Mention the caber toss to me and three things instantly come to mind — telephone poles, immense human strength and, yes, retired school teacher Jim Sears.
To me, they’ve been forever associated.
In case you’ve never heard of it, the caber toss is a traditional athletic event that had its origin at the Scottish Highland Games in Scotland and, not surprisingly, made its way to the Antigonish Highland Games many decades ago.
I did a little research the other day, discovering that when the event first came to New Scotland, the caber was typically 19 feet, six inches in length and weighed 175 pounds. I won’t bother translating into metric. By either measurement, it’s very long and very heavy.
And Jim Sears?
As I explained last week, he was a New Glasgow lad who, in high school, played rugby and, among other activities, participated in the shot put, the hammer and the discus at track and field competitions. Later, when he physically reached 6-foot-7 and 340 pounds, he played Canadian football for the St. Francis Xavier X-Men, helping them win a championship.
Enthusiastic about track and field, he enjoyed attending the Highland Games in the cathedral town each summer.
In 1953, when he was 19 years old, he went to Antigonish to see the Highland activities. As he watched the competitions, a Games official approached him.
I never forgot the way he told me, years ago, how he discovered the caber — and caber tossing — that day. That’s why I’ll repeat his comments verbatim.
“(The official) just happened to say, ‘Are you going to go in the caber?’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s that pole over there.’ I asked what you do with it and he showed it to me. I thought, ‘What a weird event this is.’ I had not done so well in anything else, so I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go in it.’
“I watched a few other people throw it, to get some clues about what it was all about. Then I ran with it and, geez, the first thing I knew, it went over. Wow, I was really exceptionally happy. The guy measured it and you know what? I had beaten the record. The first time I had ever thrown the darn thing.”
I liked an additional comment he made — “I was hooked,” he smiled.
He sure was.
First, he took his trophy home to New Glasgow. “I held it up like the torch in the Olympic Games. I showed it to everybody that wanted to see how nice it was. My mother was proud.”
The big guy, who starred in high school rugby, university football, other track and field events, basketball, gymnastics and volleyball, found still another competition.
It became his best.
The now retired teacher — who taught for 30 years in Pictou, Stellarton and Trenton – would go to the Highland Games in Antigonish for 40 or more years. He would compete in other places, but Antigonish became his athletic base.
He would toss the caber many times. He would win many times. He would set records many times. He would become known nationally. Back home, he would become an inductee into the Pictou County Sports Heritage Hall of Fame. Nationally, he would be similarly honoured by the Canadian Scottish Athletic Federation.
Remember how he started that day in 1953? Well, it wasn’t until 44 years later, in Calgary in 1997, that he tossed that telephone pole for the final time. Even then, he didn’t want to stop.
But a hidden opponent brought the curtain down — arthritis in that big body. By then, he was 62 years of age.
He often talked about the caber and the experiences that took him to many places on the planet earth. He often expressed his disappointment how, in many places, caber tossers were few and far between. The activity didn’t seem to grow. Sometimes when he showed up to compete, there were no other participants. He would be the only one ready to flip that huge pole.
He was particularly concerned that, right in Pictou County, competitors didn’t enter the caber toss at the annual Junior Braemar. He would be there at the high school grounds, huge crowds waiting to watch, and he would be the only entrant.
When he went to other places, however, he always found challengers. He’d usually win those, too. Nobody had the strength, or the knack, to beat him.
Jim must have been a wonderful teacher, easy for the students to pay attention to his lectures.
I surely paid attention when I spent a pleasant afternoon listening to him at his home in Plymouth. It wasn’t very long after his caber tossing had come to the finish line. Another reason to repeat some of his two-decades-old thoughts.
“I started wondering why I was still doing this. Was I crazy or something? It just got to the point where my heart wasn’t into it. I would throw (the caber), it would go over, but it wouldn’t go over straight. So I became an also-ran type of thing. I didn’t want to give up the sport because I really enjoyed it.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if retirement from the caber bothered him more than retirement from the school room.
“I saw a little bit of the world, did all the things I wanted to do, had a great wife who came with me everywhere I went. She was always my best coach. It was all a great experience.”
Yes, he loved every moment.
I’ve interviewed enough people one-on-one in my newspaper career to fill the seats in the Sobeys Arena at the Pictou County Wellness Centre several times over. Yet very few of those conversations were more overpowering than the one I had with Jim.
To me, he always left a big impression.