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Peter Osted, a unique Hay River teacher, is remembered

A young Peter Osted is seen in a strip of photos kept by the family
A young Peter Osted is seen in a strip of photos kept by the family.

“It was one of the funnest years I had growing up.”

Matt Soroff speaks for generations of Hay River school students who remember Peter Osted for a unique and inspiring approach to teaching.

Peter, a builder in every sense of the word, passed away in March at the age of 82, having taught in Hay River since the mid-1960s. A service for him was held on Saturday at the town’s Royal Canadian Legion, which formed a large part of his life.

Soroff was taught by Peter in Grade 6 in the late 1990s.

“He was a lot different than the other teachers. He taught normal subjects in the morning, but in the afternoon it would always be some sort of art project or something totally different,” Soroff recalls.

“For part of a week we’d be learning how to make different paper aeroplanes. He’d be teaching us all sorts of different angles and geometry. Then another week, we’d be building massive puppets. In the winter we built schlockey boards, and closer to the summer he would take us to the beach, and we’d get little pieces of driftwood, sand them and varnish them, and make them into art pieces.”

Ultimately, Soroff says, Peter “made it so coming to school was fun.”

“Looking back on it, he was still teaching, right? You were still learning. You’re just doing it in a totally different way. You didn’t even know you were learning.”

Peter Osted was born on August 13, 1940 in Denmark. He emigrated to Canada with his family in 1954, his father – in what became a family legend – having flipped a coin with Canada on one side and Kenya on the other.

By 1965, the family had settled in Winnipeg and he had met and married his wife, Margaret, from Altona, Manitoba. But work in Winnipeg after the two left teachers’ college was hard to come by.

“My grandfather said, ‘Well, you should go north.’ He meant northern Manitoba, but they came here,” says Kate Latour, Peter’s daughter and a Hay River resident herself.

“He loved sharing his knowledge. It was the thing that he did. There are people who have learned how to be construction workers because of what he taught them in Grade 6. There are people who have gone on to fight overseas, in armies, because of what he taught them in cadets.”

Peter was a longtime Royal Canadian Legion devotee and cadet leader
Peter was a longtime Royal Canadian Legion devotee and cadet leader.

Peter gave a huge amount of time to the cadets.

“He was the commanding officer in Hay River for years and years, and they struggled like mad to keep volunteers but Peter was always that pivot, he was always the point you could count on,” recalls Paul McKee, a fellow devotee to cadets in the NWT.

“He was a staunch believer in the program and a staunch believer in what that kind of leadership could accomplish.”

McKee remembers Peter, a “heck of a shot,” keeping a $100 bill safely stowed, ready to present to any cadet who shot a 100 score during a championship.

“Twice I saw him pay it,” McKee says. “He came clean.”

Peter and the pipe

Peter was tall, strong and often silent, qualities that helped him become a leadership figure in the town for decades.

“When he spoke, everyone stopped and listened,” says Latour, “because what he had to say was probably going to be something meaningful.”

At school, if his physical presence didn’t grab you, the smell of his pipe might.

Having begun teaching in Hay River in 1965, Peter’s career spanned plenty of years when a teacher smoking a pipe in school was perfectly acceptable.

“There are many people who will remember him because he would be packing his pipe to go out for recess, and the smell of this pipe would waft into the hallway,” says Latour.

“There are still times when if I want to imagine my dad, all I have to do is think of that.”

A Hay River Hub clipping recalls Peter's involvement in the town's museum.
A Hay River Hub clipping recalls Peter’s involvement in the town’s museum.
Peter at work.
Peter at work.

But she can also look around the town for reminders of Peter through his handiness: all the work he did on the family home, for example, or the time he and friends took to strip, reassemble and furnish the building that became home to Hay River’s museum.

In his basement, he would tinker for hours with model aircraft, adapting kits so that the finished model closely resembled a northern plane. A fleet of miniature Buffalo aircraft came to life through his hands, and the family still has many that survived Hay River’s recent flood (and, yet more dramatically, a recent explosion next to the house).

“We will be taking care of them, and figuring out how to share them around where they truly belong,” Latour says.

“There were also sailing ships, the rigging strung by hand, like real rigging that might actually work if you pulled on it – but you don’t pull on it,” she continues, adding in imitation of her father: “Don’t touch that!”

“He designed and built the NWT Track and Field torches,” says McKee, remembering his desire to make the annual Hay River athletics tournament more like the Olympics.

“He was careful at first to keep them in his office – in his words, because ‘people like to borrow things.’ So he never wanted them to leave his sight.

“When he retired from teaching, he took them home with him and they stayed in his basement.”

By the time Peter retired from teaching, some of the students in his final class were the grandchildren of people he had taught in his first years in the town.

In retirement, he and Marge spent as much time as they could travelling.

“My mom would make itineraries and my dad would go along with it,” says Latour. “He just liked going, and he liked being with her.”

McKee said Peter’s legacy was that of a man who was proactive, never slow to give praise, and who “just got stuff done.”

After contracting Covid-19 and pneumonia, Peter passed away peacefully on March 27.

He is survived by Marge, his brother Hans, his sister Karen, children Kate (Ken) and Poul (Sherri), and grandchildren Mike, Grace and Emily.