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Dr. Bob

Another winter storm raged outside, we were sitting in Bob and Gina Church’s geo thermally heated home in the Hamptons, Calgary (formerly Pat Burn’s CK Ranch). Bob said, “You know that several times, during the past, this entire part of western Canada was covered by sheets of ice thousands of feet thick, that was followed by eras of tropical seas and jungles. All of the area my family ranched is glacial morraine.” I nodded and Bob looked out the window to the valley below, deer meandered through. “You know, my Uncle Charlie used to hay this native grass hill. How strange, so many years later, to be living here. There never were trees here.” Yes, endings and beginnings…we often confuse them I thought. Bob has seen some changes in his life.

Bob and I visit quite often on the phone and compare notes. It is a sort of continuing education for me. Always something new to learn around this man. I dropped over for a visit and the hours swiftly flew. “Staying in the Game” was the title of Doc Seaman’s biography. Like Doc, a mutual friend, Bob is not sitting in the ash trays watching the game, he’s still active and involved, giving back to a land and community he has come to cherish. This story is basically notes from our long talk.

Though writing a piece about ‘Dr. Bob,’ as our industry knows him, can be a difficult thing to do; there are 1000 shades of gray in his precise dialogue; but he is a native Albertan through and through. It is evident in his value system. His cowboy ethics are his Northern Star.

            Dr. Robert Church, as he’s known in agriculture, academia, Faculties of Medicine around the globe and in government offices across the land has been one of the landmark intellects that has contributed to the progress of man and science. Today, at 77 years of age, he is somewhat slowing his involvement with corporations, speaking and consulting and is conspiring with his daughter Eileen to put together a book about his life. After the events of the past two years he has taken stock and decided to channel his time and energy into projects and consultation that help him give back to humans and science. Like the Gates Foundation, he is doing so in a way that is void of personal financial gain.

“Where I give my time and advice will be determined by the need and the manner in which I can help.

But I expect nothing in return,” he added.

Over many decades Bob has worked closely with many of our Premiers and their cabinets and administrations including the governments of  E.C. Manning, Lougheed, Getty, Klein and Stelmach. Church admits, “Today I’m rather ‘a-political’; the things that concern me most are honesty, transparency and accountability. I am skeptical of big government;  bureaucracies out of control and Alberta’s squandered legacy: we are a province, I feel, that has lost its advantage. We were once the envy of North America with our fiscal prudence. My friends ask me in letters, ‘What the hell has gone wrong in Alberta, why are you there?’ I agree that I live in an Alberta which is now a stranger to me, far removed from Peter Lougheed’s visionary leadership; though it is still, comparatively speaking, a wonderful place to live.”          

Bob adds, “If Danielle Smith is able to surround herself with a network of capable marshals, with an effective cabinet, we could see remarkable things happen with the Wild Rose Party. Bills 45 and 46 could be the trump cards that reinvigorate the urban base they need to expand. What irritates me is cabinet ministers that are rotated out and re-appointed before they can get any experience. In the advanced education  portfolio we have had about seven minsters of that department in the same number of years. That sort of turnover frustrates me. Today, many cabinet ministers have a sense of entitlement, they feel they deserve to live the high life on the public purse. The voting public is not getting the benefit of better decision making that could come from some long-seated ministers who get to truly know their portfolios.”

Bob Church has come to a point in his life where there has not been a shift in how he thinks or feels, or the sacred cows he has fought for, instead, he is measuring his time and how he spends it. Change came abruptly to his life in early October 2011 on a cold snowy day as he was fencing a slough at his ranch (Lochend Luing). He happened to contract a rare avian virus and a bacterial lung infection from a large flock of Trumpeter Swans that were migrating from the North. He knew something was dreadfully wrong with his lungs and sent sputum samples around the globe to friends running research labs in order to understand exactly what was causing the infection. Several weeks later, minus 50 lbs., Bob was barely clinging to life. Then, willing to take a calculated risk, a friend in a lab in Europe couriered an experimental drug to Bob and within two days his viral/bacterial infection was halted in its tracks. Inuit peoples have contracted the same virus which turns into bacterial pneumonia and which has proven 100% fatal. Bob is the only case known to have survived the encounter. He doesn’t fence sloughs any more, “If cattle are given clean fresh water in a tank away from a slough, they will prefer it. It begs the question…why fence riparian areas off?” Sometimes experience provides hard lessons.

Recovery for Bob was slow given the severity of his condition. Some residual medical issues persisted. Today, Bob is back in fine form, his mind is sharp as ever. And his commitment to truth and the scientific method burn bright. Gina has his back and together they are strong. Bob notes his mother Alexa just turned 105. To wit, there is still a long road ahead; he smiles looking back at his triumphs and tragedies.

To really know Bob, one must know something of his past. That is several books in itself. And what he could write about TSE’s, CWD and  infectious disease (zoonosis) would literally fill volumes.  Indeed, spend several hours with him and it’s as if  a vast computer is flashing millions of bits of information in front of you and it is all inter-related and relevant. The common threads are narrated by Bob as he spins his global tales of  evidence, discovery, documentation and  connections between scientists which are leading to radical new understandings of disease and treatment on an unprecedented scale. “I only wish I was 50 years younger, it is a most exciting time to be in the fields of medicine, immunology and mass genomic sequencing.”

