Eulogy for Rob Vernon

 

Ron Vernon at the DUCW Christmas party, December 2012

Ron Vernon at the DUCW Christmas party, December 2012

How do you sum up 52 years of a man’s life in a few short words? What words can you use?

When Jacqueline spread the horrible news of Robert’s passing, she heard so many adjectives to describe him, but one in particular seemed to sum up everything.

Loved. Rob loved and was truly loved.

He was very much loved as a baby brother. The youngest of 5 children, Robert was the surprise his parents Kit and Reg least expected. Indeed, they were concerned how they were going to manage yet another child and the expenses. The story Jacqueline heard was how his loving brother, Peter, wanted a little brother so much that he gathered all the snow peas from the garden and set up a stand on the street to sell them so his parents could afford another baby.

His sister Margaret described Rob as “such a beautiful little boy…”. We are so very grateful that members of his family, James, Peter, and sister-in-law Jan were able to travel such a long way from Sydney to be here today. We are so very sorry that brother David, sister Margaret, and in-laws Liz, Kaye, Stephen could not join us.

Later, as he grew up in Tamworth, Dubbo, Griffith, and finally Manly, all located in New South Wales, Rob was loved as a friend. He and his best mate Garry Lougher got into all kinds of mischief in Griffith. In Manly, Rob connected with Paul Ryan and Trevor O’Callaghan, Paul Border and Kirk Murray. The boys grew together, played together, laughed together, and got into trouble together.

Jacqueline heard stories of Rob’s many misadventures, such as the one where he, Paul Border and Trevor O’Callaghan got the not-too-bright idea to climb down North Head cliffs, ostensibly to retrieve parts from old cars that had been pushed over the edge. They got caught half-way, unable to find their way up or down. Search and Rescue had to be called, and Rob was plucked off the side of the cliffs in a helicopter. They became notorious for their deed, thanks to a newspaper article in the Manly Daily.

Those friendships with his mates survived to this day – particularly with Paul Ryan and his wife Orina, Trevor and his wife Judy. Jacqueline, Petey and Southerly have drawn a lot of strength from those friendships in recent days.

As Rob’s family grew older, it grew in size. Husbands and wives were added, then nine beautiful nieces and two incredible nephews. Rob loved them all very much – he was the favourite uncle, trying to get round to see them as much as he could, taking them for lollies, babysitting.

Jacqueline remembers that on the day they met, he showed her pictures of all his family, describing each one with pride. But she remembers in particular him showing her one picture and saying, “… and this is my brand new niece, little Nicola… She was born while I was in London. I can’t wait to get home to meet her.” It was at that very moment that Jacqueline fell in love with him. How could you not fall in love with a man who loved kids so much.

In 1988, Robert got bit by the travel bug, and like many young Australians, packed his swag and set out for adventures in Europe. He started with England, then on to a Contiki Tour – the ultimate party bus for 18 to 35 year-olds tooling around Europe.

Recently, Jacqueline heard from some of Rob’s fellow passangers, ones he had regained contact with through Facebook. Rhonda Pont Amara, his friend from Montreal who now lives in Israel, told Jacqueline that he was the most loved person out of the 52 people on that tour. It shows in his pictures of the trip; the mischievous grin, his arms around one or another of the girls.

At the end of the tour, Robert returned to England and began work for Microgen, a micrographics firm in London. After several months, he was laid off and given a good severance package. True to his love of adventure, Robert decided, spur of the moment, that he would travel to Canada to visit some of the friends he’d made on the Contiki tour.

He landed in Montreal, middle of January 1989, wearing a huge blue down-filled coat that made him look like a Michelin Man. He and Rhonda hopped in her car, drove down to southern Ontario to see Ceri (pronounced Sheri), Emily and many others, visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and London Ontario. He then purchased a travel pass for VIA Rail, hopped on a train, and made his way across country to Prince Rupert, BC. En route, he was almost thrown off the train for being a little rowdy in the bar car! When he arrived in Prince Rupert, he chartered a bi-plane to Kitkatla Island, where he visited Kathy – another fellow passenger from the Contiki tour.

