Lifelong impact of Jack St. Clair

It was one of those uncomfortable moments that Mom never taught me how to deal with.

As editor of the Barrie Banner (forerunner to this newspaper you’re holding now) I got to cover just about everything. I particularly enjoyed Saturday morning hockey when Shayne Corson was five years old, scoring hat-tricks every single game. The little kids were so sincere and so in love with the game.
So, it was a Saturday morning and myself and my trusty Pentax were parked on a bench at the Dunlop St Arena, ready to capture the action.

One of the commissionaires sidled over to me, asking me where I was from.

“The Banner,” I said, toque pulled down over my ears.

“God, I hate that Donna Douglas,” he said.

And that’s when I met Jack St. Clair.

Now this is a tricky situation…

“Yeah,” I mused. That sounded non committal enough. “How come?”

“Well,” said Jack. “I’m the 726 of her 728-number. You wouldn’t believe the calls. Middle of the night, weekends, sports scores, politicians; it goes on and on.”

“Sounds like a huge imposition,” I muttered.

Now this is one of those watershed moments. Do I ‘fess up and then embarrass Mr. St. Clair? I mean, that doesn’t feel fair. Do I just pretend that I’ve never met him? Well, I called a week or so later, introduced myself at his 728- counterpart and asked if he ever got any calls for me. He unloaded that he did. I asked about the names of his family members and promised to forward any I received for him. In those days there were only 728- and 726- numbers.

That was the beginning of a 25 year ‘relationship’ that resulted in dozens of referred calls for him, for me, for his kids, for my kids. It included my condolence call when his first wife, Ruth, passed away. And it ended this summer when Jack himself passed away. Well, it sort of ended, though his wife, Jean spent some time reminiscing with me this week. And then she handed me this remarkable binder that Jack himself produced… it’s his life story!

And so the face of the man becomes a historical reality. Born in Barrie on Hallowe’en, 1919, an Allandale baby, resident of Tiffin St., Caroline St and then 164 Bradford St. Jack teaches us about Barrie in the 20’s and the Depression 30’s… playing ice hockey on the Bay, swimming across the bay all summer long, swinging from enormous “Tarzan Trees” in the backyards of Bradford St, hanging around with his chums… Steve Hayes (nickname: Straw), Fred Dollery (Pooch), Harshaw and Jack Cornish.

Jack and his brothers Ron, Stuart, Harold and Charlie were protective and tormenting of their sister, Irene. In fact, Jack acknowledges his sister and her husband of being a major impetus behind his autobiography.

The Barrie Fair was the year’s highlight for Jack and his pals; one free admission given to every school child was not enough. They devised a foolproof way to ‘sneak’ into the Fair for days two and three. A loose fence board assisted this maneovre.

And while childhood was full of hockey and fun, the Depression years were full of want, of never enough. His Dad was let go from the railroad and men all over town were begging for any kind of work. Kids would fish off the iron bridge and sell their catch door to door. Jack got his first ‘real’ job picking potatoes on a farm that would be right where his home at 144 Penetang St now stands. And then Jack took a job at Cleland’s Bakery on Maple Ave, working for Alex and Alvin Cleland. He became a baker’s helper, then a baker, then a cook and this skill carried him overseas and into incredible adventures.

Jack worked at the dance hall at Minet’s Point, helping his brother Ron. He worked for all of the bakeries in Barrie at one time or another. And in 1939, War and Camp Borden and Major Worthington offered a new horizon for alot of Barrie boys. Worthington was in charge of Armoured Corps Training Centre and Jack wanted to drive trucks and tanks. Just before he left for Camp Borden in 1940, Jack married Ruth Pearson from Minesing. And as he boarded the train for Halifax after months of training, he left his baby son, Donald and his bride, Ruth.

And instead of the inside of a tank, Jack saw the inside of a ship’s galley. He cooked his way through much of the war, serving King George VI and Elizabeth as well as Winston Churchill and Generals McNaughton, Montgomery and Eisenhower. He saw front line action that was desperate, thrilling and frightening all at the same time. In fact, today in Jack’s home is a band bearing 19 poppies representing the 19 young colleague cooks who lost their lives in action.

It was almost five years before Jack saw Ruth and Donald again, arriving Dec 27 in New York Harbour followed by a train to Toronto where throngs of people were waiting at the Coliseum.

Jack opened his own bakeshop after he returned to Barrie and reminisces that at one time he delivered baked goods to every restaurant in Barrie, and delivered to stores and homes with country and town routes. With Bob Sarjeant, Bill Merrick, Art Johnston and Maurice Hinds, Jack started the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees) in 1946. When Willard Kinzie asked him to manage his dairy bar, then adding a restaurant of 165 seats, Jack got his first taste of Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose Barrie introduction caused lineups around the block. And anybody who dined at Lakeview Dairy will remember its tin roof sundaes. For sure!

On and on… kitchen set ups for Lorne Jackson at Continental Inn (location of Centennial Chrysler); Grant Mayor at Bayshore Motor Inn (where Bayshore Landing is today); Jack’s ability in a kitchen ensured he always had work.
On and on. How do you measure the life of a man so active for all of it? He writes lovingly of sons Donald, Paul and David. He writes with equal enthusiasm of both Ruth and Jean. And he writes with passion about his war years, the victories, the defeats, the reason for it all.

As we approach Armistice Day and an Election Day, it seems fitting that some of Jack’s story finds its place here. Because what did he fight for, if not for our freedom to live democratically?

And so, back to Dunlop Arena, and the chance meeting with my 726- friend…

Thanks, Jack!