Chapter Twelve Harold Skilling

Harold Roy Skilling was born on July 31, 1893 the eighth child of Agnes Ruxton and John Skilling. The seventh child, John Alexander had died a few days after birth in 1891. Harold was four years younger than his older brother Bill.
As he was growing up, Harold was always known as the “quick one”. He was a very alert child and as a young boy was always willing to run errands for his mother. He seemed to anticipate her needs and, for example, would be away down into the cellar to fetch the milk or cream before he was even asked to go. His snapping brown eyes were watching everywhere to see what he could do to help and when. This alertness carried on well into his later years.  Harold always supported and was kind and thoughtful to his younger siblings, Norma and Verne.
Harold had a beautiful tenor voice and when the family got together he would harmonize with them making a beautiful chorus.
Harold finished his primary and secondary schooling in Teeswater and then attended the University of Toronto ( Victoria College) as an undergraduate.
Harold’s high school sweetheart was Etta Redburn who lived with her parents and sister Myrtle on Main Street about 3 blocks from the Skilling family in Teeswater.

When war broke out, Harold enlisted in the 5th Field Ambulance Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer. He was wounded seriously in the abdomen at The Battle of the Somme, September 1916 and was sent back to England to recuperate. After his discharge from hospital, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RAF). He received his wings and completed flight training on Sopwith Camels, but the war ended just as he was ready to go on duty as a pilot. He returned to Canada in July 1919.
All the time Harold was overseas, Etta Redburn wrote to him faithfully and sent parcels. Strangely, when he returned, for some unknown reason, he didn’t want to have anything to do with her. This act was quite out of character for Harold and he never explained his actions. Harold worked for his older brother Orville delivering milk and eggs during the summer of 1919 and then in September entered the School of Dentistry with the Class of 2T3. While at school, he was Class President and Secretary, and wrote the Class Newsletter.

Harold Skilling Delivering for Orville
Toronto, 1919
 Money was very hard to come by and Harold had a difficult time paying his way through Dental College. May and Gert helped him a lot and so did Orville.
In Toronto, Harold met Eleanor MacDonald from Orillia who ran an upstairs tea room near Adelaide and Yonge Streets. Harold spent a lot of time at The Blue Gingham Tea Room while a student. After he graduated in 1923 he began his practice and he and Eleanor were married on July 15, 1925.
Harold and Eleanor had no children and by 1928 Eleanor was doing volunteer work in the community. One job was driving a woman with four children who was expecting a fifth, to the doctor’s or the hospital, wherever she needed to go. The woman’s husband was a milkman and earned a poor wage. The mother died when the baby boy was born and the father didn’t know how he was going to manage. Though filled with grief by this tragedy, eventually Harold and Eleanor were able to adopt this beautiful baby boy whom they named Donald Roy Skilling.
Don grew up to be a handsome young man and made his parents very happy and proud. He married Jean McKeown in 1950 and with her help, had a successful paint and decorating business in Hamilton. One rainy night in January 1963 when his daughter Lynn was 9, Don was driving home alone from Hamilton and crashed into an abutment, killing himself instantly. Harold and Eleanor never got over this loss. Neither did his daughter.
Harold’s career as a dentist continued to build successfully in his Bloor St. W. office. He was an honourary life member and past-president of the Academy of Dentistry, was on committees of the Canadian Dental Association and contributed to its journal. He conducted a program of preventative dentistry in East York schools.

Harold was a charter member of the Toronto Optimist club which his brother Bill had started in 1924 in Canada. He chaired every major committee, becoming President in 1936. He was actively involved with helping boys through the Optimists and got the club to sponsor a Junior Drum and Bugle Band which appeared at the CNE.
He was active in Timothy Eaton Memorial church where he sang in the choir in his undergraduate years.
Harold also did a lot of pro bono dental work for family members. David and Rosemary were sent to Uncle Harold as were all of Grace’s children. Grace has provided some details:
Around 1938 “when Ross and I were first married, Ross was having a serious dental problem and the dentist in New Toronto wanted to extract all his teeth and put in an upper and a lower plate. Ross was horrified and talked it over with Uncle Harold … (who) said that if he followed his directions to the letter, he could help him. Of course Ross did. He had him use thin elastic bands to clean his gums, like flossing teeth. Then Uncle Harold did some deep cleaning of the gums too. Years later, Uncle Harold said he would like to take Ross to the Dental College to demonstrate what could be done with a bad case of gums“.  Ross still had all his teeth in 1984 at the age of 79.
Grace continues:
“Our children all had orthodontic work done by Uncle Harold. Barry was the worst. We had a terrible time keeping those appliances in, as Barry would pry them out and throw them away. Uncle Harold persisted as no one else would have, and Barry would be a much less handsome boy if he hadn’t.
When Allen was teaching, he got into a car accident and had his front teeth knocked out. Uncle Harold nearly cried when we brought Allen in to him, as Allen was the only one of our children that had perfect teeth and hadn’t needed braces. Needless to say, Uncle Harold did a super job and Allen is very thankful.”
In 1978 Harold collapsed suddenly of a massive heart attack while shoveling snow and died in hospital three days later on January 25th.  Norma was deeply affected by his death and it inspired her to write her family story.

