Pellin Institute

The Light on Fourth Ave

By Victor Flagg

This is a personal remembrance by Victor Flagg of David Pellin, the originator of the Activator Philosophy of Human Behavior. 

Peter Fleming was his student and after David’s sudden death, Peter preserved his teachings and later developed Contribution Training, which honors Pellin’s ideas and tools while adding therapeutic tools developed by Fleming. 

The article was originally submitted to the Reader’s Digest in the early 1980s though it was not published. It reflects my own views and experience of the time I spent at the Activator Unit. 

I share it here for its historical interest about the roots of the Pellin Institute. It should be viewed in the wider context of other original material detailing the roots of Contribution Training, such as the film Activator One which can be found here.

I will keep on going

Like a rogue elephant challenging a herd of his reluctant fellows, he bellowed, “I will kiss the boots of any man but when I know what he knows, I will keep on going.” The man behind the voice was David Pellin and “to keep on going” was his specialty. It was 1971 and the place was Vancouver, British Columbia.

Pellin never missed an opportunity to teach people the value of having a purpose in life. His audiences, packed inside the inconspicuous premises on west Fourth Avenue, were impressed. By 1971 Pellin’s ‘Activator Unit’ was the center of a thriving, bustling and dynamic social movement. Dedicated to educating people in a positive way of life, the Activator Unit’s activities revolved around a series of lectures Pellin gave which he referred to as The Activator Philosophy of Human Behavior. Those who had taken the lectures and paid a small fee formed the membership of the Activator Society.

Pellin’s booming voice put a definite edge on the sound behavior-oriented teachings he was known for. Conviction, experience, and an unmistakable concern for people combined to make it hard not to listen and think about what he said. He had a highly developed capacity for communication, and he used it. Such a gift is not without its evolution. Its roots can be traced. The teacher had a past.

In the depression years he left Winnipeg for New York and there graduated from MacFadden’s physical culture school. The forties found him running a physical therapy service in Vancouver before the term ‘physical therapy’ was in use. Pellin’s talent for developing things became apparent as he originated the muscle activation units for elderly hospital patients. The medical establishment recognized and adopted his methods but rejected him because he was unqualified. This precipitated a severe crisis for Pellin. His life, his pioneering work, and his marriage shattered on the rocks of disillusionment and despair.

The long haul up and out of that bleak time remains unchronicled but it can be deduced from his later accomplishments and teachings. In 1964 Pellin founded the Activator Unit. Evidently the hard years earlier had shaped his mind and character with a special empathy for people who needed a second chance. Pellin soon established a record of success in helping people with all kinds of problems change their behavior, adopt a path of growth and development and resume their place as contributing members of society. There was no lack of work of this kind.

The counterculture arrives

In the late 1960s a tidal wave of cultural upheaval was pounding the institutions of our society – drugs, sexual freedom, social protest, eastern religion and a host of other elements contributed to the overall atmosphere of change and disorientation. The counterculture had arrived and was nowhere more evident than on Vancouver’s west Fourth Avenue, a smaller version of San Francisco’s famous Haight Ashbury. Here you could find outlets for drug paraphernalia, health food stores, metaphysical bookstores, poster shops, radical politics and every contrast to established convention imaginable. Here on the edge of this frontier of change I was about to meet a remarkable man and learn something about life.

In the summer of 1970 I, like many others, was caught up in the excitement and glittering promises of the new age. Open schools, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, communes, health foods, British music, Acapulco Gold for fifteen dollars an ounce, free love, a new version of the second coming – all signs of the glory of the new Age of Aquarius. In 1967 thousands of young people from all over the world had gathered in Haight Ashbury seeking a new experience. Called ‘The Summer of Love’, this gathering resulted in the birth of the hippie movement. Returning home, the ‘flower children’ brought radical ideas and practices to major cities across the world including Vancouver where the movement found its center on Fourth Avenue. Now, three years into the ‘movement’ it all seemed so good, so necessary…it was too good to resist and…sadly, too good to be true.

When the gates of Aquarius opened no one expected the flood of trouble and tragedy that came crashing through. Friends progressing from marijuana to hashish to speed to heroin; student riots (remember Kent State); paid gurus; lost minds; marriage and family breakdown; and the mass marketing of sheer idiocy as business and politics cashed in on a confused generation. Despite the undeniable gains in terms of women’s rights, environmentalism, greater transparency etc., most people who went through those times bear scars of one kind or another. When I saw friends become heroin addicts (and at least one die from an overdose) I started looking for answers. I knew I was in trouble.

