Ray Desmond Willnough Harvey, my father, died this morning at 4.30 a.m. He was 89-years-old.
The final entry on his life chart seems so empty and hardly reflects the man I loved and respected above all others so let me tell you a little bit about him.
Ray Desmond Willnough Harvey.
It’s a heck of a moniker isn’t it? Dad was always a little embarrassed about the Willnough bit. We have no idea where it comes from since neither Desmond nor Willnough appears in the family tree. I suppose there’s a story there somewhere. He always used to sign his corporate memos as RDW Harvey LOL. I guess back in the day, you used all your initials which is partially why I use Ian J Harvey on Facebook and was I. John Harvey when I started freelancing at the Toronto Star, as a homage to dad.
Dad was born July 18, 1929 in Lahore, which, in those days before Partition in 1948, was part of India. His great-great-great grandfather, John Harvey, had arrived in India from England in 1839, a 23-year-old lad, born in Edinburgh, one of five children of William Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey and Margret Sharpe.
Now, William was an interesting man. He was the bastard son of Beauchamp Bagenal Harvey, the reluctant general who’d led the United Irishmen Rebellion in Wexford in 1798. Beauchamp, a protestant landowner and lawyer was a firm believer in equal rights. Alas, the rebellion was quashed, he was captured and subsequently tried, convicted and executed by hanging and then beheading at the Wexford Bridge June 28, 1798.
Anyway, family legend has it that dad was born in a tent at a construction site where his parents Nora and Cyril were living. He had taken work as an equipment operator because times were tough. There may be some truth to it or not but it’s a good story anyway.
While John Harvey landed in Madras, ensuing generations spread through India and our little branch eventually rooted down in Karachi which is now part of Pakistan. Though he was raised in an English Colonial family – actually Anglo Indian aka AngloBanglo, meaning mixed blood – my father spoke Urdu, learned from the nanny, the aya, before he spoke English. He went to English schools and Karachi grammar school, which his brothers Colin and Peter also attended and where their mum, my grandmother, Nora Harvey, taught.
He went on to the Lord Dufferin training ship in Mumbai (was Bombay), sort of a naval academy, at about 16-years-old. He was too young to serve in the military during World War II but when he was about 17 he was shipped off to Glasgow where he enrolled to study engineering, working at John Brown Shipyards in Clydebank to get his practical qualifications as was the norm in those days.
My father was highly intelligent, considered the brains of the family and, of course, there were high expectations for him, which he fulfilled with ease.
Dad graduated as a mechanical engineer and went off to England to find work.
In 1951 he met a lovely woman who captured his eye and then his heart. That would be my mum, Pamela Mary Bridger, as she was then. They married two years later and in 1956, I was born, their only child. We lived as a family in a little bungalow in Barnehurst, Kent before Dad’s career path took us to Japan in 1960 where he worked for five years as a project manager on a nuclear power plant with GE UK.
He worked damn hard. Not so much physically, but in ensuring he mentally was on top of every detail he was responsible for as a manager or executive. My earliest memories are of my father in his chair after work, reading the newspaper and later, of his falling asleep in a big ugly green recliner with stacks of memos and reports piled on his chest and two piles more on the floor, one he’d read, the other yet to read.
I think it was his obsession with newspapers that led me to a career as a print journalist, though he was somewhat disappointed at my decision. He often said he thought I should have studied law but at the time I had no patience for more years of school and articling.
We went back to England in 1965 and dad worked as an engineer, rising through the ranks of management and working on large oil and gas plants around the country and Europe.
In 1972 Dad was assigned to work in America and the following year sent on to Toronto, Canada where mum and I joined him.
Mum was from a tiny village, Turnchapel, outside Plymouth in Devon. Dad gave her the world, literally. Living in Japan, traveling all over the world with him on business or for vacation, they loved each other deeply and loved being together wherever that was. They often vacationed without me and I never begrudged their time together. I knew I was loved and cherished.
In fact, I look back on my childhood spent in different countries and cultures and can only describe it as idyllic. We went to Spain, Italy, the Islands, America, Asia, all over and then, of course, Toronto and Canada which she immediately fell in love with. There never was a prouder Canadian than my mum I don’t think.
