“I’m not crying. It’s just that my eyes are running water.”

In Improbable Mutterings on May 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm

My maternal grandfather, Donald E. Steen

The following is the eulogy written by my mother, Judy, for my grandfather, Donald E. Steen, who died on April 25, 2015. I was really touched by her portrait and wanted to share it. 

On November 11th I visited my father at his home because I knew this had always been a poignant day for him. Remembrance Day brought back memories of his recently deceased brother Warren, an un-sung war hero from the North Shore Regiment involved in the liberation of Holland, and also of his high school friends who lost their lives in the Second World War. These boys were not just casual acquaintances – they were close buddies with whom he had made elaborate plans for enlistment in the Royal Air Force. Their goal, as Dad put it, was to “take control of the skies and change the course of the war!” He hoped to set up in business with these friends when the war was over.

“I was in the Air Force for one day” my Dad used to say. “We all passed the written tests and the physicals with flying colours. But when it came to the eye exam, I failed.” Of the four young men who joined the Air Force that day, only my father was rejected. This was a source of lifelong regret for him.

My father was partially blind. He had stopped a puck with his right eye while playing hockey, as a young boy, just a few steps from his Devon home on the frozen St. John River. “I never told my parents about the pain or the difference it made in my vision. I thought they would stop me from playing hockey. I never saw a doctor and did not know the extent of my injury until I had the medical check-ups when trying to enlist. After I failed the medical for the Air Force I tried the Army and then finally the RCMP. They wanted me very badly and suggested I go to a specialist to see if the condition could be cured. When the ophthalmologist tested my eyes I memorized the chart as I read it with my good eye and then reeled off the letters with my blind eye. But the guy caught on and threw me out of his office saying that a trick like that could ruin his professional reputation. I had to give it up.”

Of the four young men who tried to enlist, only my father survived. Two bomber pilots and a navigator died in the skies over Europe. “A blessing in disguise” I said to my father. He reluctantly agreed. “But I wanted so badly to be with them”. As Dad told me this story he wiped his face with his arm. “I’m not crying” he said, “it’s just that my eyes are running water.”

This stoic attitude was typical of my father. Anyone who knew him will remember him as dogged, determined, intensely private and in complete control of his emotions. He was a stern taskmaster, but at the same time intensely loyal to those who conducted their work with integrity. He started at the lowest position with CP Rail and eventually rose to the position of Regional Manager of the Transport Division for the Maritimes. Dad’s work ethic was reflective of a different generation – a generation of employees who devoted their working life to one company; an era when companies also showed equal loyalty to their hard working employees.


My grandfather, mother, and grandmother.

At work, Dad was never afraid to stand his moral ground when he felt that issues were being handled incorrectly. When the company brought in American efficiency experts to re-structure his Maritime turf — men who did not know the geography, the logistics or the devastating effect of downsizing on the personnel, most by now well known and cherished by him — he opted, after great deliberation for early retirement. We all thought this step would be devastating for him, but it merely allowed him to start another equally successful stage of his working life.

Always a diligent bookkeeper, he devoted several hours every day to studying business reports and the stock market. As he was to say later, “I retired so I could really begin the work of making money.” And he did — through tried and true methods of investing. Rarely gambling, but always taking advantage of careful observation and meticulous record keeping, he was able to provide himself with an admirable retirement income. He held the respect of many financial advisors, and was proud of the esteem he had earned with them.

Dad had turned down a full sports scholarship to attend Mt. Allison University because, during the war years, as he said, “it didn’t seem right to accept money to go to school to play hockey and study the things I loved when men were fighting and dying overseas”. Without the benefit of a university education, he nevertheless studied economic theory on his own and was in particular a devotee of John Kenneth Galbraith. He was always encouraging us to save, to never buy anything unless you had the cash to pay for it, to shun the use of credit cards unless there was no alternative, and to keep a budget. Safe to say that neither my sister nor I were able to follow these rules successfully!

Dad deeply loved and was devoted to the needs of his wife Jacquie. During the long period of her final illness, when she was confined to a hospital bed, in isolation with tuberculosis, he visited her every day, twice a day for over a three year period. I am sure that his constancy prevented her from falling into despair under these conditions. When my mother was able, they played two-handed bridge — a diminished, but enduring reflection of a remarkable partnership. This was a couple of famed and notorious skill, which saw them take the title many times in various tournaments. Try as he did after her death, he was never to find a bridge partner of her equal.

My father was not always an easy man to love. He was a strict authoritarian. But his family always remained his unwavering top priority. Not only his immediate family, but his brother, his sister and their children, his in-laws, cousins and myriad relatives from the old Welsh settlement of Cardigan and the Royal Road.

Dad loved the comforts of his own home. He had seen just enough of the world to know that New Brunswick was a good place to be – a place where hard work and perseverance, temperance and loyalty would be rewarded not only materially but with all the respect, admiration and love, that a “good man” deserves.


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