BILL REES, APR, LM, FCPRS(H)
Bill Rees is likely the only Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) member who has had a major downtown building named in his honour. While others strive to advance their careers or the profession of public relations, Bill dedicated his entire adult life to using his public relations knowledge and experience to better the entire community.
An unassuming man, Bill was an active community volunteer until his death in 2017 at age 89. He was honoured with so many outstanding service and lifetime achievement awards from numerous organizations that it is hard to believe these were the accomplishments of one individual.
Bill’s communications career began early, at age 17, and continued over the next 70 years. Along the way, he honed his skills, gained the respect and friendship of many people, and volunteered for a host of non-profit organizations including CPRS. He was an active member of CPRS-Regina in its formative years and held several positions on their board, including serving as president in the late 1960s. When he relocated to Edmonton he was just as active with the CPRS chapter there, and again served on committees, the board and finally as president.
In those days, the CPRS national board comprised chapter presidents from across the country who met at least once or twice a year to discuss and decide the Society’s directions. Bill served in that capacity during both terms as chapter president. A few years later, Bill co-chaired a very successful CPRS national conference in Edmonton. His contributions to CPRS earned him the CPRS Shield of Public Service in 1983.
The Regina Years
William (Bill) John Edward Rees was born in Regina, Saskatchewan on April 26, 1928. His volunteer service also began at an early age, when he served as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army Christmas Kettle fund. His communications career began when he was in high school and got a part time job as the evening receptionist and phone operator at CJRM-Radio, where he also conducted station tours. On completing high school, he was offered a full time job at the station as a traffic manager, tracking communications and programming. He did some on-air work and promotions as well. He was later put in charge of promotions and community relations.
Bill left the station for a brief stint doing PR for the Saskatchewan government, but missed the lively atmosphere in broadcasting. So when he was offered a job as promotions and community development manager at the newly formed CKCK-TV station in Regina, he gladly accepted. Bill often told people he vividly remembered the station’s launch day in 1954; just before going on-air, they were able to snaffle an impromptu live interview with newly elected Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. Interviews with many other celebrities – politicians, entertainers and athletes – followed, as did a raft of community events. He was proud to be one of the station’s 28 original staff.
Bill learned the value of networking early on, through his work and various organizations. He joined the Regina Lions Club and then the newly formed Regina branch of the Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) in 1948. He was member #304 of 77,000 members world-wide. Fellow member Bill Esaw recently recalled those days: “Bill was the most active, most respected, most fun member and was dominant in building the Saskatchewan chapter of Jaycees.” Rees later served as the Regina president, and was honoured to be named a JCI Senator. He also served on the Jaycees’ national board as vice-president in 1956-57.
It was around the same time that Bill heard about another new organization, the CPRS. And, Bill being Bill, he was soon involved in volunteer work for them too, serving on committees, the board and then as Regina president. In the late 1960s, shortly after the national accreditation program was started, Bill received his APR.
He became a member and later president of the Regina branch of the Canadian Cancer Society. He also served on the Regina YMCA Building Fund committee. “Our station manager got me involved with that one,” chuckled Bill when he was interviewed some years ago. “Someone from the Y asked him to send a rep from the station and he appointed me. The Y was only three blocks from my home but I had never been there; I was never the athletic type.” That was in 1958 and Bill continued to serve as an active YMCA volunteer for the next 60 years.
Before long, Bill entered politics, running for and winning a seat on the school board for a two-year term. He juggled school board duties with his full-time work at the TV station and did some freelancing as well. “I soon had as much work as I could handle and found that being a consultant can involve you 24/7,” he had once quipped.
His consulting work led him to Ottawa for a few weeks doing PR for a candidate running for a seat with the Pierre Trudeau Liberals. “It sometimes seemed like I was working 24 hours a day,” laughed Bill. Although life was full for him at the time, he decided to take on a new challenge when CPRS colleague Dave Wood encouraged him to apply for a job at the Alberta Public Affairs Bureau which was recently formed by the then Premier, Peter Lougheed. Another adventure was beginning.
