Air Vice Marshall

Kenneth M. Guthrie



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AUGUST 9, 1900 - MARCH 14, 1993


MARCH 17, 1993

(Eulogy delivered by his granddaughter Susan (Pollak) Schultz)


We are gathered here today to remember and celebrate the life of my grandfather, Kenneth MacGregor Guthrie. And what a long, rich and remarkable life it has been. Often those words are a cliche, but decidedly not in this case. Granddaddy's life began right at the start of the 20th century and was, in large part, a response to and reflection of the opportunities, calamities and, above all, achievements that have marked this period in human -- and Canadian -- history.

The time and general circumstances of our births and, often, of our lives are quite simply an accident. But it is no accident how we choose to play out the basic hand that fate deals us. My grandfather took one look at the hand he was holding and, with unbridled enthusiasm and much hard work, made the most of it. In doing so he enriched not only himself, but also his family, friends and country -- all in generous measure.

Kenneth MacGregor Guthrie was born at Guelph, Ontario on August 9, 1900 -- auspiciously, a Leo under the zodiac. Perhaps that is why he was sometimes accused of roaring his way through life. This was, in his mind, the only way to go. After all, he said, who can hear a mouse on a parade ground?

Granddaddy was the third child and second son of five children born to the Reverend Donald Guthrie, Doctor of Divinity, and Jean Stirton. Both of his grandfathers were MLAs, a legacy that no doubt had much to do with Kenneth's unwavering sense of duty and loyalty to Canada. He spent his first 10 years in Baltimore, Maryland, summering in the Maniwaki region of the Gatineau hills, not far from where we sit today. Educated at home by his mother until age 12, ostensibly because of frail health, he eventually gained entry to Lisgar Collegiate only to leave formal schooling for good at age 16, in 1917. (Some of us may wish to question the merits of formal education, as here was a man with only 4 years' formal schooling who became a Commander of the British Empire. Lest my children are furiously taking notes, I hasten to add that this undoubtedly says far more about Ken Guthrie than it does about any school.)

In an act of sheer brazenness, Ken took himself off to Toronto where, a strapping 16-year-old, he succeeded in convincing the Royal Flying Corps that he was 18 and thus old enough to enlist. He trained as a pilot here in Canada and -- thanks to an outbreak of scarlet fever in Camp Borden -- also at Fort Worth, Texas. (Years later, he would be made an honorary citizen of Texas. He sometimes wondered if this was the state's way of expressing its gratitude at his having stayed away for over 30 years.)

Commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant early in 1918, he was sent overseas, eager for action, in May 1918. Ken liked to think it was no coincidence that the Germans started their huge offensive that same spring. He saw active duty in both France and England -- much of it in anti-submarine operations, flying floatplanes and flying boats. At war's end, he was accorded the "privilege" of buying his own ticket home to Ottawa in January 1919, for $56 and a bottle of Scotch whisky. This for the dubious sin of having joined up in the first instance with an "Imperial" -- read "foreign" -- military service! It must have broken Granddaddy's heart to give away that bottle of Scotch.

Home once again in Ottawa, Ken realized that his academic career had suffered an irretrievable setback. A handful of short working stints, including a disastrous 2-week career as a car salesman, preceded his acceptance in 1920 into the Canadian Air Force, with a commission as pilot officer -- the same rank he had held in the RFC and RAF.

After a few months at Camp Borden, he was sent in April 1921 to Roberval (Lac St-Jean), Quebec. There he put in many hours flying "HS2L" flying boats - gifts from the U.S. Navy and, at that time, the only seaplanes readily available to Canada - on forest fire patrols; carrying out hand-held air camera photography; and flying in fuel and food caches to lakes and rivers north of Lac St-Jean. All of these operations were made without the benefit of reliable maps, wireless or radio communications, over vast tracts of uninhabited and undeveloped forests. There was no organized search and rescue, should an aircraft be forced down by weather or mechanical failure.

Happily, no such misfortune awaited Ken. But, in July 1923, he had the only aircraft accident of his career when an Ottawa River "deadhead" log bobbed up to puncture the hull of his Vickers "Viking" amphibian as he was taking off from Rockliffe air base en route to Winnipeg, on transfer. Three days later, irony of ironies, he made the trip by train.

There followed several years of what were truly pioneering operations over the Canadian north -- in Quebec, Ontario, the three Prairie provinces, and the Northwest Territories. In his beloved "Viking", Ken carried out air photography over huge sweeps of Canada's Cambrian Shield, when such operations were still in their infancy.

One of his tasks was to photograph the route of the Churchill River all the way from Churchill, the river's source of entry into Hudson's Bay and the newly-decided terminal point for the CNR's "Muskeg" line, and The Pas, where the line began. It was during these operations that my grandfather developed his lifelong fascination with the Canadian north and its people. He always used to say that geography had nothing to do with place names, and everything to do with how people live and work and survive in their particular surroundings. His experiences in the north no doubt lay behind that passionately-held view.