 

It was on the way back to Montreal on February 22, 1989, that fate took a little turn. Imagine if you will, minus 40, moisture from your breath is freezing little icicles to your hair, your eyebrows, and your mustache. You get off one train in Winnipeg to connect with another, in your Michelin man coat, cowboy hat with quail feathers, acid wash jeans, and shit-kicker boots. You see this Canadian bird standing in line in front of you, and you say “G’day” in your best Aussie English. And she turns to you and thinks “What a doofus, faking an Aussie accent to impress me.”

Thankfully that first impression didn’t last.

Their conversation later on the train turned into lunch, then dinner, then a late night cuddle in the dome car, watching the train wiz through the frozen Ontario landscape, with the almost-full moon glinting off the snow. Canadian romance at its best.

After a couple of days together in Montreal, Robert returned to Sydney, Jacqueline to Winnipeg, and their long-distance courtship began. What sustained them was their mutual love of storytelling, of talking for hours on the phone, and writing pages of letters and cards. After 8 months, $2500 in phone calls, $500 in postage for letters and parcels, (keep in mind, this is before internet and Skype) Jacqueline made the trip down to Sydney to ‘see how things would work out’. Nine days after she arrived, after a magical walk around the Sydney Opera house on a moonlit night, Robert finally admitted to Jacqueline how much he loved her, and proposed.

Sadly, government is not always a friend to romance; immigration changes in Australia forced Jacqueline to return to Canada, and Robert followed soon after. They married in Winnipeg, on the 25th of August – last year was their 22nd wedding anniversary. Robert was so grateful that his beloved brother James made the trip up from Los Angeles for the wedding – and delivered a typically humourous Aussie speech, complete with special effects.

Unfortunately, their early lives together were marred by tragedy. Robert’s father, Reg, suffered the first of several strokes on the day of Rob’s departure from Sydney. Rob and Jacqueline’s first son, Christopher Matthew, born Christmas Day, was diagnosed with a heart defect immediately after birth. It tore them both to shreds when they lost Christopher at two months of age after valiant efforts by everyone to save him. They then lost Reg not long after – a second funeral in less than a year. What sustained them through the grief was their love for each other.

Jacqueline and Robert loved to be part of the community. Robert got involved with the local cricket team, the Taverners, who invited him to play his first weekend match with them on his first wedding anniversary. Jacqueline remembers he was scared to ask to go, but she was thrilled at the idea, and they celebrated with an anniversary brunch, followed by a rousing match at Assiniboine Park. Robert glowed as much with happiness as with perspiration after that first game.

Over the years, the team became very important to him – members like Chris Emery, Philip Munro-Smith, Clive Pickering, Mike Fuller, Nigel Wilcox, Clifton Ashwell, Manny Sylvester, Karl Jaikaransingh and many others were special to him. Many of these fine men were friends off the field as well as on – playing golf, socializing, and finally visiting and helping the family when Rob became ill. He was so happy to have a last game with them in Minneapolis in 2010.

Robert also loved the Down Under Club of Winnipeg. Originally they were just a bunch of the ex-pats from WWII who met for a beer; at the instigation of Sue Gel, Gordon Keatch, Rob and dozens of others, the club developed and grew and eventually sponsored the first of several Down Under pavilions for Folklorama.

Rob helped plan the food, entertainment, and cultural displays. He especially relished his role as special guest chef on the Marjorie Stevens Show, working with Clif Ashwell to fool poor Marjorie into thinking that prawns stuffed into sausage casings were witchetty grubs. To her horror, Rob sautéed them in garlic, and deep-fried them in beer batter. Rob truly loved his role as a pavilion ambassador – being treated as a VIP for two weeks was right up his alley!

He also got a great kick out of his brief radio career, doing voiceovers for the advertising campaign of Winnipeg Down Under – the zoo’s special Australian exhibit. In memoriam to Christopher, he and Jacq purchased a paving stone in the Zoo’s walkways with Chris’s name.

In 2000 and then 2002, after many years of heartbreak and struggle with infertility, Rob and Jacqueline were blessed by two marvelous kids, Peter and Southerly. Rob’s favourite times with them were taking them to the beach and to Camp Wasaga, playing silly games; putting cheezies up his nose to make them laugh, wearing Peter’s pants on his head while changing his diaper, getting into tickle fights with Southerly. He loved watching Pixar films with them, and later, sharing his love of Star Wars and Star Trek.

