My father, David Franklin Witherspoon passed away on April 25th. I did write a post previously about his life and what he meant to me called I am my Father's Son in 2017. This is the text of a more detailed tribute to Dad given at his Celebration of Life on May 18, 2019.
We asked Dad how he wanted us to celebrate his life after he was gone. He answered, “I don’t care, I won’t be there.” So let’s just wrap this up and head over to the Curling Club - drinks on Dave!
Seriously, if Dad were still with is, he probably wouldn’t be here. He’d be at home winding the clocks. Dad never got into the routine of going to church, choosing instead to relax at home and wind the collection of antique clocks he’d inherited from his father. Summer Sundays were for keel boat racing - that was his spiritual practice.
Who was David Franklin Witherspoon? What were some of the highlights of his life? And what did he mean to us?
You don't live to be ninety-five without a combination of excellent genes and good fortune. Dad had both.
He was fortunate to grow up in a strict but loving family, the only son between two sisters who adored him. Dad used to tell the story of having lunch with his Grandfather McClure who had retired to the city to live with his daughter. Our great grandfather, then in his nineties, would fry up a slab of bacon, cook any leftover potatoes from last night’s dinner in the fat then, if there was any fat left, fry up a piece of bread. Those are either some strong genes or the recipe for longevity.
Dad didn’t talk much about his war experience until later in his life. As a child I remember asking him why he was bald. He said it was because he stuck his head out the aircraft and his hair blew off.”
That was about it until much later in life.
Of the ten crews that started bomber conversion training with him in the UK, only two survived. Black circles on the ground marked the loss of an aircraft and crew. Mid air collisions were common as well - Dad remembers his crew narrowly missing one when they descended out of a cloud bank and another bomber darted underneath them - from his position in the belly of the aircraft Dad could see the surprised expressions on the faces of the other crew.
In January of 1946 he was assigned a berth home on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, at the time painted gray and outfitted as a troop transport. It wasn’t exactly a luxury crossing as there were over 12,000 returning Canadians on board. Every corner of the ship was filled with cots - Dad slept in a stack of six cots laid out in rows in the ship’s empty swimming pool. If he rolled over his shoulder hit the bottom of the cot of the man above.
There was another famous passenger on that crossing as well. Dad recalled a somewhat intoxicated Winston Churchill addressing the troops one evening over the ship’s public address system. Through the miracle of Google, I was able to find a snippet of what Dad heard, which spoke to both the rough winter crossing of the Atlantic as well as the newfound hope they carried home:
Yesterday, I was on the bridge, watching the mountainous waves and this ship, which is no pup, cutting through them and mocking their anger. I asked myself, why is it that the ship beats the waves, when they are so many and the ship is one? They just flop around, innumerable, tireless, but ineffective. The ship with the purpose takes us where we want to go.
Dad returned home with purpose and, supported by post-war veteran funding, studied hydrological engineering at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, beginning a long family association with the OAC and the University of Guelph.
The pinnacle of Dad’s good fortune occurred when he returned to Guelph after graduate studies in Michigan. While bowling with friends he was introduced to Erna Klassen - an intelligent, slim, dark haired young Mennonite woman from Essex County. He mentioned to her that he drove back and forth to Toronto most weekends and to call him if she ever needed a ride.
Mom didn’t hear from him after that but fortunately for both of them, and us, she called a few weeks later looking for a ride home from her cousin’s wedding in Toronto. He picked her up and the conversation on the ride home led to a date, followed by more dates and eventually a steady relationship. When Erna announced her plan to pursue graduate studies in Forensic Science in the U.S., Dave proposed a plan that involved both of them. They were married in Guelph sixty-five years ago this month. Dad’s advice for a successful marriage was to marry someone you could tolerate and who could tolerate you.
He was such a romantic!
Dad spent his career as a hydraulic engineer managing water levels in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River watershed. As kids, we bragged to our friends that our Dad decided how much water there was in the river. In high school, we’d tell them our Dad was on the International "Joint" Commission. We liked to show them the Dave Wall of Fame in his home office where there was a picture of Dad with US President Ronald Reagan whom he met one year during the annual spring IJC meetings in Washington. Our friends were impressed but I don’t think Dad really was. He liked Reagan more as an actor.