A dream shows the way

A minister friend invited me to attend a lecture at an educational center on Fourth Avenue where a positive way of life was taught. I declined thinking that it could not have much to do with the solution I was working on which was how I was going to achieve cosmic consciousness. Then I had a dream.

In this dream I was out on the street near my home and it was dark everywhere. I knew it was dark everywhere. All across the Vancouver region there was complete darkness and it was not just the absence of physical light – but it was thick darkness, obscurity, DARKNESS! Then way over on Fourth Avenue a light was shining. The dream was ominous in its simplicity. I decided to give cosmic consciousness a rest.

The Activator Unit

The Activator Unit was unpretentious. One entered through a plain looking ground level entrance off Fourth Avenue to a small room for coats and umbrellas. Then there was the large main room followed by a small room at the back with a washroom and rear entrance. The main room was a long well-lit rectangle with cushions lining one wall and an old sofa with a bookshelf and radio in one corner. Across from the sofa was a sink and cupboards with a large board on the wall with hooks for coffee mugs. These mugs had the names of the people taking the current series of lectures on them, a visible reminder of the immersion aspect of Pellin’s methods as he sought to turn the tide swirling around him. While taking the lectures the participants were expected to frequent the unit often. In the middle of the room was a low table affair resting on bricks. On the table – a not so innocent chess set. For me, as for so many others, this was where the activator experience began.

Despite being off the drugs for over a year, I was so messed up from the street life and so nervous that the first few days I was in the Activator Unit I sat with my back pressed to the wall until it hurt. Much later, I realized I had been grinding my teeth so hard my gums were bleeding. With me, as with other new people, Pellin asked if I would like a game of chess. I agreed and this apparently ‘normal’ activity provided some distraction from my intense self-consciousness. The game proceeded and I was just getting comfortable from the acceptance given by the man in charge when without warning Pellin casually swept his hand out across the board knocking all the pieces over. He then sat back and in a matter of fact tone said, “I don’t want to play anymore.”

I was shocked and painfully asked why he had acted as he did. He replied, “It’s only a game. It’s not important.” Somehow or other I mustered up the courage to ask, “Well, what is important?” To this Pellin responded with an unmistakable earnestness and leaning forward said, “Purpose in life is important.” With this introduction, Pellin initiated the teacher-student relationship. It was a rude shock for many, and a few could not take it and left. The majority who stayed chose to face themselves and grew.

The Activator Unit featured many unfinished chess games sacrificed to a teaching experiment that seldom failed.

The teacher

Pellin taught with unmistakable earnestness and conviction. He taught about emotional self-control, feelings of accomplishment from making a contribution, responsibility, the psychology of hurt, authority and delusion, the importance of recognition and satisfaction for the personality to reach maturity (which he called ‘compensation’) and the importance of developing a purpose in life. When asked where he got his ideas from, he simply said from all over the place. (It was known for example that he had taken some ideas from human potential pioneer Fritz Perls). However it would be missing the mark to suggest that his teaching consisted merely of conveying information. Pellin knew how to communicate and what he communicated was not just the conceptual framework. There was something else, something less definable but far more influential. For now, I will call it character (a term Pellin occasionally used) but we will see that the Activator Philosophy supplied a better term.

It was Pellin’s character (some would say charisma) in addition to the eminent good sense of his philosophy that made him a powerful teacher and leader. His appearance was not captivating and partly for this reason he was something of an enigma from the moment I first met him. Overweight and slightly swarthy in complexion, his clothes were plain. He usually wore a grey or dull colored shirt open at the top, often not tucked in. His trousers were of a dull color with the cuffs folded. In his early fifties, Pellin was never in a hurry. In fact, his movements often seemed to be slow and laborious. He would sit on the couch and survey the unit. Apart from the movement of his eyes which suggested alertness and other less definable qualities, he had an altogether unpretentious appearance.

