Twenty-seventh in a series of pioneer profiles
At 92, Johnny Oliver is Gray Creek’s oldest old-timer. But he sure doesn’t act like it.
He’s a flirt and a card and will keep you in stitches. He jokes that he’s “127 per cent disabled” even as he continues to tend to his farm and extensive gardens. He says he has “thousands of friends and no enemies, but I don’t know why,” even though it’s obvious to most.
Born into a family that arrived in Gray Creek around 1905, Oliver grew up there and in Taghum, where his father worked in a sawmill. At 21, he joined the navy and reported for stoker training. (Seven other Olivers, brothers and cousins, also served in World War II.)
He cleaned boilers for a year, then was drafted onto the HMCS Weyburn for Mediterranean service. On its way home, the ship struck a mine off Gibraltar and sank, killing eight. Despite his own injuries, Johnny carried a badly burned sailor to safety.
He was the only one of 25 stokers he enlisted with to make the rank of CPO-ERA (chief petty officer/engine room artificer).
On weekend leave in 1942, he went to London to visit his brother George, who was dating a girl named Florrie Griffin. At her house, Johnny saw a picture on the mantle of a woman who looked like Rita Hayworth.
“Who in the hell is that?” he asked.
“That’s the girl you’re going to take to the show tonight,” George replied.
“They don’t make ‘em like that in Canada,” Johnny said.
So began a romance that war and prolonged absences couldn’t abate. Johnny and Grace only saw each other a few more times before they married on April 6, 1945.
In Canada, though, things were tough for Grace. Stepping off the train in Procter, a woman told her: “We’re tired of you hussies marrying all our men!”
Her mother-in-law didn’t approve of her either, for the Olivers were Catholic and Grace was Protestant. But gradually, their relationship improved.
Johnny received his navy discharge in 1947, a year before his seven-year term was up. “I wanted to divorce the navy and hold on to Grace,” he says. “It was a good trade.”
His father bought him a neighbouring property, which they turned into a working farm, with all the necessary outbuildings and a house for a growing family. Grace and Johnny had three kids, fostered several more, and became grandparents to the entire community.
Grace was an excellent chef, but when she became wheelchair-bound, Johnny looked after the meals. “She never complained about my cooking,” he says, “as long as I kept the thermos full of tea.” (Grace died in 2008, soon after her sister, who married Johnny’s brother.)
Johnny spent 25 years with the highways department, then retired to work on his farm. Last month, he led a tour of the property, which still has cows and chickens. The hay loft in particular is a favourite for visitors.
He pointed out a gazebo he built when he was 90, and lamented that he can’t do as much as he used to, on doctors’ orders. “They won’t let me split wood or throw baled hay or anything hard. I can only work about a quarter of what I did 60 years ago,” he said.
The recent Gray Creek museum days featured an exhibit on him and his family, including some tools he made in a navy mechanician course. Spotting a picture of himself around the time of his enlistment, he exclaimed: “Tear that down! Seventy years have turned me into an old man.”
Previous installments in this series