Here is one of the reasons they call it The Greatest Generation. Canadian Army veteran Russell Thompson of Seeley’s Bay, Ontario, who will turn 99 in a few months, embodies the values that made this country great.
The sons of Russell Thompson, Earle and Steve, collaborated to prepare this blog post about their father, a role model whom they love and respect. They describe him as a man who works hard, always has time for others, and enjoys his life to the fullest.
The Early Years
Born on September 22, 1919, in Dauphin, Manitoba, Russell was the second youngest of eleven children. The age span among the siblings was so great that his oldest brother Curtis served in Europe during the First World War, and Russell served in Europe during the Second World War.
Like many others at the time, Russell grew up during the depression years, when everybody in the family was expected to carry his or her own weight. Being the last boy at home, he tended the garden, split the firewood and took on the other chores that needed to get done for his parents and three sisters still at home.
Even with those responsibilities, he made time for sports and a social life. He was an avid runner, distance swimmer and amateur boxer, as well as a hobby photographer.
While in high school, he and a group of teenaged friends formed a club called The Go-Getters. This group would make their own entertainment, running dances and organizing softball and hockey teams to play against other communities.
Here’s a group of Go-Getters, with Russell kneeling on the left.
The Go-Getters met in a small clubhouse behind his home, referred to as the Boers Nest. Here’s Russell relaxing in the Boers Nest, which looks very cozy. Note the wall calendar dated 1936-1937.
Those friendships, and the lessons learned while growing up in a difficult time, became the basis for Russell’s success in future years. He was a self-starter who made his own way in life while recognizing the importance of family, friends and community.
At the age of fifteen, Russell left his home in Dauphin and moved to Flin Flon to start his apprenticeship as an electrician with two of his older brothers, Elmer and Orville. He shared a house with Orville, and in addition to working in the family electrical contracting business, he took over several paper routes, managing a group of delivery boys. This provided him with some additional funds to help cover his room and board, and even send some money home to his parents in Dauphin.
In 1938 Russell went to Chicago to complete his electrical training and returned to Flin Flon as a licensed tradesman.
Joining the Fight
In 1939 the war started, and everyone of age was joining to serve Canada. Russell was no exception. At the age of 20, he and a couple of friends headed to Winnipeg to join the air force.
Unfortunately, during the medical testing, he discovered that he was colour blind. He had hoped to become a pilot, but that was no longer an option.
Because of his status as an electrician, he was offered rank and trades pay in the air force, but that would mean he would not get overseas – and he did NOT want to stay in Canada.
So he decided to enlist in the army instead, and completed basic training in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, before being sent to train with the engineers in Dundurn, Saskatchewan. Here’s the classic portrait of Russell in his Canadian Army uniform.
Serving on the West Coast
At the end of the Engineering program, because of his trade qualifications, Russell was assigned to a Searchlight detachment in Prince Rupert on the West Coast.
At that time, Prince Rupert was both a Canadian and American base of operations for North American defence against a possible Japanese attack. More than 40,000 American and Canadian troops were stationed there, in a town with a population of only a few thousand. Needless to say, there was lots of excitement.
The work itself was not that demanding so, as in the past, Russell found ways to augment his income. In addition to his engineering duties, he took on a job as night watchman with a local company. This provided him with enough money to send home, as well as to maintain his beer intake.
All good things come to an end, though. A few months into his second job, he was reported to the army and had to give it up. A demotion in rank and some extra duty, and he was back where he started!
Unfortunately, he received word during this time that his mother was very ill. He received approval for compassionate leave, but arrived home only in time to attend his mother’s funeral. This photo shows Russell standing at the back, with a group of family members.
Knowing that thousands of young Canadian volunteers were still going overseas while he stayed in British Columbia didn’t sit well with Russell. He started trying different ways to get assigned overseas.
Unfortunately, as long as there were recruits without skilled trades training to send to the war, he was unsuccessful. Whenever a new overseas recruitment opportunity came up, he found himself attending a special education course in Vancouver, or on a short-term assignment away from the recruiting opportunity.
In hindsight, Russell is sure that these delays in getting to England probably saved his life, since he was never assigned a fighting role in the early Allied attacks.
Overseas at Last
Finally, after two years on the West Coast, a shortage of men provided the opportunity for Russell to get his wish. In 1943, after agreeing to give up his trades pay and his rank, he was reassigned as a driver operator and sent to Kingston, Ontario for training with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.