At age 42, Rob embarked on a new career in culinary. Jacqueline remembered how excited and nervous he was on his first day of school, at Louis Riel Arts and Tech Centre. As the classes went on, Jacqueline saw a new man blossom – he had finally found his vocation. He loved cooking – even after working in the school kitchens all day he came home and cooked five-star cuisine for his family and friends. Jacqueline blames more than a few extra pounds on his recipes.

He entered competitions, winning silver medals in Brandon and the Skills Canada competitions. Many of us benefitted from his talent. It was his proudest moment when he hosted the cricket team at a 9-course formal dinner at the school, sharing what he’d learned. Jacqueline loved every special brunch, every special dinner. His own cooking became so good that he found it difficult to eat out – few of the restaurants passed his critical eye.

It’s sad for us all that his culinary career was cut short. Jacqueline is convinced that had he started younger, we may have had Australia’s answer to Jamie Oliver here in Winnipeg. He’s passed his talent and love of fine food on to his kids, and Peter and Southerly are becoming quite accomplished junior chefs, much to Jacqueline’s delight.

Rob loved to travel – over the years he and Jacqueline made several driving trips across Canada, to Mexico, and Rob travelled to England and Minneapolis with his cricket team. But his favorite trips were always those back to Sydney, to visit his family and his friends.

He combined his love of travel with his love of photography – Rob took millions of pictures on his travels, and entered photo competitions with them. He won awards; the family and some friends have some of his remarkable pictures proudly displayed. Ironically, it was difficult for Jacqueline to find pictures of him from their early years together – he was the man behind the camera 90% of the time.

Rob loved and was loved by many of the friends he’d made here over the years – some of whom were introduced by Jacqueline, and others he met along the way. Wyn and Allan Ferguson, their children Allana and James, Laureen Lu and her partner Sheldon, her brothers John and Paul, Russell Lavitt and wife Fran Yadao, Tim and Virginia Bagshaw, the youth and folk band at St. Bernadette’s church, fellow campers at Camp Wasaga in Riding Mountain, many friends at the Down Under Club and beyond. So many, in fact, that if I named them all, we’d be here all day.

In all the emails and conversations about Rob, there are many stories and memories that will be shared here today, and in the days and weeks ahead. But on a personal note, a few comments really struck a chord with me as things I will always remember about Rob – conscientious, hard working, lovable, always fun to be around, enjoyed life to the fullest, funny, and “five star” in every way.

Those of us in the Down Under Club remember one time when we ran out of food at the ANZAC event, and Rob rescued the situation with a load of pizzas to feed everyone. And the time we all assumed he would win the Pavlova contest, being the only professional chef amongst us. Even though he placed third to two amateur chefs, he took the whole thing in stride with a laugh. I will always remember going to Pasta la Vista to sample the lasagna that was his specialty. Well done, mate. Indeed, as one of his friends said, “We are all the better for having known him.” Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy.

When someone becomes so severely ill, as Rob was, there’s a bit of loss every day… Six years ago Rob lost his ability to work, then his ability to drive. He lost most of his eyesight, then his mobility, his sense of taste, his strength. Those losses affected him very deeply, and he and Jacqueline both struggled with depression and frustration as they saw the best parts of him slip away. But he never seemed to lose his cheeky sense of humour – not “chucky” as it read in the obituary – and indeed he was still cracking jokes right to his last day.

Most of all, he loved his family. While struggling with his loss, Jacqueline received a call from their friend Judy O’Callaghan. She told Jacqueline that she’d spoken to Rob several times over the last month. Judy said, “Remember, Jacqueline, to tell them how much Rob loved you, how much Rob loved the kids. How proud he was of you and all you’d achieved, how strong you are. And how much he loved his kids.”

When they realized he was gone that horrible morning, Jacqueline told the kids, “Yes, we’ve lost Daddy, but we will always, always have his love with us. Remember that – his love for you, and yours for him, will always be right there, in your hearts.”

Rob would want us to remember the best parts of him. The kind parts, the compassionate parts. The practical joker, the irreverent humour, the sense of adventure. The little boy – for he was always just a little boy at heart. But most of all, he would want us to remember the love. 

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