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Michael Stevenson: a life of service in 42 countries — and Leaside

Michael Stevenson with Col. Hon. Robert Rutherford. Photo courtesy of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

Michael Stevenson (back) with Col. Hon. Robert Rutherford (front). Photo courtesy of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

It was almost inevitable that Michael Stevenson would one day become a regular volunteer at the Sunnybrook Veterans Centre, once he had retired.

“When I chose a military career it was with the aim of serving the community and serving my country,” says the 86-year old Macnaughton Rd. resident. “I was very lucky to get into Sandhurst and get a good start. On retirement, it became a natural thing to work at Sunnybrook to help the veterans. And, of course, there was the St. Cuthbert’s connection, so I had an entrée.”

That connection was the fact that in the 1960s when Michael and his family came to Canada, settled in Leaside, and began attending St. Cuthbert’s Anglican, members from that church were already responsible, one Sunday a month, for escorting Sunnybrook residents to chapel services. Michael volunteered to help.

But that wasn’t the only connection between St. Cuthbert’s and Sunnybrook. K-wing, where the more mobile resident veterans live, is actually Kilgour Wing, named for Joseph and Alice Kilgour, the one-time owners of Sunnybrook Farm, who had also been members at St. Cuthbert’s and were generous benefactors of both the church and hospital.

Michael served 20 years in the British Army before coming to Canada in 1967.

Born in the village of Horsforth, Yorkshire, in 1930, he finished high school in 1948, passed the civil service exam, was accepted for officer training in the army and enrolled at Sandhurst. During his career, he served in 42 countries, and has a stock of stories from each one.

“After graduation I was sent to join the regiment in Austria, which was still under Allied occupation after the war. Then two and a half years in the jungle fighting the ‘Communist terrorists’ during the Malayan Emergency. Then home to carry the regimental colours in the Parade before the Queen’s Coronation at Westminster Abbey – a great honour. We were in Northern Ireland for a year, then to Egypt.” The list gives a hint of Michael’s peripatetic lifestyle during the ’50s.

“After the Suez Campaign I was posted to the Leeds Rifles, and so I came back to England tanned and healthy,” he laughs. It was then that he was introduced to Judy Obank, from Bradford, also in Yorkshire. “We went on a blind date and got on like a house on fire! We had to move quickly,” Michael says, “I didn’t know where I’d be posted next.”

The two married in 1957, and their first son Simon was born in Leeds a year later. Then, when Simon was just four months old, Michael was posted to Nigeria. “It was still known at the time as ‘the white man’s grave,’ says Michael.

“My parents were horrified!” Judy says with a laugh. “But once we got there, everyone was so nice. I didn’t worry.”

“We thrived there,” adds Michael. But there was one memorable incident.

“We were driving through the jungle; I had Simon in my arms,” Judy recalls. “And suddenly, we ran over a python so long that both ends flipped up on either side of the jeep!” Rather than make a quick exit, the local driver jumped out to make sure the snake was dead and to collect the meat.

Their second son Guy was born in the Channel Islands in 1960, and then Michael was posted to Kenya. While there, he travelled around Africa and was witness to profound political changes. “The British Empire was folding up at the time. Our job was to meet the locals and hand it over to them – with properly trained armed forces.”

He met Jomo Kenyata, Moammar Gadhafi, King Idris of Libya (until the coup), and a future president of Nigeria, “who taught Judy to drive.”

In 1961, Judy was injured in a bomb attack in Aden, Yemen. “She took the full brunt of the blast,” says Michael, “and has had back problems ever since. She never really recovered from it. Unfortunately, her father read about it in the newspaper.”

In 1966, Michael visited Canada with his regimental band as part of a trade promotion. He had been thinking of emigrating and had previously met the commander of the Queen’s York Rangers, which was allied to Michael’s own regiment. When Michael visited the commander in Toronto, he offered to help. “I was offered a job as Director of Administration at Crown Life and decided I wanted to take it. I went home and talked it over with Judy. I resigned my commission, we came to Canada and bought a bungalow on Moore Avenue east of Bayview.” That was 1967.

“Canon Wright dropped in on us while we were still surrounded by boxes, and we’ve been actively involved at St Cuthbert’s ever since. We received a very warm three-fold welcome – regiment, school and church.”

There were adjustments, of course. “On the first day of school we sent Simon to Rolph Road wearing grey woolen trousers and jacket, white shirt and private school tie. We had to rush out and buy denims!”

The family moved to Macnaughton Road two years later, and a third son, Marcus, was born. Michael stayed with Crown Life Insurance until the company moved to Regina. He retired briefly, then joined Atomic Energy of Canada for six years before retiring for good.

For the past 20 years Michael has usually been at Sunnybrook twice a week. On Friday afternoons, he escorts residents to their various programs and appointments. On Wednesday afternoons, he’s been known to lead a choir that sings to entertain the veterans. “They enjoy it,” says Michael. “Sometimes 300 participate. But the old people doing it are dying off – the organist and pianist both died. We’re trying to find more volunteers to get it going again because we know they’ve been missing it. We’ll get it going again in November.”

“Michael’s singalong group is very popular,” says Anna Olsen, coordinator of volunteer resources at the Centre. “And music is great therapy. The old songs trigger memories in the residents – often their memories of events from long ago remain intact. These therapies help stimulate the brain, keep them active and improve their quality of life.”

Olsen adds, “Michael is wonderful at promoting the Veterans Centre and the need for volunteers of all ages. I don’t know what we’d do without our volunteers.”

One resident with whom Michael has developed a close friendship over the years is Col. Hon. Robert Rutherford, who will be 96 in November. “He was a senior judge at one time. Most of his friends have died, his children both live far away, and his health has been declining. When the weather is nice, I walk him in the garden behind K-wing. One beautiful day recently he said, ‘Michael, it’s good to be alive!’ It was very moving. Makes all this volunteer work worthwhile.”

On November 11th, as he does every year, Michael will escort Col. Rutherford to the Remembrance Day service in the Veterans Centre at Sunnybrook. Although the service itself is for the residents and invited guests only, since space is severely limited, there is a public wreath laying outside afterwards at the cenotaph along Bayview Avenue to which everyone is invited.