In the early 1930s, he was honoured for his work by the federal and Manitoba governments by having a good-sized lake named after him. You can still find Guthrie Lake on the map, in north-central Manitoba. It hasn't fallen prey to hydroelectric development. And, to my knowledge, there are still no plans for a Club Med in the region.

Busy though he was, Ken clearly didn't spend all his time in the air. For it was during these years that he met his bride-to-be, my grandmother, Catherine Mary Fidler. Kay was, like Granddaddy, a transplanted Ontario native then living in Manitoba. Their daughter and my mother, Ann Elizabeth, was born in 1928, in Ottawa. As she grew, Granddaddy introduced Mom to several of his passions: tennis and badminton, both of which he excelled at; horseback riding; and baseball. He built her a magnificent Victorian dollhouse, and even made all of the furnishings himself by hand. He was, simply put, a good father.

Granddaddy's years as a bush pilot were interspersed with two long spells in staff jobs -- one as head of RCAF Personnel, the other as Director of Military Intelligence.

Then, in 1938, Ken became the C.O. of the RCAF Station, Rockcliffe. In late August 1939, on the eve of World War II, he was sent on two weeks "Temporary Duty" to HQ Eastern Air Command, Halifax. Those two weeks stretched into three hectic years on Battle of the Atlantic operations, plus six months as C.O. Gander in early 1941. Five years went by before he returned to Ottawa from Temporary Duty at Halifax. That was par for the course, in those days.

The tour in Halifax seems a model of stability compared with the years that followed. In 1942, Ken was suddenly sent to HQ Western Air Command, Victoria to help organize West Coast air defences. Nine months later, he was back at AFHQ Ottawa as Chief Planner for the RCAF. His work involved him with the Alaska Air Route, Alaska Highway and Canol Pipeline projects. He took part in planning the defence of the St-Lawrence and Gaspe against U-boat attacks. And just in case any of you think that hare-brained schemes are strictly a modern affliction, here are a couple that my grandfather was relieved to see stillborn: the first, an iceberg air base in the mid-Atlantic; the other, a floating airstrip made of B.C. logs in the Bay of Bengal.

Ken returned to Winnipeg in 1944, the year he was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal. Early in 1946, he was sent to Edmonton, to head up a newly-formed command that, at the time, comprised about 4/5ths of Canada.

Ken retired in late 1949 at Edmonton, and immediately became involved in the oil and natural gas industry. He also took up travelling, fishing, hunting, and gardening -- all the things he couldn't find time for while in military service. He became involved in local civic and social affairs, including membership and active service on hospital, art museum and symphony boards. Later, in the 1950's, he became active in federal politics at the constituency level.

In 1963 he retired at Vancouver from active oil business work and in 1968 he and Kay returned to Edmonton to live. In 1982, they moved to Ottawa to be close to Ann and a growing brood of great-grandchildren.

From the year of his retirement, Ken maintained a keen interest in all matters concerning ex-servicemen and women, and in the Canadian regular and reserve armed forces. A strong supporter of the Air Cadet League and the RCAF Benevolent Fund, in 1949 he became a founding member of the newly-born RCAF Association, eventually serving as its National President.

Ken also had a longstanding interest and involvement in the affairs and problems of international war veterans. In 1956 in Brussels, he suddenly found himself elected Chairman of the World Veterans Federation Council (founded in 1950), and a member of the WVF Executive Board. At the time, the WVF was an organization of war veterans from some fifty countries, with a total membership of more than 20 million men and women who had served their respective countries in a world war.

For his World War II services, my grandfather was awarded the Companion of the Order of the Bath, Commander of the British Empire and the U.S. Legion of Merit. He also valued the 1961 award in Paris of that city's "La Médaille d'Argent de la ville de Paris", and the WVF's "Medal of Merit", for his work on behalf of all international war veterans.

Above all, he valued and relished his membership in the special coterie of World War I flyers -- those Canadians who flew in that conflict so many years ago, when all were young. This was where it all began for Granddaddy. He was the last surviving founding officer of the RCAF, and so an era passes with him.

No-one could possibly do so much in a lifetime except by truly living it, right until the very end. And this sums up my grandfather perfectly: a man who was fully and vigorously engaged in life for all of his nearly 93 years, even after the loss of his beloved Kay in 1989. A passionate Canadian and ardent monarchist, inveterate storyteller, devoted husband and father, an airman for whom service was infinitely more than a mere vocation, and an unwavering Conservative -- and believe me, we have the cancelled cheques to prove it -- Granddaddy knew what he believed in, and never hesitated to express and defend those beliefs with passion.

Above all, I shall remember him as all children should remember their grandparents -- as a grand old man who always smelled faintly of cigars, who blew the best smoke rings of anybody, and who always wanted to share his vast experience and love of life with us. His was a life well-lived, in every way.


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