Dad traveled a lot for work leaving Mom to referee at home. When we got too out of hand, Mom could always play the “wait until Dad gets home” card. Dad didn’t get angry often but when he did, you did not want to be the source.
When I was sixteen, I drove the family Volvo into a parked car. Dad was at a meeting in Burlington and I had to meet him at the train station with the bad news. Our elderly next-door neighbours gave us a ride so Dad had some time to cool off before we got home. He was surprisingly calm, perhaps a sign he was starting to mellow into the Father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather we have known for the second half of his life.
Late to arrive on the scene, younger brother Jamie was fortunate to have a more laid back, mellow Dad and an almost only child experience compared to the rest of us. We were shocked that Dad let Jamie sit, eat and do homework in front of the TV - rules were tougher in the early days. But Jamie’s energy and enthusiasm helped keep Dad young and active into his retirement years.
Dave was an enthusiastic hockey dad, ready with comments on how to improve your play but also words of encouragement. My first memory of Dad, and hockey, was in my first season when he carried me off the ice after I fell and broke my front tooth. Dad encouraged me to take up goaltending - perhaps to minimize future dental expenses. Dad would occasionally put on his skates and fire shots at me during practice. He had a wicked wrist shot that stung like no shots I was getting at the time and he could pick the top corner using a straight bladed stick.
Jamie remembers Dad having more time to follow his minor hockey career. Mom and Dad attended most of Jamie’s games as well as team parties. Dad participated in the annual father-son game even though he was at least ten to twenty years older than the other dads.
Dad taught us a lot of things. How to make an ice rink and then fix the windows we broke with pucks and lacrosse balls. How to change the oil and tune a small engine, cut grass, blow snow and burn brush - we had some glorious brush fires back before there were the apartment buildings next door. He taught us how to prune fruit trees, hoe a garden and the worst job of all - rock picking. Spring meant picking rocks from our vegetable garden that seemed to grow a new crop each year. Dad used the opportunity to teach us about glaciation, glacial till and frost heave.
He was a meticulous hoer of weeds and maintained a vegetable garden up until two years ago. His diet of homegrown vegetables and sauerkraut, made with his Dad’s cabbage cutter and crock, were a large part of his healthy lifestyle.
In 1981, Dad and I demolished the old summer kitchen attached to the stone house and he had the solarium built. This allowed for an extended gardening season and the opportunity to grow tender plants year round.
Dad was proud of his fig, orange, kefir lime, lemon, and pomegranate trees - it was mostly about just being able to grow them although he enjoyed his annual harvest of two figs. He religiously maintained the solarium plants and when the night blooming Cereus was in bud, he and Mom would invite friends over for impromptu night blooming cereus parties. The solarium was also the scene of Dad’s never ending battle with scale and spider mites.
Shortly after moving to eastern Ontario, Dave discovered sailing. It led to his long association with the Stormont Yacht Club, first as a competitive sailor in the Albacore class with John as his helmsman. In 1973, Dad and two other SYC members purchased three C&C 27’s they christened Wynken, Blynken and Nod. Dave and two friends sailed Wynken from Niagara-on-the-Lake around Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence to Long Sault on her maiden voyage.
For over forty years Dave occasionally cruised in Wynken but more often raced her aggressively. The pinnacle of his sailing career had to be the year he won the Borland Trophy with his three sons as crew. The Borland was a two-day race to Upper Canada Marina and back. Dad made a key strategic call on the up river leg going below Croil Island while the rest of the fleet took the more traditional Cut F route. Based on the wind direction that day, Dad figured it would be a better way to take on the strong river current. He was correct and we arrived at Upper Canada more than an hour ahead of the rest of the fleet, an insurmountable lead.
Dad pushed the limits when sailing, whether bearing down on a fellow competitor at the starting line or seeing how close he could get to shore before tacking. There were more than a few arguments, protests, and collisions. For a boat skippered by the guy who should know water levels, Wynken was run aground a surprising number of times.
He was fortunate to continue sailing into his nineties thanks to the generous assistance received from his younger yacht club friends. Crane in and crane out were important dates on the calendar - in later years when we’d ask Dad how it went, he would say, “I was there but nobody would let me do anything”.
