Anchor of our neighbourhood passes away

Ron Rivait is left at the top of the porch. I am seated on the top step.

This photo from years ago gives a glimpse of the neighbourhood where I spent my formative years as a child.

Sarnia’s Brock Street was a block full of kids so we had plenty of participants for games, hide-and-seek, the odd prank and secret clubs.

The doors were always open in the neighbourhood to all, as seen here, and we would come and go from each other’s homes often.

In my mind, our neighbourhood had 11 months of summer and a month of winter. It was kind of a special place.

My memories are full of those endless summer days, most of which were spent in the Rivait family’s backyard pool.

We couldn’t get enough pool time and all the kids filled it constantly. Bless the Rivaits for putting up with all of us.

Ron Rivait was the middle boy of the family. He and I hung out in the neighbourhood, were in the same class at school each year and became altar servers at our church.

When Ron received the news that he had terminal cancer, he bravely faced it, providing a lesson in courage.

We had planned a Brock Street reunion two weeks ago here in Sarnia and Ron was looking forward to it, but he became too sick to attend. Our friend from the neighbourhood, musician and singer Sean Hogan, was performing.

We raised a toast to Ron at our reunion and the whole bar joined in. When I sent an email to Cheryl about this, she replied back that my message brought a smile to Ron’s face.

It’s the least we could do as Ron brought so many smiles to ours.

Ron lived in the same house on Brock Street his whole life.

He was an anchor for us.

The rest of us eventually all moved away, but knowing Ron was still there somehow kept us moored. It was a comforting thought to know we could drive through the old neighbourhood again and Ron would still be there.

It meant that maybe some things never do change.

You really can go home again and see the same little boy with the easy smile and good nature in the same two-storey white house with the big front porch from your childhood.

The same boy who would wear bubble gum lip gloss because our teacher wouldn’t let us chew gum in class. He found a way to outsmart her. (When Ron became sick our classmate Sharon took some bubble gum lip gloss to his home.)

The same boy who was game for any challenge and could be mischievous in the best sense of the word.

The boy who always protected his little brother.

The boy who loved lacrosse.

The boy who played superheroes with my brother.

And the boy who grew up to be a superhero in his community: a union leader, who fought for the rights of others and aided my stepmother in her time of need; a manager with Sarnia Ice Hawks sledge hockey; a volunteer with the Heart and Stroke Foundation and other organizations.

This past May he was involved in a community forum for student mental wellness and a couple of years ago he raised awareness about the issue of racism in elementary schools.

Last Monday all the schools in the Lambton Kent district lowered their flags to half in memory of Ron. That’s how highly respected he was.

Two years ago, when we had our first Brock Street Gang reunion, I remember thinking maybe this is what heaven is like – seeing people you haven’t seen for years and being so joyful in their presence.

I hope Ron is in that joyful place right now. He certainly deserves it.

I have this picture of he and I from one of our reunions that I’ll always treasure.

I can still see that little boy in his face and I can’t wait to see Ron’s face again someday.



Ron and I all grown up,

Saying good-bye to Branks

Don Brankley

Many people in the junior hockey world will be in London Tuesday to pay their respects to a beloved trainer.

Don (Branks) Brankley spent nearly 40 years with the London Knights organization and they will honour him with a celebration of his life at 6 p.m.

Branks, who passed away last month at the age of 69,  was a colourful character. During out of town games, he would be heckled by the opponent’s fans. Loving every minute of it, Branks would do what he could to rile them up.

He slept at the arenas where he worked – Treasure Island  Gardens, which became the Ice House, and then at the downtown arena, now called Budweiser Gardens.

I remember going to talk to Don one day in the bowels of the arena. He was busy washing the team’s uniforms and players were hanging around him then, as always. He told me the players were his life.

He had a special relationship with them, for sure. He said that they told him things they would never tell a coach.

Former Knights would always have to stop in and see Branks if they were in town. I once missed an interview with Hall of Famer Brendan Shanahan, because he wanted to go see Don. Shanahan will get one last time to honour his mentor when he speaks at his celebration of life.