Yet, coming into the unit for the first time one found one’s attention riveted on this man. I can recall often appraising his plain appearance and manner and wondering what it was that drew my attention. For there was no question about it, this man was the center, the pulse, the very life of a dynamic social movement. The Activator Unit was the hub for approximately two hundred and fifty people, mostly young adults, who came regularly to the weekly Wednesday night lecture and the follow up Sunday evening discussion. There were twenty lectures which started in September and February. A small fee was charged to help cover expenses of running the Unit. Taking the lectures was a big step which the newcomers looked forward to. Through these lectures and discussions Pellin generated an enthusiastic and powerful camaraderie that was needed for the rough road ahead.

Pellin’s lectures were hard hitting and intensely practical. They demanded change and growth and Activator students were to help each other over the rough spots. Even with all the support some still could not face the hard reality of change and left. But most stayed and learned much.

The teachings

Pellin started out by speaking about philosophy and emphasized that true philosophy or “love of-wisdom” lay in “doing”, not in talking or in rationalizing. One of his favorite sayings was, “Doing is reality”. In subsequent weeks he covered many topics, but all were infused with a positive energy that lay at the heart of his teaching. Pellin defined this energy by saying, “The positive reproduces itself. The negative destroys itself.”

He represented the emotions by a pendulum which was always swinging either high or low, pleasant or unpleasant. Pellin maintained that the pendulum was always ‘swinging’ to a degree and that an emotional high was always followed by a low and with it a personality change. Pellin made it clear that drug use and other emotional highs where we were not in control were harmful. He maintained that when people failed to control their emotions, hurt resulted. I remember Pellin saying, “True control is by understanding, not by unhealthy repression.”

Pellin used the three points of a triangle to teach that “effort towards a goal results in change (progress).” He taught that repeatedly going through the triangle of effort, goal and change was the real meaning of ‘happiness’. He emphasized that many people were unhappy because they were goal oriented. The secret of happiness is to be direction oriented, to be busily engaged in each little piece of work or effort that made up the goal. This would bring us to the goal which in turn was really only another point on the direction. Goals were important but only as points on a direction of further growth and development not as an end-state in which development had ceased. Throughout the course of his lectures Pellin would repeat with emphasis, “The feeling of accomplishment is the staff of life.” These were pivotal concepts in the Activator philosophy.

As we go through the triangle again and again, we develop authority – a person’s conscious contribution to society. Pellin taught that, “Authority equals the amount of responsibility you can carry out. The rest is delusion.” (This was a sore point for time servers of all ranks who preferred to protect their turf and avoid the demands of growth. It was these who Pellin had left behind years earlier).

At a certain point in the lectures he used a concept around which he built much of what came later. This was the concept of seven strata upon which to measure a person’s development. Pellin had a place for ‘communication’ in his developmental ‘strata’ as well as other dimensions including ‘awareness’ and ‘evaluation’. The ‘evaluation’ strata occupied a middle position and seemed to be much like what we call conscience. This evaluation faculty represented our values and the other strata or areas of development seemed to hinge on it. Significantly Pellin saved the most powerful and far reaching subjects in his lectures for the end. The last two lectures gave a glimpse into the heart of the man and revealed his strength and genius. One of these lectures was on the subject of purpose.

Pellin taught that there were three levels of purpose in life:

Superficial purpose – i.e. the purpose of eating a meal is to satisfy hunger. He also included sex under this heading. Superficial purposes were not unimportant, but they were short-lived.

Intermediate purpose – i.e. a level of purpose which lasted longer than the first, perhaps for many years, but which at some time in our life faded out and proved insufficient to sustain us in further development. Here he included marriage and family life and I suspect met with some resistance. 

Ultimate purpose – a purpose that was so developed and positive that it impels its possessor to continue to develop and grow, i.e. to keep on going. “Ultimate purpose,” Pellin said, “can pull you out of anything.”  He made it clear that it was not a matter of professing to have an ultimate purpose (many people do) or of being associated with something ultimate by membership, as in a church or a religion. It was a matter of developing oneself in that purpose. 

The examples Pellin cited of ultimate purpose were drawn from widely differing fields. Al Jolsen’s death on the stage during his last performance was evidence of a high degree of purpose. Pellin referred to Gandhi also as someone with ultimate purpose. Around the unit it was believed that Pellin himself had ultimate purpose.