Sailing was Dad’s passion and he probably would have sailed around the world had he been able to raise a crew. Six years ago my older brother and his wife chartered a boat in the Caribbean with Mom and Dad as well as two of their children. His granddaughter recalls holding on for dear life in the cockpit as the boat was pummeled by a tropical squall on their crossing from St. Vincent to St. Lucia. She looked up through the wind and rain to see her eighty-nine year-old Grandfather clipping his lifeline along the railing as he made his way towards the bow to untangle some ropes.
He was living the dream.
As an anniversary gift Mom made Dad a wall hanging that hung in our downstairs bathroom for years. On it she stitched an image of Wynken and the words “God does not subtract from man’s allotted time, the hours spent in sailing”. I think there’s truth in that.
Dave put his navigation and boat handling skills to the test as recently as four years ago when he captained a sixty foot boat along the canals of Scotland with a crew of Mom, her sister, her husband and the daughter of friends from New Zealand. Dad had hired a Scottish genealogist to do some research into the history of the Witherspoon family in Scotland and after the canal cruise, he took Mom and Dad on a private guided tour of our ancestral home and church.
Dad loved travelling. Hauling a tent trailer he ordered from the Eaton’s catalogue, he and Mom took our young family camping to both the East and West coasts of Canada. There was a memorable trip through England, Scotland and Wales aboard a Bedford Dormobile camper before and after a conference Dad was attending at Reading University.
I don’t know how Dad got off an overnight flight and then drove the camper on the left side of the road out of London to our first campground. On the way he clipped mirrors with a milk truck but the driver, finding out we were Canadians, just waved us on our way. It also seemed that anywhere we went Mom and Dad had friends - in the UK we spent a few days with a family who they knew from Dad’s studies in Holland.
Jamie’s later arrival meant that he experienced the more luxurious travel of Dad’s retirement years including a rented barge tour up the Midi Canal in France, where Dad once again took his seamanship to another part of the world. Jamie was exposed to hotel rooms and restaurant meals rather than the tent trailer and meals cooked on a camp stove - although he missed Mom’s creative camp cooking - we ate local before it was trendy including a particularly memorable meal of fresh steamed clams we dug on a Nova Scotia beach.
Dad never had what you would consider an average car. The first car I remember was a DKW he brought back to Canada from Holland - the company was eventually purchased by BMW. There was also the 1967 Volvo wagon that we had for almost twenty years and 500,000 miles.
Once, when Dad left us waiting in the car for too long, John and I figured out if you turned on the left turn signal and the emergency flashers then kept your foot on the brake you could listen to the radio without the ignition key. Not sure we ever shared that secret with Dad but it may have explained some of the electrical problems that car had.
Dad’s last car was a sporty Honda Civic SI six speed. He enjoyed driving and was still shifting a manual transmission up until his final trip behind the wheel last month. In March he was musing about buying an electric car as his apartment building had outlets at each parking spot.
Dad was an optimist. When he was originally admitted to hospital in Cornwall I got a notification the next day that I had a new Instagram follower - Dave Witherspoon. He had set up an account while he was under observation at the hospital. The last photo on his phone was a selfie we assumed he was planning to use as his profile picture.
For a guy born when horses still plied the streets of Toronto, he embraced technology - spending hours flying a Lancaster Bomber on Flight Simulator, sailing online in virtual around the world races or squeezing in one last game of Free Cell before bed. He had an iPad-based wind and navigation system installed on Wynken that he would fasten to the old TV antennae tower at home so he could monitor the wind all winter. He was still doing spreadsheet calculations to form the Senior Curling Draws this past winter. One of the first things that crossed my mind when Dad passed was - who is going to schedule Seniors’ curling now?
He loved the game of curling - playing or watching on TV. A competitive curler as a young man, he gave it up after a few years in Cornwall as it was taking too much time away from his family. Upon retirement, he started playing again and although he gave up active play a few seasons ago, still enjoyed his time at the club. He was proud of being named an honourary member of the Cornwall Curling Club and visiting with the many friends he had made as a senior curler including, as he liked to boast, several of his former paperboys.
One of the real secrets to his longevity is that he only ate what was put on his plate and what wonderful healthy meals Mom prepared for him, our family and friends over the years. Mom and Dad loved to host gatherings around the dining room table in the old stone house. They always featured great food - family dinners, the annual New Years Levy and gourmet group gatherings were particularly memorable. Before each meal Dad would head down to the cellar to select a bottle of wine from his collection.
