My father was born ninety-four years ago today and our family has the pleasure of celebrating his birthday with him. To mark the occasion, I'd like to share his story and touch on the significant impact he has had on my life.
David Franklin Witherspoon was born and raised in Toronto to parents who were the first of their families to leave farming. They moved into the city where his father worked as a postal clerk on railway mail cars and his mother was a nurse. Dad grew up in West Toronto at a time when horse drawn delivery vehicles still traversed the city. The summers of his youth were spent on his uncle's farm north of the city or at the family cottage in Woodbridge until it was washed away by Hurricane Hazel.
He worked odd jobs from a young age and one of his first was at a butcher shop where he delivered meat by bicycle to customers including Maple Leafs goaltending legend Turk Broda. He also delivered newspapers to Busher Jackson, one third of the Leafs' Kid Line, who had grown up in the area and still lived nearby. Busher grew up poor in Toronto and after Leafs' practices would often drop off pucks for the neighbourhood shinny game as well as provide equipment for, and organize, summer lacrosse games. In this environment Dad couldn't avoid being a Leafs' fan and attended games with his friends, riding the streetcar downtown and paying $2.50 for a standing room ticket behind the blues in the newly built Maple Leaf Gardens. He has witnessed all eleven Leaf Stanley Cup victories.
Near the end of high school he'd had his fill of formal education and on the way home from school one day decided to enlist with the Royal Canadian Air Force. It must of been an interesting conversation when he got home and told his parents. His mother had worked as a nurse supervisor at a home for shell shocked veterans of the first world war and seen first hand the effects of war on young men. She was not pleased that her only son was headed off to join in the second great war.
Dad hoped to become a pilot but ended up being trained as a bomb aimer joining a Lancaster bomber crew. Deployed to the United Kingdom towards the end of the war a bout of scarlet fever left him hospitalized and unable to participate in the final bombing campaign over Germany - given the nearly 50% fatality rate for bomber crews, this was probably a good thing. When he recovered, he participated in Operation Manna from Heaven dropping emergency food packages to starving citizens of Nazi occupied Holland.
Returning home after the war he took advantage of education funding for veterans and enrolled in the engineering program at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph where he studied hydraulic engineering. He completed graduate work in the United States then returned to Guelph where he met and married my mother and started a family.
After further study in Holland followed by more teaching at Guelph, he left the academic world to take a job with the federal government in eastern Ontario. He spent most of his professional career as a member of the U.S.- Canada International Joint Commission managing water levels throughout the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence River system. He retired in 1986 and is still enjoying a retirement that has lasted longer than his career, gardening, traveling, sailing and curling. His greatest pleasure is spending time with his family that now includes two great-grandchildren.
Father and son relationships can be challenging for both parties. There were times in our relationship when we both questioned the other's competence in their role, but in hindsight I have to admit that he generally had the more accurate assessment given his wisdom and experience. My father modeled a level of personal and professional integrity that I still aspire to. One incident in particular from my childhood remains embedded in my memory.
I was a goaltender through most of my minor hockey career. At a practice scrimmage when I was in my early teens, I had stopped a couple shots before the puck finally went in the net. My defenceman showed up in time to fish the puck out of the net and I asked him "Where the hell were you?"
On the drive home from the rink, Dad told how embarrassed he was to have his son swear in front of the other fathers. Reflecting on the community we lived in, the language in the stands was probably at least as crude as any on the ice but nonetheless, this incident reflects his character and desire to develop the same level of integrity in his son.
No one gets to choose their father but I am extremely grateful for the father that was assigned to me. I know that everyone has not been as fortunate. Not all fathers are present or positive influences in their children's lives. Some father and son conflict is inevitable and perhaps in some ways it is a biological imperative to insure that young men leave home and find their own path in life.
I see reflections of my father every day of my life. Not just when I look in the mirror but also when I interact with others and in my view of the world. I can say with love and pride that I am my father's son.