When Dennis Pratt, Shane Ramsay, Peter Craig and Ron Exell were in grade 2, they learned how to ride their bikes together. Those bikes took them soaring over mounds that became launching pads, and into flight.
For Dennis and Ron, flight became their dream as they entered North Collegiate and flying became their common goal. But still the four buddies from Codrington Public School remained a team, inseparable, bound by their childhoods and their ambitions.
Last Saturday, Ron Exell, Peter Craig and Shane Ramsay carried their friend to his resting place at Barrie Union Cemetery. It was May 1. It was Dennis Pratt’s 38th birthday.
Dennis’ childhood life friends were joined by the three relationships of male influences from his adult life…Bernie Schaefer and Bill Boulton, pilots with Air Canada, and Steve Gutri, a colleague from work.
To carry a friend to his final earthly address is to break one’s heart. And yet, it is the final gesture of friendship a person can make.
I want to write about Dennis today because he exemplifies what all of us should be doing with our lives. He was 12 years old, at the peak of dreaming about airplanes and flight, when we moved as newlyweds into the house next door and for the next 17 years, grew up together. In those days, Dennis’ father, Reg, was one of Barrie Transit’s popular drivers, eagerly giving some of the best customer service around town. Mom Norma was anchoring the sales counter at People’s Jewellers. And Dennis was never far from his sister and soulmate Eleanor, who slept in his room at RVH every single night of the 18 nights before Dennis died.
What did Dennis teach us all with his life? He taught us to identify what we love, and do it.
While flight was the pinnacle of life for both Ron and Dennis they’ve chosen to live it out in different ways. After North Collegiate Ron went on to become a pilot with Nor Ontario. Dennis used his analytical skills and his lifelong love of taking things apart (not a favourite activity with parents of an eight year old!) to become an airplane mechanic. In the world of the air, the pilot depends on the mechanic as much as the mechanic-passenger depends on the pilot once the airplane is airborne.
Ron and Dennis took their teenage interest to Barrie Airport where they hung around and soaked up everything they could. Dennis went on to Centennial College in Toronto for the airplane mechanics course, and a tip led him back to Barrie Airport where he was hired to work on local planes. He went from Barrie Airport to Parry Sound to Collingwood, to Armstrong, Ontario where he “grew” his skills on waterbombers with Georgian Bay Airlines.
He met and married a DeHavilland financial wizard, Liz Kuchcicki. They had a daughter just three months after Dennis’ sister Eleanor gave birth to twins. Then Eleanor had a third children and Dennis and Liz had twins. Dennis’ and Eleanor’s life lines were always intertwined.
Step by step, Dennis kept learning how to take things apart and put them back together. He started in 1986 at DeHavilland in Malton, working on the Dash 8 and then on the Learjet. He became at supervisor in the Dash 8 building… work that took him to Kansas, Taiwan, Austria and Africa. He supervised installation of components in the Dash 8.
It was on his trip to Ethiopia last September that Dennis developed a bad case of the flu. After five days in an Ethiopian hospital, a DeHavilland colleague flew Dennis home to Royal Victoria Hospital where an ultra sound sent him to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and surgery days later removed a brain tumour. He was home in two days and a month later started 20 days of radiation which finished December 8. Desperate for his health, Dennis underwent a radical process of blood serum injections.
By February hope was turning into anger. And anger mobilized Dennis into acceptance, and into using wisely the end of this part of his life. A hockey buddy took him to the last game at Maple Leaf Gardens, where Mike Gartner, a North Collegiate student with Dennis, presented him with his sweater. Dennis’ grandfather attended the first game at the Gardens. It was a fitting tribute from grandfather to grandson. In April Dennis went into RVH for the last 18 days of his life. Cared for by oncology staff and palliative caregivers and nurses, Dennis and Liz, and Eleanor, and their children and parents planned Dennis’ last flight.
When Dennis died last Thursday morning, for his baby sons Jesse and Jason, his daughter Jennifer, his wife Liz, his mom and dad Reg and Norma, his sister Eleanor (and her husband Brent Ziliotto), it was the end of a nightmare of hope, pain, acceptance and grief. At Steckley Gooderham Funeral Home on Saturday morning hundreds of Dennis’ hockey and ball buddies, high school friends, public school friends, his lifelong neighbours on Penetang Street, his sister’s children stood silently and let him go.
His farewell service began with the Rolling Stones Waiting on a Friend and concluded with Sarah McLachlan’s In The Arms of an Angel. Dennis’ hockey stick is at his side. A hockey trophy at DeHavilland bears his name. His soul today is no doubt in flight… where Dennis always wanted to be.
A life too short. But a life lived with commitment, and passion, and goals, and achievement. A life lived well.