The last lecture in the series dealt with the spiritual dimension of life and was entitled awareness. Pellin drove home the point that much that goes by the name of ‘spiritual’ in traditional views, such as charity, church services etc., was really little more than subjective awareness – awareness colored by subjective factors, for example the need for comfort and recognition. He did not advocate the cessation of such activities or the dismantling of the institutional machinery that provided them. True awareness, the true spiritual, Pellin taught, was objective, outside of self. This was the real meaning of unselfishness and love. This true awareness was developed only by developing an ‘ultimate purpose’, never through taking LSD, wearing a priestly collar, spending inordinate time in meditation or being what Pellin called a good doer. He was emphatic about this.

For instance, Pellin described meditation as a tool for clearing the mind of cobwebs. Meditation was primarily used to look at one’s emotional hang ups, which he called referrals, from the vantage of ‘objective awareness’. While in that state of awareness it was said a person could face an emotional problem without being wrapped up inside it and find a solution to it which could then be applied in our daily life. Pellin discouraged his students from meddling prematurely with the deeper aspects of the spiritual dimension, such as other states of consciousness or manifestations of spiritual power despite rumors that he knew about such things from his own experience.

This reluctance to discuss certain aspects of spirituality was firmly grounded. He seldom if ever discussed things like this in the lectures, although he may have in training his ringholders. Despite this I could not exclude a deeper dimension to Pellin’s ‘spirituality’. It was known for instance that Pellin would provide instruction in meditation on a one to one basis in some instances. This I requested and on one occasion was granted a short lesson.

Pellin had me lie on the couch and focus my attention first on my breathing, and then on the sensation of my body where it made contact with the couch moving successively from my legs on the couch, to my back on the couch, to my feet on the couch etc. Then he gradually had me shift my attention to my thoughts and then finally to the emotions hidden in those thoughts. 

There was a gradualness about this process that paradoxically seemed to have the effect of rapidly altering my state of awareness. I had a particular emotional situation challenging me and under his guidance and influence I fairly quickly found myself in a state where my awareness could ‘look at’ the situation rather than being wrapped up inside it Once in that state I found I could visualize the situation differently than I was currently experiencing it in my life. I was then able to imagine myself responding differently. This was surprising to me as I had not expected to be able to alter my mental and emotional state so quickly. 

The session lasted perhaps between thirty and forty-five minutes and then Pellin brought me out of it by tapping me on the shoulder. I was amazed at how positive I felt! This feeling lasted for hours and I was able to carry through the solution state I had experienced in the meditation into daily life to an extent that surprised me. It seemed to me that there was something going on in this experience on an ‘energy’ level and that Pellin actually gave some of his energy to assist.

Despite this suggestion of a deeper energy-like dimension of spirituality to Pellin there was resistance to this sort of thing being discussed among the Activators and as far as I could see, Pellin himself was not given to talking about it. He seemed to be determined that his ‘philosophy’ not get confused with the inordinate practices and impractical beliefs of a wide variety of gurus currently in vogue who were informed by mystical and occult traditions. The Activator Philosophy laid clear stress on the real world. Escapism which avoided growth, whether through drugs or dependence on a ‘guru’ was perhaps the only Activator ‘sin’.

Application in such things as control of emotions, responsibility, communication in relationships, making a contribution to society and the constructive satisfaction of needs laid a practical foundation in which ‘doing’ was emphasized. 

Only then would he pull aside the curtain a little and point his students in the direction of things that mattered most. He communicated powerfully here and for many it all came together. While the pendulum lecture on emotional control had been the nutcracker and turning point for many, the awareness lecture was perhaps the clincher. In this lecture he tied everything together in one. 

I will always remember his classic and terse expression the spiritual includes everything else.

The training

The lectures however powerful and effective were only part of what Pellin offered. The core of the Activator movement consisted of a group of people, who were trained in his philosophy and methods. Having completed this training and taken an oath of responsibility and loyalty, these ‘leaders’ were the ringholders. 

Wearing a ring with an ‘A’ on it, ringholders were allowed to teach the philosophy, organize and direct small discussion groups and assist Pellin in the unit. A ringholder could be male or female, young or old, of any race or religion etc. Some were older, mature married people carrying other responsibilities as for instance my minister friend. Others were young and just starting out like one parolee from prison. Despite wide differences all worked together in a remarkable spirit of cooperation.

