Peter Verin, UVic's reluctant philosopher king, dies at 71

Peter Verin, a homeless man who salvaged around the University of Victoria and Saanich Centre for more than 40 years and was known for his philosophical chats, has died. He was 71.

“From his point of view, he was not homeless. He was living a particular free-spirit lifestyle,” said David Turner, a retired professor and former Victoria mayor who first met Verin on campus in the early 1970s.

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“He was an extraordinary person with an intense intellectual curiosity … but he was also a controversial figure.”

For three decades, Verin hung out at UVic. At first he had full rein to wander, pulling textbooks and magazines from garbage bins and chatting up students at the library. He rarely revealed anything about himself.

“He was kind of a live-in professor,” Turner said. Despite a pervasive myth, Verin was not a professor. He was from Montreal and studied philosophy at McGill University. He once told the Times Colonist he thought of himself as “the reluctant campus enviro-intellectual.”

Verin found food and slept where he could, and accumulated stashes of varied items around campus.

“I extend the shelf life of things that would normally be sent to Hartland, a large amount of that being books, magazines and newspapers,” Verin said in 2002. “Then I redirect it to where it will be put to the best possible use. It’s my attempt to make sense of the world.”

When his collections grew in the mid-1990s, staff complained and he was banned from all buildings on campus except the Student Union Building.

It was there that Verin hosted a late-night campus radio show on CFUV. That’s where Jeb Gordon first met him in 1994.

“I think I was around 18 and he did the show right after. It was called Earth First, mostly about environmental issues and he’d play some music,” said Gordon, who credits Verin as a motivator for the university to adopt a recycling program.

Gordon and Victoria-Swan Lake MLA Rob Fleming, who was then on the UVic Student Society board, shared a memory about Verin. During the blizzard of 1996, Verin was hosting his midnight radio show alone when the campus was snowed in. He took it upon himself to keep the programming going for about three days.

“It was probably one of the most interesting batches of radio … it was bizarre but enjoyable,” Gordon said.

Fleming was a projectionist at the Cinecenta movie theatre and recalls one night when the toilets were plugged and no equipment was on hand. “Someone thought to ask Peter, and, sure enough, he came back in about two minutes with a plunger. He had so much stuff.”

Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt said he knew Verin well and thought his work at the university, sorting, storing and shifting discarded items, served a greater purpose.

“For a lot of people who came from a sheltered, middle-class background, meeting Peter was a real eye-opener,” Isitt said. “He sent a powerful message that we don’t have to be so wasteful.”

In 2007, Verin was permanently banned from the university after complaints about him breaking into buildings to sleep and use the restrooms, and his growing stashes around campus. He pursued court action to regain what he said was his right to the public space, but eventually gave up.

For the past 10 years, Verin spent most of his time collecting, recycling and living outside in the Quadra Street and McKenzie Avenue area of Saanich.

Staff at Saanich Centre said he often took shelter in the underground parking area.

“He rummaged around but never made a mess. He was part of the community,” said Jordan Kerr, who works at Thrifty Foods. “Every so often he’d ask to use a phone to call back East. He was keeping in touch with someone, but I’m not sure who.”

Verin knew many Saanich police officers on a first-name basis. “We always kept in touch with homeless people. He was a bit different, very self-supportive and he loved his lifestyle,” said Roy Radu, a retired officer who got to know Verin while on the bike patrol.

Verin would tell people that he did not drink or do drugs and was committed to his work as a “professional salvager.”

“He was one of the toughest people I’ve met physically and emotionally. He told me if he didn’t have to sleep he’d work 24 hours,” Radu said.

Saanich officers called an ambulance for Verin about a week ago after his health declined and he fell.

He was taken to Royal Jubilee Hospital. Radu stopped by to see him, but Verin was asleep, “snoring with his radio beside him.”

“He looked peaceful. I expected to see him back out and working again,” he said. But after a brief illness, Verin died Monday in hospital. It was one day before his 72nd birthday.

Dave Meredith, a District of Saanich worker who befriended Verin, had a tradition of bringing him a hot chocolate on his birthday. He found out Verin died when he went to track him down and saw a small “rest in peace” notice on a bus stop.

“It was very sad. His cart was there with a book about Palestine on top,” he said. “He was just a really gentle soul.”

A memorial for Verin will take place at noon on Jan. 19, at the corner of Quadra and McKenzie, hosted by Rev. Al Tysick from the Dandelion Society.

spetrescu@timescolonist.com

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