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Fighting fatigue for a good cause

Alumnus Gilles Pepin works around his debilitating syndrome to preserve Canadian heritage.
December 22, 2016
By Lucas Napier-Macdonald

Gilles Pepin, EMBA 96, lives in four-hour intervals.

On a typical day, for four hours he’s awake, toiling in his studio with a laser’s focus. Then, for four hours, he’s asleep, beating back the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that seized him, unexpectedly, in 2011.

Until then, Pepin worked as a financial adviser at the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in Montreal. The syndrome, where pain and confusion accompany obstinate fatigue, forced him into early retirement.

Gilles Pepin Gilles Pepin, EMBA 96, sitting in the conference room of the Montreal Aviation Museum, overlooking the diorama that took him and his team six months to complete. | All photos: W. Mark Roe, MAM

“If I need to sleep and I’m not anywhere near my bed, I’m in trouble,” Pepin says. “As I approach the four-hour mark of being awake, my memory is affected.”

RBC offered him a generous severance package in recognition of his years of hard work. Pepin accepted, retiring to the care of his wife, a former nurse.

What, then, for a now-disabled man of seemingly boundless ambition to do?

Aside from being a financial planner, Pepin has also played professional tennis. In 1993, he ran for the leadership of the Equality Party, a federalist political party in Quebec.

First, he took a moment to recoup. Away from the marble-floored halls of money management, he let his body rest.

But then, he got restless.

“I’ve always been an aviation buff, ever since I was a young lad,” Pepin says.

“When I went to Collège Bourget [in Rigaud, Que.], I devoured every single World War II book in the library. I’m also a model railroader. I’ve worked with miniatures all my life as a hobby.”

His mind a galaxy of knowledge about Second World War airplanes and model crafting, Pepin approached John Lawson, president of the Montreal Aviation Museum (MAM). He pitched a program, “We Build Heritage,” which would offer exact replicas of aircraft, to scale, to interested donors.

The museum accepted. Pepin and his team of volunteers began work, striving for historical exactitude.

“The research is half of the work,” Pepin says. “I’m building a single engine fighter right now. With all the research, it’ll take me two months.”

diorama A closer look at the diorama Pepin and his team built in memory of Malcolm Dalton Loucks, Canadian veteran and squadron leader. Loucks was the senior flying control officer of a large Royal Air Force base in Yorkshire, England, during the Second World War.

Before his time at the Royal Bank, Pepin decided to complete an executive MBA at Concordia. The “incredibly challenging” program, as he says, is for mid-career managers who want to improve their skill set.

At the end of his degree, Pepin attended an open house for 30 or so potential candidates to the EMBA program at the John Molson School of Business. There, program director Kamal Argheyd asked him how he would rate the program as a product.

“It’s the second best product I’ve ever purchased,” Pepin says.

“Well, what’s the first?” Argheyd said.

Pepin’s answer? “My wife’s wedding ring.”

He credits the EMBA program for teaching him to create a business plan like the one he presented to Lawson.

The MAM attracts many high-flying guests. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre visited in May 2016. The volunteers are now building an exact, full-size replica of the Curtiss-Reid Rambler, an aircraft used to train pilots in the 1930s, to be on display in City Hall for Montreal’s 375th anniversary.

The Heritage project has also added the Veterans Initiative that, for special occasions, donates to Canadian veterans models of the planes they’ve flown. To Pepin, it’s the most rewarding part of the work.

“When the veterans see the model of their aircraft on the table, you should see the emotion in their eyes. There’s a moment of surprise, and then recognition, and then a little moisture,” he says.

“You know, they flew these aircrafts 70 some-odd years ago, and they were shot at. They are the reason you and I are enjoying the liberties we have today.”

  • The Montreal Aviation Museum is located at the Canadian Aviation Heritage Centre, McGill University, Macdonald Campus, 21,111 Lakeshore Rd., Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que.


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