The ringholders underwent rigorous training. A procedure called the hook was used to test the seriousness and readiness of the candidate. Being on the hook meant that someone who already was a ringholder would direct your training and be allowed to test your commitment and emotional control. For a period of time the person on the hook would be subject to the person doing the hook. He or she would be required to do what the trainer said, when they said it. This could be ‘run across the road and get me a pack of cigarettes’ or clean the toilets in the unit one Friday evening instead of keeping a date without of course giving notice to your date of your absence.

Then there was the crucial requirement to be able to take criticism without losing emotional control. For this the game of ‘compulsion’ was used. The ringholder was allowed to criticize the person on the hook in the roughest ways, including racial taunts, cursing, mocking etc. The object was to find anything which could cause the person to lose control. No emotional response was permitted, although you could speak and try to shake the trainer. If you so much as cracked a smile you were considered unsuccessful. Emotional self-control was high on the list of qualifications for advancement.

Once admitted to the inner circle of the Activators, a ringholder was expected to maintain and improve the self-discipline that got him or her there. A signal was used to test control or to clear up some trouble, personality conflict or controversy. Without warning, a ringholder – it could be a participant or a bystander – would slap their fist hard into the palm of their hand. The sound this made was a signal to the ringholders who were emotionally ‘swinging’ that they must drop it instantly. No protest, no tapering off and no excuse was allowed. It had to cease immediately and that meant inward control of emotions, not just outward silence. Failure to follow this discipline could result in a ringholder losing status and privilege.

On one occasion, Jack Webster, a noted journalist was visiting the unit and became engaged in a heated discussion with Pellin. The discussion grew in intensity and both Webster and Pellin were engrossed in making points with each other, waving fingers in the air etc. all in the middle of a large group of people milling about, talking, eating etc. Some ringholders were observing the two men with great interest and thought they had finally caught Pellin off guard. Suddenly there was a ‘slap’. Webster didn’t even know what had happened. On the turn of a word Pellin had turned around and was talking to someone else about something else and could not be persuaded to take up the heated exchange again. The teacher exemplified his teachings and held the respect of his students.


The happiness factor

Life with the Activators was eventful and busy. There were the lectures and discussions held at the Unit on Fourth Avenue and the training of ringholders. There were also a number of satellite groups held in Activator homes. People carried on their normal lives with work, education, family and social life. The interaction of scores of people all sharing a new and dynamic experience sustained a remarkable level of energy and a keen sense of camaraderie.

All of this culminated each summer in a salmon barbecue at English Bay. The barbecue was held as a fund-raising activity to bolster the Activators’ usually thin resources. At the same time however it was a model exercise in co-operation. To see this group of young people bring off an event like this for several days when everyone else was either protesting or opting out or stoned was a minor miracle. One could sense the positive excitement and genuine satisfaction that the participants experienced. The most appropriate word I could think of to describe this state was happiness.

Pellin was happy. When he used that word and he did so seldom, you knew there was something to it. It was the magic of change and growth that made the unit such a special and happy place. There was hardly a day when some new face didn’t give off the glow of freshly discovered confidence and hope. The atmosphere of the unit was charged with this dynamic element of emotions, thoughts, and personalities in process of change. Growth was visible. The shared sense of purpose was pervasive. Pellin’s sharing was complete as evidenced by the fact that there was no monetary gain to himself in his work. I was told that he had taken a ‘vow of poverty’ to dedicate his life to building the Activator movement and received only a small living allowance from the associated proceeds and funding. Pellin held nothing back and fully applied his ideas in his own life exhorting his students to have faith in the positive.

I recall a discussion held at my minister friend’s house which Pellin and several of the ringholders attended. Pellin taught his usual concepts but said something strikingly unusual which impressed me. 

He said, “We must save Canada from Communism.”  This was most unusual as he seldom if ever said anything remotely political as far as I could see. Furthermore, he did not actually expand on it at the time and I never heard him mention the subject again. Young and inexperienced as I was, I could only tuck this episode away in my mind for future reference. Although it intuitively made sense to me (as I felt Communism suppressed the individual person), I could not grasp why he gave it emphasis at that time considering his normal lack of political interest

Only with the passage of time did I realize that whatever the motivation of the moment was – these were the ‘cold war’ years – his making that single statement clearly placed him in alignment with freedom and democracy. How could a person committed to the development of each individual person as he was not at some point align himself with the foundational idea of freedom? He knew this and chose to make his conviction known on that occasion.

