Gone 30 Years

EDITOR’S NOTE: Grant Penton’s father’s birthday was May 25, and on Friday, May 27, 2022 he will have been gone 30 years. Penton sent this to his Atlas Ottawa tribe as a tribute.

Hello men,

I’m commemorating my father’s birthday, and I’d like to share some pictures and commentary to inspire you to do likewise.

Reginald Edwin Penton was born in Toronto on May 25, 1911, the third child of Herbert and Amiel who had emigrated from Devon two years earlier.  My grandfather had signed articles of indenture to bring his family over and secure his employment as an upholsterer for Eaton’s until 1948. This is the earliest picture I have of Reg, taken in a studio at age 5, and another at age 9.

And here a few years later with his younger sister Inez.

Soon after, Amy succumbed to cancer, and chose to return home to die.  My dad found her lifeless body when he was 11.  This was taken shortly after, when he was doing his best to support Inez who was only 6.

Their older siblings Bert jr. and Muriel were away and working by then, but the latter sacrificed her nursing career to return home to be a surrogate mother to them.  The only picture I have of the elder siblings in their youth is this from 1909- no one smiled in portraits back then!

Bert, born in 1900, grew up to be the black sheep of the family and was rarely seen in adulthood.  My father managed to excel in math and signaling in normal school, and by his late teens was fast tracked for University, supported by his dad.  

I found his yearbook!  This is probably from 1931.

But then The Depression hit.  Herbert kept his job but at a major reduction in pay, and the children had to leave.  Muriel married in 1928, and moved to the west coast to manage a motel with her husband and raise three kids.  Reg went to Winnipeg to look for a teaching job while his money ran out, and was about to give up and join the ranks of the other destitute men at the work-camps – which would have meant living in a converted POW facility with few rights.  But just in time he received a job offer from a small school in a small town in Southern Saskatchewan – so small that it doesn’t exist anymore.  So, at 21 he became a boarder in a house owned by Ukrainian immigrants who spoke little English, and taught multiple grades throughout the dirty 30s.  Dad told me later that he hated having to use discipline to force young Ukrainians to speak English. I found his contract – $100/yr, increased to $600/yr when he was promoted to principal in 1938.  But he was often paid in coal and potatoes after the cash economy collapsed.

He managed to see his family occasionally and have some fun, here with Inez.

When the war started, he saw his opportunity to get his life back on track, and tried to enlist, despite pleas from his sisters to stay in his protected field. But he desperately wanted a veteran’s scholarship, so he repeatedly asked to relieved, finally succeeding in 1942, the year Inez got married and also left for the west coast.

But his eyes were already deteriorating from malnutrition, and because of his signaling skills he was sent to the U-boat surveillance base in Goose Bay. Afterwards he moved to Montreal with two friends, living in a Westmount duplex and contracting maids to do the “woman’s work.” He got a job at Air Canada, resumed engineering studies at McGill and finally graduated in 1948.  He started right away with CBC studios in Cote St Luc, moving to the current Maison Radio Canada shortly before his retirement 28 years later. 

He was joined by his dad and older sister for the occasion, Muriel having given birth to an “accident” in her early 40s…

He continued to live with his two friends, and reconciled with his brother.

In 1950 he was able to pay a visit to his father.

A few weeks later, Herbert was found dead of a heart attack in his Winnipeg garden (I still have the telegrams). Three years later, Bert also died of a heart attack, leaving four children, whom my dad helped financially as best he could.  (In 1981 during an exchange visit to Calgary I visited with two of them, and with the son of my elder cousin who was a few months older than I! I also met with their mother Winnifred, whom my mother had called “a mouse of a woman, a doormat to her ungrateful and undeserving SOB husband” … she filled me in on a few more details…)

Bert had complained of chest pains, called his doctor for an appointment, found that his car wouldn’t start, pushed it to get it going, made it to the hospital, and suffered a massive cardiac arrest while walking down the hallway towards his waiting physician, who pronounced him dead on the spot, at age 53…

Reg spent a lot of time in the 50s – when he wasn’t shopping for a wife – with Inez and her family.  My cousins, two boys born in ’44-5, remember my dad as a fun guy who was very helpful on family trips.  A third son came along in 1952, and then a daughter, who tragically died of leukemia at the age of 6.

He also visited his older sister and niece Joan, who was leaving for an overseas trip.  A year later Reg picked up Joan and her travelling companion Lois, both now 24.  He took a liking to his niece’s friend, and managed to get a date!

I would have loved to have heard the story from Joan, but she tragically died from cancer in 1966.

So, the woman who was to turn his life around became the centre of his social life…

And in December 1956 he proposed… she took a few weeks to consider, and sent him a prenup with a conditional ‘yes’.  Reg agreed, and so the following June…

Some in her family were scandalized, but my mother was emphatic that there were no younger men who were “husband material!” She left her career as manager of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and moved to Montreal while her parents moved to Vancouver!

His career went well, and he was soon designing studios, checking transmission towers across the country, and in charge of recruiting new talent.

The following year my sister was born- I don’t think my Dad was ready for the reality of fatherhood!

The following year the house he designed in the West Island was ready, and plans for me were underway. There are few pictures of us together since he was usually the one holding the camera.  This is my first birthday, with my mother’s father on her right and my godparents – a colleague of my dad and his childless wife – on either side.  The other is from new years day ’62.

He was determined that I learn to fix things and ride a bike…

In 1967 he suffered a serious heart attack and my mom prepared us for the worst, sneaking us into the hospital for a visit so we would see how weak he was.  But he recovered fairly well, and quit smoking.  So he kept teaching me useful things…

And organized fun trips east and west.

He kept fairly active, and showed me how strong he was in his mid-60s when we rebuilt a concrete deck that required mixing dozens of bags of cement!

He never learned to swim, but he tried… and then did his best with cross country skiing.  He gave up cycling, but got an indoor exerciser.

In 1989, as his prostate cancer and macula degeneration was getting worse, he went to Victoria for a farewell visit with Muriel who died soon after.

In 1991 he came to Ottawa for the opening of the National Gallery with Inez (who had another 16 years ahead of her)…

… keeping active to the end.  Death nearly claimed him in September 1990, when he climbed the ladder to clean his eve troughs, and slipped, but fortunately a chair broke his fall and he only suffered a broken hip, which mended while he was in a rehab facility for a week. This was the same building where I had been born!  But he made it to 81, and thirty years ago tonight the four of us celebrated with him for the last time.  He died in hospital of an aneurysm the following week, a few hours after I last saw him and tried to comfort him in his last hours.

I didn’t know him when he was vigorous with youthful humour, but I was fortunate to be left with a treasure trove of pictures which I scanned a generation ago. In 2003 while searching for my toy cars to sell on ebay, I discovered a stash of letters which had been written to him from family members from 1931-56, and with my ebay earnings I took my spouse with me to the west coast to meet with my godparents and Inez a last time, and meet with my cousins to give them the letters their parents (and they, as children) had sent him. 

I enjoyed learning more about his “missing years,’ and have come to appreciate the positive traits I acquired from him, and his father and so on back. I have some recordings of his voice, from a cassette recording from the late 60s, and my cousin has a 16 rpm 16” record he recorded with his voice in the early 50s I hope to hear someday. 

Rest in peace dad…

Penton

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