Our conversation goes on for hours, I ask Bob about Canada’s BSE in 2003. He lived and breathed this ordeal with us. He was fighting in the trenches with us as our borders closed and livestock prices collapsed.  In retrospect, Church feels Canada did not do a good job handling BSE, “Not as good as Britain. We responded in a slow, sloppy and poorly organized way to the threat. It will be years before trade is normalized with the US: mCOOL, tariffs, retaliation, R-CALF? We’ve been tried in the social media and had we handled BSE better we would not have incited R-CALF. I was on the British BSE Committee in 1986: Britain tested for BSE, we did not embrace testing with the same vigor. And I might add we are not performing the BSE testing we should to keep our current export status. Britain got back market confidence because they tested early (comprehensively), they took the initiative. We did not. When it comes to policy positions all groups of our industry must come together to build a stronger beef industry. We get glimmers of this happening from time to time, but that unity has eluded us so far. While ALMA has accomplished much with their leadership, much remains to be done nationally. Europe is the next alluring market the US and Canada are vying to win. America will do anything to get there first and deny us market share. I think mCOOL is part of their strategy to delay and confuse us. Honestly, we are choking on bureaucracy.”

On a brighter note Bob notes that “Just over ten years ago the human genome project was completed; we now have the capability to take genetic sequencing to all species. This has opened up whole new areas of science and one outcome of this is a self-contained micro analytic capability to do mass sequencing of DNA in the field with micro computers. What this means is a Canadian developed diagnostic company that does proprietary BSE or CWD testing based on genomic sequencing. This will be done in the field with results returning in about one hour at a cost of $5-$10 per animal or patient. We are entering some rather exciting times in agriculture. And the new ideas and technology are going to radically change how we raise livestock and impact our export markets.”

In grade 12, Bob’s schooling was halted when he was run over by a farm truck and critically injured. But, he entered the Olds School of Agriculture and took a degree in Agriculture from the University of Alberta. In 1962, as a member of World University Services, Bob was sent to Communist China on behalf of CUSO (Canadian University Students Overseas) as part of a pilot project. He was also a WUS scholar at the University of Uppsala (Sweden) studying immunology. Then came a Master’s Degree in carcass evaluation at the University of Alberta with Dr. Roy Berg, “It was the first thesis ever done on Genetics and Carcass Evaluation and that was in 1963. I worked with Neil McKinnon of LK Ranches and Eion Chisholm of Western Feedlots. Bert Sheppard of the OH Ranch was my external adviser.” Sounds like a dream team to me. Bob would later write the carcass protocols for President’s Choice, Natural Choice and the Certified Angus Beef program in America for the American Angus Assoc..

In 1965 Bob earned a Ph..D. at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Animal Genetics. This was followed by a post doctoral degree at the University of Washington focusing on cutting edge molecular genetics. “Root syndrome kicked in and I came back to Alberta  partly because of Dr. Bill Cochrane (Founding Dean of the U of C School of Medicine, 1967 ).  I became the founding head of the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Calgary. In the summers I taught molecular genetics at the Scripps Institute at La Jolla, CA .” This CV could go on, but, you get the picture. Bob has never stopped learning or sharing all his life; might I add teaching?

Bob is also a member of the Alberta Order of Excellence; Order of Canada, former Chair of the Alberta Science and Research Authority and past President of the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede.   Bob was invited to open the 2010 Calgary Bull Sale. More could be said, but Bob falls silent and adds, “I don’t need to be remembered for anything.”

I dropped my pen and looked out at the raging storm thinking, “I disagree somewhat with Bob on this one.” Bob has kept a lot of people honest and thinking over the years. That’s perhaps one of his important roles in the scheme of things: challenging conventional thinking and research. Helping things balance out, to find their equilibrium. It’s like his concept of the Fourth Dimension: there is another realm out there that most people never think about for their entire life. Bob walks in and out of it with ease, in a manner of speaking. 

But somehow, our discussion drifted on and on with intensity. Bob’s connections with the land and people of Alberta are legend. He recalls his grandfather leaving Bridgeland and moving north because of repeat flooding in the 1880’s and ’90’s. “If you live on a flood plain, take the necessary steps to mitigate your flood risk.” He talks about gathering the wild horses of the Suffield range with the Ellis boys and notes, “What a fiasco to stock Suffield with Elk, where was the logic of that plan?”

And the talk turns the next moment to Etienne Burrus and his partnership with Simon Schonhofer and of how they founded the Majestic Ranch (yes, Bob knew Etienne when he lived in PEI). In a similar manner, Bob introduced Doc Seaman to the OH Ranch. Doc bought it so it would not be turned into a military range. And similar stories unfold about Bob introducing John Scott to Walt Disney Studios in 1965 and his first movie work contracting animals for the sets. And so it goes. John Scott noted last night in a phone call, “Yes, what Bob said was true.”

Then Bob shared his analysis of our energy policy; the oil sands; electrical and utility rates and policy; the demise of the PFRA pastures; soil science; One Four and the Sage Grouse preserve; politicians that have little or no real world experience; a medical system that is no longer personalized and the burden regional health authorities bring by adding to an already constipated bureaucracy. Bob adds, “We are back to tribalism through social media and public relations.” He admits our idea of Western progress is both progressing and regressing at the same time. Thesis, antithesis and synthesis continue as they always have. Just as some years spring does not merrily dance north in April; she kind of stumbles and falls along the way, arriving oft in June.

Yearlings now graze the rented pastures at Lochend Luing. Time marches on. Fresh trails and pastures new call Bob. His love affair with all things medical and leading edge continue to propel him into new states of wonder. He knows how to connect the dots if you know what I mean.

He offers fair comment based on real world experience. He is a born leader, trail blazer and  offers experienced based comments and decision making skills based upon fact. Time spent with Bob is time well spent. Though he has walked with kings (literally) he has not lost his ability to rub shoulders with shepherds, cowboys or farmers. His grass roots finally pulled him home to Alberta, and the land of shining mountains is a better place because of it.    

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