This was a fortunate opportunity for two reasons. While stationed in Kingston, he met his future wife Marion Keeler, who was working at Queen’s University as secretary to the Registrar.
Marion was from a tiny rural community called Burnt Hills, where her father Branchly Keely owned a farm and a tourist resort consisting of a cottage and a lodge, located about eleven kilometres from the village of Seeley’s Bay on the Rideau Canal.
Russell used to hitchhike forty kilometres from the base in Kingston to visit Marion at her farm. This photo of Russell holding hands with Marion and posing with a group of friends was taken just before Russell was shipped overseas.
Before he left, the young couple became engaged.
In 1944 Russell was shipped to England and then to France, where he joined his new unit, the Canadian Army’s 5th Division, 1st Corps, as a radio operator/driver. He arrived just after the Allies invaded France. As far as he could see, the sky was filled with Allied bombers.
When he first arrived, the Army was holding back the new recruits and sending those soldiers who had been previously wounded back to the front. Russell believes that probably saved the lives of many new recruits who were “still too green to know when to shoot and when to duck!”
This photo of Russell in his greatcoat was taken on board the troop ship carrying him overseas.
The 5th Division went through France and Belgium on its way to join the other Canadian troops in Holland. Russell’s group typically followed about five kilometres behind the fierce fighting in Holland, as the Canadians forced the Germans into retreat.
The photo was taken at his camp near Hilversum, Holland.
Assisting the Starving Dutch
Moving through the small towns and villages in Holland, the Canadian soldiers found the Dutch people without food and other key provisions, and in many cases, starving. Whole families would come to the army camps asking for food.
Russell remembers the soldiers trying to give their food to the local people rather than eating it, so the army built a separation fence to prevent the Dutch from getting so close to the men.
To get around this, the men sanitized a number of containers and would only eat part of their rations and then leave the rest in the bins, which allowed the Dutch children to come and take food back to their homes each day.
While the 1st Corps was camped near Hilversum, one family who came to the camp seeking food was this young couple, Teash and Ri Scouten, and their five-year-old daughter.
Touched by their situation, Russell befriended the family and helped them with food and necessities while the soldiers were in the area. Even after the troops moved on, he managed a couple of visits back to the family, while driving his officer into Amsterdam.
They made such an impression on each other that they remained in touch after the war, and Russell was able to facilitate their admission to Canada in 1946. He hosted them for several months, providing employment and support while they made a new life for themselves in Kingston, Ontario.
The war ended in May 1945, but Russell’s group remained in Holland until December 1945 to assist in dismantling the Allied military presence and re-establish the society in Holland.
He was camped in Eelde, just outside of Groningen in northern Holland. At that time, he was responsible for transporting fuel from the depot to the Canadian operations at the Eelde air base.
Here Russell is posing on a downed German aircraft at Eelde.
While in Eelde, he developed another close friendship with a local farmer and his family who lived just across the road from the base. Russell negotiated permission to park his trailer alongside the farmer’s house, giving him a place to sleep off the base. Here’s a photo of the family standing beside Russell’s trailer. The youngest boy, Kees, was just five years old.
The farmer’s wife would wash Russell’s laundry in return for “cigarettes for Papa,” or gifts for their children. The farmer and Russell shared many adventures during the next six months – including trading geese to the officer’s mess for cigarettes, sharing meals with the family, and generally helping them and their neighbours re-establish a normal life after the occupation.
Russell still says that this was a very rewarding time of his life, and that if he had not already been engaged to Marion Keeler, he might have remained in Holland.
This photo shows Russell with the youngest son Kees, just a few days before he was shipped back to Canada in 1946.
New Life in Canada
Russell returned to Canada on the Queen Mary, sharing the ship with hundreds of other returning Canadian soldiers, plus the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
He wasted no time seeking out his future wife. “I got home on Thursday, and got married on the next Thursday!” he says.
The young couple honeymooned for two days in Niagara Falls, and then headed back to Flin Flon to start their new life together.
Russell liked to tell people in front of Marion that they HAD to get married! She would get embarrassed and slap his shoulder – and then he would explain that he wanted them to travel to Flin Flon together to meet his family and join the family’s electrical business, but there was no way she would make the trip unless they were married first. So they had to get married!
