christmas mail. He worked with geological teams in the woods of the Abitibi region, in Lake Saint John, and in Chibougamau.

It was in this part of the province that he had several unwelcome encounters with bears. The worst incident happened when a bear charged him when he was on the edge of a river. To save himself, René threw his backpack containing his lunch at the bear and then jumped into the river. On the other occasions, there were no attacks but the bears were close by.

Marriage

After confronting these wild beasts, can you guess what he decided to do? He was ready to confront a woman, and so he got married. He had met the beautiful Nicole Pigeon, the daughter of an engineer, and a student at the Jesus and Mary College. Our two lovebirds went to Niagara Falls on their honeymoon. René still had not received his letter of acceptance from Northwestern. Once they got to Niagara Falls he telephoned his parents to see if the letter had arrived. Since they hadn't received a letter, René decided to go to Chicago where he learned that he had been accepted. He selected his courses, bought what he needed, and rented an apartment. The couple returned to Québec immediately after that to pick up their baggage, load it all into their car to complete a return trip more than 3500 km long.

Career

The “Quiet Revolution” began in Québec under the leadership of Premier Jean Lesage. When René returned to Québec to work at the Ministry of Highways, everything was in turmoil. Projects were growing exponentially, everything had to be reorganized. It really was re-engineering since not much in the way of technology existed. But this was a time of cultural revolution from every point of view. Moreover, Expo 67, the World's Fair, was coming and the highway projects were enormous. René's dreams as an engineer were fulfilled. After several years of studying soils, landslides, highway design, and representing Québec on pan-Canadian research projects, he was made responsible for quality control on worksites. He directed regional laboratories for construction materials in Québec, Three Rivers, Rimouski, and Jonquière, and had to travel continually from one to the other across the eastern and central regions of the province. This accorded perfectly with something I have yet to mention, his immoderate love of travel. During his career he did a two-month internship in Paris in 1974, and this gave him the opportunity to travel across France in the company of interns from some 20 other countries, including a number from behind the Iron Curtain. One thing that impressed him greatly was the fact that the interns were not permitted to bring their spouses with them to France in order to insure their return home. One representative from an eastern European country proudly purchased a pair of shoes for his wife. After 32 years with the Ministry of Highways, René decided to retire at the age of 55, as many of us dream of doing. But all it meant was that he worked differently; he certainly didn't retire to his rocking chair. He worked as a consultant for a number of private laboratories for another four years.

Volunteer Work

René has always been interested in developing countries. He was for many years a member of CESO (Canadian Executive Service Organization). He became president of the group in Québec and, since he was now completely retired, he had the time to take on some volunteer activities in foreign countries. He took on a number of tasks in Africa:

  • four months in Dakar, Senegal;
  • six weeks in Casablanca, Morocco:
  • two months in Agadir, Morocco;
  • six weeks in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.

About a year ago, he spent two weeks evaluating projects in Haiti. He was supposed to return there this winter, but given the current climate in that country, all these projects have been postponed.

What made the strongest impression on René during these activities were the intercultural contacts, the pleasure of helping people in need, and the opportunity to travel to destinations that were relatively inaccessible to tourists.

He remembers his first visit to southern Africa. On the flight from Madrid to Dakar, there was a stopover at the Canary Islands where a number of European tourists disembarked. After the takeoff on the last leg of the flight to Senegal, René left his seat to go to the washroom. He was surprised to see that virtually all the other passengers were black. That's when he realized that he was a member of a visible minority.

Trips

I have already mentioned René's liking for travel and adventure. In addition to the places already mentioned, René has also traveled to all ten Canadian provinces, many states in the USA, the Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Europe on many occasions, and four outstanding trips with the Adventure Club to Thailand, Egypt, Guatemala, and the Indies. His last tour this spring took him to eastern Europe where he visited Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. And in the midst of all this activity, he still found time to look after our Association.

The Association

I have always said, ever since I had the idea of founding an association for the Robitailles, that if René had not been with me in this project, the association would not exist today. It is thanks to him that the association exists. And, in the name of all the members, I want to thank him for the great contribution he has made from the outset, especially for ensuring that 46 issues of our newsletter, Les Robitailleries, were published. What a lot of work for every issue! René, your family members are all very happy today to count you among our Governors.

Epilogue

You all know, as I do, that whenever a man succeeds in having a brilliant career, it's because of the woman behind him. I could speak to you for a long time about Nicole's talents. Let me only note that she can put together a wonderful meal from any national cuisine with great refinement—and what can I say about her passion for gardening and horticulture. Every spring, René goes over the ground with the cultivator; he digs; he moves the earth around. Nicole follows and the flowers and vegetables spring up as if by magic. Her kitchen garden contains several varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet peppers. Her flower garden includes many kinds of ferns, hostas, and day lillies. René also has a small vineyard because he is devoted to wine.

I have one more thing to tell you and I will close with it. When René was working in the woods while he was a student, he always gave me a job to do. He asked me to deliver a bunch of flowers to Nicole, and it is odd that he insisted I do so on June 5, which is the date today as I write this.

Let's all sing Happy Birthday to Nicole and to both René and Nicole "C'est à votre tour de vous laisser parler d'amour", which may be loosely translated as "It's your turn to let you speak about love".