There was no luxury or lavish spending. Mum’s austere small village experiences from growing up in World War 2 saw to that. Things were fixed rather than replaced. She could have shopped at Holt Renfrew but chose instead to buy samples and then deconstruct and remake them. She was artistic, curious and had a flair for sewing and design.
The big luxury was that she didn’t have to work.
Dad’s career flourished. He was a vice-president and CEO of various engineering companies and even ran train maker UTDC after it reverted from a crown corporation and was sold to the private sector.
He traveled the world for business, Italy, Russia and China but he always came home to mum. He never made the big money that CEOs make today. Back in the 1970s and 1980s vice-presidents and CEOs were paid well but not obscenely.
They didn’t want for much. Their house was paid for, his pensions assured and they didn’t live an extravagant lifestyle. I asked dad once why he didn’t buy a nice Mercedes instead of the Oldsmobiles he always bought.
“Why?” he said. “It’s a depreciating asset. Not interested.”
A car was a tool just like a watch. No fancy Rolex Mariners when a Seiko would do just as well. Dining out was mostly Scarborough restaurants, and I can tell you they weren’t any Michelin Stars on the door at the places they frequented. They just liked good food and a half decent bottle of wine for a fair price. I think she would have loved her grandaughter Meaghan’s skills learned in culinary school and in working in the restaurant industry. Dad certainly did when he joined us for family dinners.
Sadly, there’s not much of a happy ending here.
Instead of enjoying their retirement which Dad worked so hard to earn, they were robbed.
Mum was diagnosed with multi-infarct dementia in the early 1990s and passed away May 10, 1996 having been in care for three years. She was in her mid-fifties when it onset and barely 65 when she died. He would go to Providence Centre every day to feed herdinner and just sit with her, right up until she died, such was his lifelong commitment to their relationship even though she had long stopped knowing who he was.
Still, around that time Dad met a lovely woman in Montreal. Their relationship progressed and soon she was talking about selling her home there and buying a place in Florida so they could go back and forth in retirement. Sadly, he was robbed again, this time because she fell ill with pancreatic cancer and died within four months of diagnosis.
A couple of years later he met another woman so evil I can’t speak her name. She robbed us of his last years when he would have been able to have a conversation and share moments cognitively. I won’t go into details here except to say ultimately there was a nasty legal battle which resulted in us winning a settlement last year. But by the time we settled, it was clear Dad’s quality of life was quickly declining and within two years he had moved in and out of two retirement homes and finally into the Chartwell Brant Long Term Care centre in Burlington.
He knew it too, just before the steep decline: “I wish I could end it. This isn’t what I wanted. I didn’t think I would live this long.”
His dementia progressed to the point he didn’t even recognize me, mistaking his son for his brother. He kept falling and soon was confined to a wheelchair, staring the TV. Last August doctors and staff told he might not make Christmas. That he made it this far is also sad because he had no quality of life and we see his passing as a relief, as many families do in these situations.
His final years were a stark contrast to his rich life, though Dad was never given to excess.
He was a man of moderation. He was not a heavy drinker, though he enjoyed a beer, a glass of wine with dinner and a scotch or brandy once in a while.
Dad was a great sportsman, however. In his younger days he
boxed and later played field hockey, a popular sport in India and Asia. He also loved cricket and was an avid tennis player, playing right up to his 60s.
Then golf became his obsession and he pursued that with mum, joining Scarborough Golf Club and going on golfing vacations with mum.
He’d never really been sick a day in his life, though he did suffer a herniated disc in his neck in a car accident around the late 1960s.
That injury ultimately ended his golf game because at some point he couldn’t get around the ball with his swing. I think that hit him hard.
We’re about the only family dad has in Toronto along with Colin, his brother who lives in Brampton. Their other brother, Peter lives in England.
If you asked him Dad would say he’s Church of England which is Anglican here in Canada but he was never a church goer.
As far as hobbies go, Dad wasn’t musically inclined, admitting he had a “tin ear” and had failed at the violin. I don’t think I ever heard him sing. That’s not to say he didn’t like music but I think he liked the technology of stereo record players more. Of course, he was an engineer, so that figures.