Dad was a man of routine. He exercised religiously which also contributed to his longevity. Initially it was the Royal Canadian Air Force Five Basic Exercises or 5BX program. Ken Cooper’s book The New Aerobics spurred Mom and Dad to jog out in the Long Sault Parkway every morning before jogging was even a thing. The OPP stopped Mom once to ask her if she was okay because they thought Dad was chasing her.
Dad also started lifting weights - he appeared as a fitness model in a weight training video for seniors when he was in his late seventies. Although eventually slowed by a failing heart, he recently learned to play shuffleboard, did laps of the hall of his apartment building with his walking poles and continued to lift weights right up until he was hospitalized. Dad was also an avid cyclist, competitive runner and cross-country skier.
His morning routine is the stuff of family legend. It always included some form of exercise, stretching and personal grooming. Dad was always clean-shaven and sharp looking although perhaps not always in the latest styles. He had his favourite suit, shirts and hats, especially his trademark grey Ascot winter hat that will forever be known to us as the Dave hat. After breakfast, laid out for him in advance by Mom, he’d read the Citizen and Standard-Freeholder newspapers then complete the Sudoku puzzles from both - there were few that stumped him. He was usually able to wrap up his morning routine by 10:30 or 11:00.
Dad was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word - kind, considerate, interested in others and able to strike up a conversation with anyone. There were very few people he didn't get along with - I can’t remember him ever speaking poorly of anyone save for the occasional politician. Growing up in eastern Ontario, we learned to swear in both official languages but Dad rarely cursed. I remember him overhearing me use the word “Hell” at a hockey practice. On the way home he told me how embarrassed he was hearing his son swear in front of the other Dads. In hindsight, there was probably as much cursing in the stands as on the ice but Dad made his point - he expected better.
His knowledge and interests were broad and always expanding. He enjoyed the CBC, British comedy, live theatre, music and movies. He took great joy in singing along with during music jams at family gatherings. This past June he got up and sang It's a Long Way to Tipperary accompanied by a live band at granddaughter Rachel and her fiancé Travis’s engagement party. When asked why he had never sung before, he said no one had ever asked. We should have asked sooner.
Dave unselfishly served his country, community and others. In the 1980’s, Mom and Dad billeted members of a Polish dance troupe participating in Cornwall’s Worldfest. A few days later they called after their final performance in Montreal asking if Mom and Dad would help them defect to Canada. Mom, Dad and their close circle of friends sprung into action to help these young men, our five Polish brothers, create a new life in Canada. They have all been successful and continue to express their gratitude for the opportunity to settle in Canada that Mom, Dad and the local community helped them realize.
Dave enjoyed time with family and friends. Whether it was camping across the country, sailing, curling, carving his meticulously de-boned turkey at Christmas, Cousins’ Weekend at Drag Lake or any of the many gatherings over the years, Dad was most happy and content when surrounded by family. In later years at my brother's cottage and at Christmas when we also celebrated his December 27th birthday, he would just sit and take in what he once memorably described as the “fruit of his loins”.
He loved hearing what his grandchildren were up to - their education, careers and adventures in life. They in turn cherished their Grandfather and he was fortunate that many of them were able to visit during his final days in hospital. Dad was also pleased to be able to spend time with and get to know the first three members of the next generation of Witherspoon’s, his great-grandchildren.
We don’t have the time or words today to fully capture the essence of a life as long and rich as Dave Witherspoon’s. There are a thousand more stories to be shared in the hours, days, weeks and months to come. The space he has left in our lives has room for many memories.
Ninety-five years may seem like an unusually generous measure of having this amazing man in our lives but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough.
One night at the Heart Institute as we were leaving for the night Mom asked Dad what he did when we weren’t there. Dad, in his typical Dad way, threw up his arms and said,
“What do you think? I fly around the room.”
The afternoon of the day Dad died we were all sitting in the sunroom of my brother's home when an eagle flew overhead - a bald eagle. It seemed a fitting tribute although somewhat unlikely that Dad had suddenly been transformed into an eagle.
But it was bald!
Somewhere, out in the great beyond, Dad is free and flying.