The Road Home

By Kevin McKay

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When Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead were singing, “What a long strange trip it’s been,” they could well have been singing about the life of John Pippus. During his extraordinary journey through the first 59 years of his life, he has been an entrepreneur, a musician, an activist, a family man, a hippie, a salesman, a substance abuser, a student, a playwright, and more. John has known success and tasted a little of the good life - and he has fallen to rock bottom, dwelling where few people ever go. His life is not easily defined but about it John says, “I was a middle class kid from Winnipeg with an entrepreneurial streak.” And this remains at his core, despite all he has been through and his abundant talent and creative abilities.

John lived with his parents and three siblings in Winnipeg until he was 11, when Avis Rent-a-Car transferred his father to Vancouver so he could manage their operations in B.C. and the Yukon. “Even as a kid I was a bit of an entrepreneur,” says John. “I had a paper route and set up lemonade stands, bought and sold comics and even started my own little newspaper.”

An early reader, John completed Grades 2 and 3 at the same time. It meant that he was always the youngest kid in his class.

“Somehow it shaped me,” he says. “At Balmoral Junior High, there were two eccentric, colourful teachers. Mr. Kingan was my art teacher. I feared him but I loved him. My socials teacher, Mr. Perry, was a well-known sculptor. He was telling us about the Plains of Abraham and the English climbing the cliffs, and while he was telling us, he was literally climbing the blackboard. It made quite an impression on me.”

At first, high school was not easy for John, but everything changed with a simple discovery. “I was in the out crowd, not popular. It was not really where I wanted to be, but I had to go. I started a band in Grade 10 with a drummer named Paul Baker,” he recalls. “I sang and played guitar and we would play at house parties. Music gave me my place. It was all about girls. If girls liked what we were doing, it was all right by me.”

He graduated in 1967, the summer of love, moved out and took a train to Montreal with his pal Paul to take in Expo ‘67. From there, the two young men hitchhiked to New York City, and finally back across the country home. In 1968, he was washing dishes at the Coach House Hotel restaurant in North Vancouver when he decided to pursue a post-secondary education. “Thank God, I did,” he says now.

He chose BCIT since two years seemed far more attractive than a four year program. “I read the calendar and looked at broadcast communications,” he says. “I liked watching TV and thought maybe I could do this. Thirty students got in, and I was 35th. I went to the department head and told him I wanted in badly. One of the 30 dropped out, and I was the one who got in.”

John decided to focus on TV in his second year. “I finished, though I did a lot of partying. We had to wear jackets and ties at the time. We were up in arms, protesting and so on.”

At his practicum in the CBC film department on Georgia Street, he charmed everybody and had a lot of fun. The day after he graduated, he was hired and started working there with colourful coworkers who, he says, hated bureaucracy.

After a couple of years working for the Mother Corporation, the long-haired John Pippus quit, packed up his guitar and a backpack and flew to Hawaii. The locals took one look at him and told him he needed to go to Makena Beach, which he did, only to discover it was home to about 100 nudists. It ended, John remembers, with a police raid. “I got busted along with my girlfriend, Peggy. We woke up with two other guys to find everyone else gone. They got word of a police raid. I was handcuffed to Peggy, marched to the paddy wagon and driven into town to face the music. The trial was the next day. The Judge told me if I left the Islands, he would dismiss the charges, so I did.”

John returned home in 1972, bought a van and took off with two friends. When they were turned back at the U.S. border, they headed east and ended up in Montreal. While there, John lived two separate lives - one mainstream and one underground. He hooked up with some friends from the CBC and formed part of a coffeehouse scene. “It was like a mini Andy Warhol type scene,” he says. “We all had grand perceptions. We had a band, poets, dancers, lots of girlfriends and [we] moved around, making music in a half-assed way.”

At the same time, he was working as a successful salesman despite his long hair. “I was selling Cable vision door-to-door, and I was one of the top five salesmen. I put my hair in a ponytail to help me get in the door,” he recalls. “Before going back into the office, at the end of the day, I would wild up my hair and there would be my name on the board. The other salesmen hated me. I had a ball. My dad was a good door-to-door encyclopedia salesman back in the ‘40s. And I was a good salesman too.”

But deep down, John knew he was wasting his time. Eventually, he suffered a breakdown and moved back to Vancouver. Down and out, he lived in a rooming house, where he would sleep up to 18 hours a day and spent much of the rest of the time playing his guitar in front of downtown Vancouver stores.

With some help from his parents, John got back on his feet, took an entry-level job with CKVU television in 1977 and worked his way up to editing in the news department. Along the way, he met Pamela in 1981, and they were married in 1982. She had a son from a previous relationship, and together they had a daughter and a son over the next couple of years. With his family complete, John left CKVU to be a full-time househusband, something he did for a couple of years.

Though John says it was good to be home with the kids, when they reached school age, he returned to the workforce. “In 1987, I went over to BCTV in Burnaby to work as a video editor in the newsroom. It wasn’t my passion, but it was an easy enough way to make a living. I was casual for 20 years, but got plenty of work - enough to get full-time pay with the flexibility I craved.”

The next stop on the journey was time spent as an activist for children's education. John saw plenty wrong with the education system and was not afraid to voice his opinion.

“I was media savvy,” he says. “During the teachers strike, I spoke up for parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak out. I was like a she bear when I saw my daughter being hurt by the system because she was too smart. I was making waves, getting national press coverage. If they wanted a quote, they would come to me. Eventually, John received $140,000 in grant money from local foundations and started the Surrey Traditional School.

“I debated Charles Ungerleider from the UBC Education Department (later the deputy minister of Education) and in spite of having no formal education in this field, I held my own.”

This battle with the education field made John feel he needed a degree after his name to add credibility to what he was fighting for. He took some online courses from Kwantlen College before going to UBC where he received an Interdisciplinary Studies degree. “This time I was an A student because there were no girls to distract me from my studies,” he laughs.

Over the past five years, John’s life has come full circle as he slowly eased into retirement by reducing his work schedule and returning to his music.

“I started performing at open mics, recording, and writing songs. It’s my expensive hobby,” he says. I host coffee house on Granville Street every Friday night. Pamela does the sound, while I book the talent and perform.”

About a year ago, while John was searching for new audiences for his music, Pamela mentioned that the Fringe Festival had an established audience. John agreed this was a good idea, so signed up to take an acting class at Langara College. At the end of the course, he asked his teacher, Rachel Scott, if she would direct his play for the Festival.

“She said, ‘yes, I want to direct something right now.’ I was so excited. I can’t be so hopeless if this professional person is willing to put her name on the line.”

After a lot of work involving eight major drafts and plenty of rehearsals, John launched his production, *Oh, Winnipeg* at the Fringe Festivals in September in Victoria and Vancouver to critical acclaim and some sold-out shows. The back story is all about his life, but what John enjoyed most was the chance to showcase his music.

Now he has a CD, which is getting airplay and good reviews in Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and he is hoping to hit the road again and travel to some of these places to promote it. But he won’t be going alone.

“Going to some of these countries and playing live is very appealing to me, but this has to involve my wife. We need to agree that this is what we want to do. We want to travel in comfort, no more sleeping on the beach. Pamela is my stage manager, and I couldn’t do it without her. She keeps me grounded. I’m the dreamer.”

His brief music career has already spawned a couple of highlights including co-writing a song with Ra McGuire of Trooper and performing on stage at a Wisconsin festival with Jackson Browne in front of 5,000 fans.

“When you are connecting with an audience, the room kind of goes extra silent,” says John. “When it goes so silent, that is when you know you’ve got it. Those are the best moments. I love that. I live for it.”

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