He had a massive Sony stereo reel to reel tape recorder with a built-in amplifier and speakers bought in Japan. He had hours of music recorded on it and I still have a box of tapes from that era. One of my chores will be to go through those tapes and digitize some of them because we also used the tape recorder to sent audio letters back to England. I know my tiny little seven-year-old voice is preserved on some, talking about school or some such thing along with my mum and dad updating the family on our life in Japan. I also have 78 rpm record of their wedding ceremony. No idea when I will get to all this or what good it will be but I suppose it’s part of the family archives and I’m the default archivist.
Aside from the tape recorder, he also put his engineer’s hat on to refit one of those 1950s Decca console record players which looked like a piece of walnut furniture. He designed and built a new mount for a better turntable compete with new trim and skirt and was quite pleased with himself.
When HiFi components came out he seemed to relish competing with his youngest brother Peter to assemble the best system. At first he got a crappy system out of a catalogue and then later upgraded with Celestion speakers, Sony tuner and amp, balanced turntable, the works. Then it was about buying the “new” stereo mastered records. We had some interesting albums: Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, the soundtrack from the movie Shaft, mum loved that one and her other favourites, Nana Mouskouri and Roberta Flack. (NB: If I hear Killing me softly one more time I will shoot someone. Trust me)
As an engineer he also had a flair for design. He could map out a project in pencil with precision, delighting in designing an extension for our house in England and later finishing the basement in Canada and building his pride and joy, the bar, complete with inverted bottles and press-to-pour fittings.
He even once crafted some oak side and coffee tables to match the oak dining set, taking to the task with the usual engineer’s precision, working with tools he’d inherited from his father and which eventually passed on to me. I still have most of them.
I do admit, though, that I wasn’t best helper, being easily bored. I never heard my dad swear so I know I must have frustrated him that day I was supposed to be holding something while he drilled into it.
Of course, me being me, I was distracted.
“You’re about as useful as a wet dick,” he growled. I was shocked. It took me a while to figure out what he meant. “You’re about as useful as tits on a bull,” was his other line but, as I said, he was never one to F-bomb, at least around me and mum.
However, I think Dad’s greatest artistic talent was his photography. He was always into photography and when he downsized from Scarborough and moved to Burlington he gave me a suitcase and a couple of boxes stuffed with black and white pictures and slides.
Over the years I have scanned in the best of these pictures which include snapshots of so many family members I have had to enlist the help of my cousins to identify all of them.
But it’s those pictures which he shot which are the most striking. Aside from their historical or family value, I’m struck by the composition and, often, the lighting.
He had an eye, no question. In Japan he bought one of the first retractable mirror prism 35 mm SLR camera with interchangeable lenses, the Minolta SR1, and started shooting slides and black and white pictures. 15 years later That camera became my first camera and I used it my first year in Journalism school. Now, his legacy of images is a family treasure.
In the end, Dad was as he was, a creature of habit. He was kind and gentle, the calming balance to my mother’s temper (which wasn’t really that bad), generous to a fault. He strove to “keep the peace” as he put it, earnestly wanting everyone around him to simply be happy and comfortable. He adored my mother and he loved his grandchildren unconditionally, worrying constantly about them as they struggled to find their way in the world.
In the end, he melted away before our eyes, falling frequently and then being confined to a wheelchair as his dementia took control and his muscles also wasted away. He grew weaker and weaker and last month could not even form words because his throat muscles were so wasted. He was on a liquid diet because he couldn’t swallow well and even then he had difficulty eating.
Death was a relief as I said. This was no tragedy.
Death is life. A tragedy is when a five-year-old child is truck by a drunk driver and killed. This is life.
So, Ray Desmond Willnough Harvey passes from his world but he will never really leave us. He will always inspire me and, I hope, inspire his grandchildren. Certainly his grandson Jonathon has already been deeply imprinted by dad’s sheer decency and vows to uphold the brand.
His life was about love, duty, honour, integrity, civility and respect. We could use more like him.