Russell and Marion returned to Flin Flon as husband and wife, but unfortunately their stay was only a short one. Marion’s mother Annie Keeler was very ill, diagnosed with cancer. As a result, her father back in Ontario could not manage the farm and tourist business on his own, and needed their help. They returned to Ontario. Russell and Marion ran the business and eventually bought it from her father.
The early years were not without trials, though. The farm and small tourist business did not make enough to support a family, so Russell also worked as an electrician when time and opportunity permitted.
One of the challenges for veterans returning to Canada, especially to communities that were not their homes before the war, was the difficulty in competing with local businessmen who had stayed home. Credit was almost impossible to get, and electrical supplies like copper and lead had to be bought through established contractors, or on the black market.
But Russell persevered, became more involved in the local community, and was able to build a business and a good life for his family. He was also a creative and supportive member of the community.
A new challenge struck in 1959 when Marion was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given six months to live! Russell and Marion had two children by then – Earle was eleven years old and Steve only six. It was a frightening time for the young family, but relatives, friends, neighbours and God all stood together, and Marion went into remission, living another 25 years.
Here are Earle and Steve with their parents in 1960.
In 1965, Russell sold the tourist lodge at Burnt Hills and the family moved into the village of Seeley’s Bay, although the Thompson family still maintains a cottage on the original land.
Russell went on to build a thriving electrical contracting business in Seeley’s Bay, providing both quality services and employment to the local community.
That business was successfully passed to his oldest son Earle, and then on to his grandson Jason.
This photo shows Russell at home with his refurbished 1950s truck bearing his business name, R. Thompson Electric.
An Unexpected Reunion
Nothing demonstrates the wartime relationships that were formed between the Canadians and the Dutch better than an experience Russell had in the year 2000.
He returned to Holland with his son Steve to participate in the May 5th celebrations to mark the country’s liberation by the Canadian Army. The event was organized by the National Committee Thank You Canada, and a Dutch group based in Groningen, Holland, called Welcome Again Veterans Foundation.
Russell and Steve were billeted with a local family. One day, they travelled to Eelde to look for the farm where he stayed during the war, and any of the farmer’s family who might still be in the area.
Well, they found the farm, and the neighbours remembered the family who owned it during the war. Unfortunately, only the youngest son, Kees was still alive – and he had been only five years old when Russell left to return to Canada.
But the neighbours reached Kees by phone and thirty minutes later, a sixty-year-old man arrived at the neighbour’s home with a photo. It was Kees, and he brought the wedding picture of Russell and Marion that Russell had sent to his parents 55 years earlier!
Kees had kept it all that time, and he still remembered Russell and their time together in 1945. Needless to say, the two had very special reunion talking about Kees’s family and the memories of their time together.
Russell returned in 2005 and they met once again. The Dutch observe their liberation by the Canadians each year on May 5, and this is always a time when Russell’s memories flood back to that exciting time in his past.
Here’s a photo of Russell seated on the couch with his Dutch friend Kees, 55 years after seeing each other!
Today Russell prides himself on having good friends, both locally and around the world; four grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He still lives at his own home in Seeley’s Bay, Ontario, with his loving companion of thirty years, Muriel Knapp. He is a life member of the local Royal Canadian Legion, the local Lions Club and the local Masons.
At 99 years young this coming September 22, he continues to have a quality of life and of memories that most of us can only hope for!
Russell Thompson’s legacy to us all: be yourself, do your best and appreciate what you have.
Earle Thompson, seated on the left, now 71, took over Thompson Electrical from his father in 1979, growing it to be one of the community’s most successful and largest employers by 2010, when he passed it on to his son Jason, who continues to develop the business today.
Steve Thompson, standing on the right, attended Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario and served in the Canadian Armed Forces until 1980. He then held several senior positions in both the public and private sectors, retiring in 2012 as President and Chief Executive officer of SRB Education Solutions, a software company with offices in Toronto, Edmonton, Kelowna and Vancouver.
Both Steve and Earle live within thirty minutes of Russell, and remain active in his life. The above photograph was taken just a few days ago. In the background is an old farm tractor that Russell, now aged 98 years old, still uses to work in his back yard!
Thank you so much, Russell Thompson, for your lifelong service to your community, your family and your country.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. This cover appeared in 1939 a few months before the war began. Princess Margaret Rose, the Queen’s younger sister, was just eight years old. To see my complete collection of Star Weekly covers: Star Weekly At War.