The Alberta Years
Bill Rees arrived in Edmonton in 1973 and worked for several different ministries in the Government of Alberta (GOA) over the years, including the position of Communications Director in Housing and Public Works. He worked on special assignments for the Public Affairs Bureau that included the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and five royal visits (Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, Prince Philip, and the Duke and Duchess of York). He also served on GOA’s Public Safety Services crisis communications team.
But for Bill, career was never everything. Soon after he arrived, he connected with Edmonton colleagues from the Jaycees and CPRS, and got involved in charity work for a hospital, the United Way and the Edmonton YMCA. Over his many years as a Y volunteer he did a variety of things from being a youth leader to a swim and fitness instructor to a Board Chair and international advocate.
As an enthusiastic supporter of CPRS, he immediately became involved with the local chapter. He served on the board including a term as CPRS-Edmonton president, on several committees, and on the national board. His contributions to CPRS and the PR profession were recognized locally when the Edmonton chapter named him a Life Member, and nationally when he was admitted to the College of Fellows as an Honorary Fellow in 2002.
Bill was a welcome presence at the many CPRS professional development meetings he attended. Sharon Hawrelak, a past-president of CPRS-Edmonton called him “a source of encouragement and inspiration to CPRS-Edmonton”. She said, “After he became a Life Member, he diligently performed the expectations of the role to show up and share the history and values of CPRS and how public relations has evolved with fellow attendees, which included members, non-members and students. Bill always chose a seat at a table with the least familiar faces. When I was president, he’d always take the time to share positive feedback on how the board and I were doing and examples of what was done in the past that worked well. Bill was a kind and gentle person, and it was an honour to know him.”
Before and after each CPRS meeting, Bill would slip into his office at the YMCA. He had used his skills in communications as a volunteer for the Y for many years, including serving on the YMCA’s national council from 1982-84. But in 1992, when he retired at age 63 from his position with the Alberta government, he became a full time YMCA volunteer. He was a major fundraiser for them and in typical Bill fashion, he joined the Alberta Association of Fund Raising Executives (AARFE) to learn even more. He also got involved in the Y’s international humanitarian work, going on missions to Colombia, Panama, Malaysia and Thailand.
Bill received dozens of awards for community service from the YMCA, AARFE, the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton, CPRS and other groups, including the Prime Minister’s Volunteer Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013. But the pinnacle of his volunteer work came in 2008 when the Y opened its new social services building and unveiled its name: YMCA William Rees Centre. Bill was awed, although he already knew the origins of the name. When Bill Butler’s family foundation donated a major $2.7 million gift to the Y to enable the building’s completion, Butler set one stipulation: the building had to be named in honour of Bill Rees. The Y quickly agreed. What better way to honour a volunteer with 50 years’ service?
At the opening ceremony, then YMCA President Franco Savoia said: Bill Rees has made a profound and positive impact on individuals, our local communities and the world around us. Bill Rees has committed a lifetime to volunteer service and helping build the foundations of our community. He exemplifies what it means to be a man of the highest values, moral and ethical standards, and is an incredible community builder, volunteer and a true philanthropist who gives of his time, talents, experiences and skills. He is the kind of individual you want to model your life after. That was, indeed, a glorious tribute to a Canadian public relations practitioner.
Bill never married and he had said that in many ways, the Jaycees, YMCA and CPRS became his family. He retained his close connections in all three organizations for more than six decades.
Upon his death, Bill Rees bequeathed money to CPRS for PR education, and thus the Bill Rees Leaning Centre was established in 2018. Bill was a tribute to our profession. He contributed to PR through his career and volunteer work for CPRS, but more importantly, he used his PR skills to contribute to the community – in Regina, Edmonton, across Canada and around the world – and by so doing, he has given the public in public relations a whole new meaning.