It was Pellin’s purpose and his remarkable capacity for giving, teaching, helping, influencing and simply energizing the whole process that held everything together. Others exercised his authority and took up leadership positions. There was a board of directors and some connection with the John Howard Society which had some say. However, the positive energy, the sustaining influence was Pellin’s. 

It was within his personality. One had the feeling that if you dropped this person down into a completely foreign situation, without friends, connections, or money and came back in six months time, he would be in charge, leading and organizing people in a constructive way.

This difficult to assess but highly visible ‘power’ characterized the man. He was soaked in it. After a while you realized you were witnessing what Pellin taught – ultimate purpose in action. He had it. The suggestion however was discouraged, perhaps due to Pellin’s reluctance to give traction to any idea of abstract or mystical ‘energy’ exclusive to him.  One was left to consider the man’s own example and behavior focused teachings. When I asked one of the advanced ringholders about ultimate purpose, he deferred and simply said, “Ask Pellin, he’s loaded with it.”

The spiritual

As the first series of lectures I took drew to a close and we approached the awareness lecture, I had a keen sense of anticipation. Having been through the other lectures and acquired a great deal of respect for the man, I felt that his presentation of the spiritual was going to be ‘something else’. I had some acquired notions about spiritual matters and expected a revelation of sorts.

Pellin took pains to point out the difference between subjective and objective awareness. He gave the cogent example of a man being unemployed. His family being poor could not engage in some forms of recreation or have some of their needs fulfilled. A friend comes by and paying their way, takes him and his family to dinner and the movies. Pellin asked, “Did the friend have subjective or objective awareness for the man and his family? Did he really help them?”

Discussion followed and Pellin brought out the thought that the man’s real need had gone unrecognized and the ‘friend’ was merely acting out of awareness of his own need for comfort and recognition. Such ‘good doing’ was not true religion, he emphasized. What then was ‘true’ religion? – objective or true awareness which would act to teach and help people to develop themselves. According to Pellin, this was the characteristic of the spiritual and religious giants of the world.

This true awareness embodied the real meaning of the word love and accompanied the development of ultimate purpose. Although he believed that every person had this potential within them, it was not easy to discuss since so few people actually developed it. He claimed to use a simple technique to measure or gauge people’s level of true awareness by a percentage. Pellin did not divulge exactly how he arrived at this, although he said it was from a study of what people did and said. Neither did he suggest it was anything more than an educational or communication tool, but the results were striking.

Pellin said that most people had very little true awareness – about 0.05 %. Acknowledging that he had more awareness than most (which was obvious by now), he said, “What do I have – 1 or 2 %, maybe 3%?” This took the wind out of me. I was beginning to see ever so faintly what life was all about. Pellin went on to say that to understand what true awareness really is, you had to look at people who have a lot. He said that Gandhi was an example. From the things he said and did, he estimated Gandhi’s awareness at 18%. Again, I reached for breath. I could not doubt his sincerity. The humbleness of this man who was doing so much to benefit others and yet held himself so far below those he felt were his examples was unforgettably instructive.

As there was at least one Christian minister in the audience, the question came up – “What about Christ? How much awareness did he have?” Pellin’s reply was thought provoking. He said he could not deal with it. His awareness was estimated at 60%, which was beyond what we could deal with. It has caused me no little reflection to consider that this man, who some would say was engaged in a life closely in accord with the teachings of Christ, and who was not a professed Christian, placed Christ far and above all others in spiritual and religious stature.

In 1966 David Pellin had published a book of poems entitled A Philosopher Speaks. A stanza from one of the poems reads:

The greatest form of awareness

that penetrates all matter;

Stay with me, I need love.

So great, and I need,

You with heart, that stands so tall.

You are as you, Perfection. 

To me, in living his life the way he did, David Pellin put the question before us, “What is true religion?”

Activator One

In 1969, Peter Fleming, a key Activator leader was instrumental in persuading the National Film Board of Canada to make a 58 minute film about the Activator Movement. Called Activator One, this film included scenes from Pellin’s lectures, training sessions of ringholders, and an interview between Pellin and Jack Webster. The title of the film indicates the fair view in which the Activator movement was held. The Unit on Fourth Avenue was to be the first of many. This growth pattern continued.