The last time I saw Branks was at the 2014 Memorial Cup in London. After retiring in 2008 and moving north to Capreol, he came back to see his boys.

I wrote a blog for CTV London about the man who held the respect of generations of players. You can read it here:

One thing that stood out that day in May was how happy he was to be “home.

He enjoyed talking to everyone he came across, whether he knew the person or not. And at the Memorial Cup there were many who wanted to bend his ear. Branks loved every minute of it. I think this quote he gave me sums up Branks so well: “I’m a great believer that if someone wants to acknowledge you as a person, you have a duty to stop and chat with them and make them feel as special as they’ve made you feel.”

We will miss you Branks, until we meet again.

Trying to fulfill a promise to a grieving father

A lot of calls come into the newsroom in a day.
Some of the calls are from people who just want to talk.
Others are from people who need a lawyer, doctor, MP or MPP or an advocate.
From time to time, grieving people will call looking for a way to honour a loved one or who are hoping to find a way to ensure that person didn’t die in vain.
Such was the case a couple of weeks ago when a man from St. Thomas called with a message.
His daughter had died of an overdose and there was an investigation underway.
It was his only child and you could hear the pain in his voice. She had four children.
He wanted to warn other parents about what could happen to their kids. He also wanted to help his ex-wife, now looking after her four grandchildren.
This man said his daughter was in a drug rehabilitation centre and her boyfriend had taken her out. She was trying to get clean, he said.
I confirmed with police that yes, this woman had died and there was an investigation.
The man had recorded a video message in the hopes of warning other people about what could happen to their children too.
It’s always busy in the newsroom and I didn’t think we would do anything with this video. After all, police, health officials, politicians have all been speaking about this issue lately as the addiction scourge in society continues to claim lives. We have talked to addicts, to their families.
So I told him I would get back to him. He asked me if I would promise. He sounded so desperate to get his message out, so much in need of someone who would listen and care and help.
So I promised.
I phoned him back in a couple of days and I was shocked at what his roommate told me.
The roommate had found him on the floor when he returned home.
He said the man had some health problems and that he was unconscious but alive. He phoned 911 but when paramedics arrived, he was lifeless. He was pronounced dead.
I felt so sad that his family now has two deaths to deal with. He wasn’t able to deliver the message he wanted. He’ll never know that I kept my promise and called back.
All I can do now is try and speak for him. Try to tell people of the pain and suffering caused by drug addiction and the dangers associated with taking drugs.
Let them know that four kids are without a mother and grandfather now.
Ask for more resources to help those struggling with addiction. Write about the importance of supervised injection sites.
Say good-bye to the voice on the other end of the phone.

My Writing Portfolio

RCA Museum

Londoner arranges to get In Flanders Fields poet on battlefield

Man smashes car window with rock to save overheated dog

Senior feels safer at home than in hospital

Trainer’s brightest moment came in the dark of night

Hockey player makes extraordinary rise through figure skating ranks

Multi-media series to mark the start of the First World War

Torino Olympics portfolio

Cyclist collides with train and survives

Miami at top of its game

Death of Charley Fox: War veteran fought Rommel

Letters remind us of pain of war

Allen Olimer
Allen Olimer

I have just received a great gift from a man related to the Olimer side of our family by marriage.

Thanks to Clark Hooten, I have precious letters my uncle Allen Olimer sent home from the front lines during World War II.

He was killed in August, 1944.

There is also a letter from Allen’s sister-in-law Violet, writing to let her family members know of his death. It is truly heartbreaking.

In reading the letters, I wonder if we have really learned anything about the horror of war?

The rhetoric from politicians and other world leaders leaves little doubt that the two world wars are fading from collective memory and the generations that fought in these wars can no longer convey the pain.

We must remind our leaders, every chance we get, that going to war is not an option.

From my great-aunt Vi to relatives in Bracebridge Ont.: “We just had some terrible news. Allen was killed in action Aug. 8. Further information when they have it. It is almost too much to bear. I would have phoned only I did not want to upset mother. Well there is not anything to say or do. Love Violet.”