In 1971 the Activators had a banner year. The Unit was buzzing as usual. Membership in the Activator Society was growing. Satellite groups outside the Unit were having success. A youth arm called ACT was underway and plans for a second Activator Unit were proceeding. In addition, steps were being taken to purchase a large house somewhere in Vancouver to serve as the ‘Home’ of the movement. 

The thinking was that Pellin and his ringholders would be able to accommodate live-in teaching and establish a sort of Activator University. There was even talk of Pellin doing a cross-Canada speaking tour as a prelude to establishing Activator Units in other Canadian cities. Pellin was still relatively young, only fifty-four, and promised many years of mature leadership and influence. In retrospect it was a peak time and the Activator movement was about to explode on the Canadian scene with energy, vitality and social significance.

But it was not to be….

It was one of those groggy mornings when I had slept in. I clambered out of semi-consciousness as my mother came into my room telling me something. “Uhhh…what….?”, I mumbled and then froze as her words came thudding down on my unprepared consciousness. “I’m sorry son, but your friend David Pellin is dead.” I fell out of bed in stunned disbelief. It could not be! It simply could not be! She had heard the news on the radio. On Thursday night (May 13, 1971) about 11 pm Pellin had been walking home from the Unit when he was struck down by a car. He was pronounced dead in the early hours of the next day.

After a few phone calls, the sense of profound shock and disbelief which was soon to be pervasive settled in on me. It was the sense of disbelief I most remember. The man was so strong and his character and purpose so firm that one could not imagine him not being there. It didn’t register, at least not for days. Finally, there was the memorial service and a gathering at one of the ringholders homes….and one realized he was gone.

On May 20, 1971 Vancouver Sun Columnist Bob Hunter wrote:

“Pellin has left a large imprint on the lives of the thousands of people he came in contact with…. a man who had x-ray vision when it came to human behavior, he spoke with the kind of authority that has almost vanished in this overdeveloped, regimented, pigeon-holed society of ours. It was a natural authority. Here was a man who knew.”

Many years have passed and as one of the thousands who received the imprint of this remarkable man, I have asked myself many times if I measure up to some of the salient truths he taught and exemplified. I am sure that I do not. Yet, when I get down on myself and discouraged, I remember this man and his achievement, his optimistic, positive, purposeful way, and I take courage and renewed hope. When adversity burns me as it must all of us, and I want to quit, the image of David Pellin sitting on one of his cushions on the floor of the Activator Unit teaching people how to live comes to me.

A moment etched in time

One such image will be forever engraved on my mind. It was a discussion following a lecture on ultimate purpose. Some ringholders were present and they were trying to get us to ask pertinent questions, trying to stoke up the learning experience for our benefit. One of them became particularly emphatic. In strong tones he said we were wasting Pellin’s time. “What is the matter with you? This man has something to give you. You should be picking his brain!” We perked up and felt a little ashamed. The discussion continued.

Sometimes doubts would be expressed about developing an ultimate purpose. What really was it? Whoever does it and how? How does a person develop an ultimate purpose? Someone in the group said they thought it had something to do with giving. Another said, “But we all give, it’s just a matter of degree.” Pellin voiced approval. Then one of the women who had recently completed the lectures said, “But look at Dave. He gives so much.” The speaker turned to Pellin and continued emotionally, “Dave, you are always giving. That’s the difference between us and you. You are giving all the time.”

Pellin reluctantly acknowledged that he gave more and that this was the key of ultimate purpose. Then, without explanation he silently rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm for all to see. You could have heard a pin drop in that place as our eyes fell on the two long livid scars on his forearm. His words are ringing in my ears now – “You see, I was a fool once too.”

Pellin’s precepts: 

  • I will kiss the boots of any man but when I know what he knows I will keep on going.
  • Purpose in life is important.
  • Doing is reality.
  • The positive reproduces itself. The negative destroys itself.
  • True control is by understanding, not by unhealthy repression.
  • Effort towards a goal results in change.
  • The secret of happiness is to be direction oriented.
  • The feeling of accomplishment is the staff of life.
  • Authority equals the amount of responsibility you can carry out. The rest is delusion.
  • Ultimate purpose impels a person to continue to develop and can pull you out of anything.
  • True awareness is objective, and this is the real meaning of unselfishness and love.
  • Meditation is a tool for cleaning the mind of cobwebs.
  • The spiritual includes everything else.

David Pellin (1917 – 1971