Chapter Eleven Bill Skilling

August 20, 1889 was the birthday of a dear little baby boy, born just two years after sister Gertrude, and five years before me. My parents named him William Milton but, until he was well into his teens, they called him Willie. He was a blond little boy with almost white hair and big brown eyes. He was a gentle child and always very good to me. He had a wonderful sense of humour, always telling jokes and, worse than that, he was a great punster. He also had a serious side and was an excellent student. When he was quite small he had rheumatic fever which I believe affected his heart. Sometimes when he fell asleep on the “lounge” in the dining room, he would waken with bad dreams and make a lot of strange noises that frightened me.
Bill was the one of all my siblings who often tried to boost my self-esteem. I remember him trying to persuade our father to enroll me in university, something not many girls aspired to around 1914. Father got quite angry because Bill was trying to tell him to do something he couldn’t afford and thought unnecessary. Bill got frustrated and started to cry. I never forgot that moment and my admiration and affection for Bill knew no bounds after that.
Bill had a lovely baritone voice and used to practice classics. He took piano lessons, as we all did. One time he had a great urge to learn to play “The Star Spangled Banner”, and was doing quite well with it but ignoring his other assigned pieces. One of our sisters told Miss Staples, our piano teacher that all he played was “The Star Spangled Banner”, so she took Bill to task for this and forbid him to play it.

Bill got his High School Matriculation with honours and enrolled at Victoria College in Toronto in the class of 1T5, meaning if all went well he would graduate in 1915. While at Vic, Bill joined a great many extra-curricular activities such as the Men’s Glee club, a select quartet, and the Drama Club. The Glee Club even toured Great Britain, which was a big deal at that time.

The friends Bill brought home were delightful fellows. Their laughter and excitement thrilled me through and through. By the time Bill graduated in 1915, the First Great War was in full swing and he was itching to enlist and “do his bit” to help. He had a suspicion that he might not pass the physical exam because of his rheumatic heart, so he employed a few tricks to confuse the medical examiners. He passed and enlisted in the Imperial Army who was looking for college graduates to train as officers. Bill took his training at Oxford where he reveled in its tradition. He came out as a Second Lieutenant and assigned to Artillery (Canadian Expeditionary Force, Royal Field Artillery) where he had to ride a horse. He was lucky he’s learned to ride on dear old Prince in Teeswater.

Bill was sent to France as a Forward Observation Officer who went ahead, made a dugout, then with a phone gave directions as to how many degrees left or right, high or low, the big guns should be swung to the gunners. He went through the bloodiest, most awful battles of the war and during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, around August 18, 1917, collapsed and was taken to hospital in England. I have a letter he wrote from there in which he describes the hospital as a “mini-paradise”. He was sent home in April 1920 with a badly damaged heart. I don’t have the space to describe the events leading to his collapse or to quote from his letter, but the letter is available to anyone who wants to read it.
Bill came home broken physically and very depressed. As a result of his condition, he was refused admission to Theological College, thus dashing his dream of becoming a Methodist Minister. He was advised neither to run, hurry upstairs, walk against the wind, up hills nor to crank a car. He was on a 100% Disability Pension from the British Government, though it wasn’t much.
Around this time a woman named Anna Maud Hallam came to Toronto to lecture on Practical Psychology. She had a lot of new ideas and after Bill took her course, his attitude really changed and he found a great deal of courage. He decided if he was at death’s door, he might as well make the most of every day he was alive. Mother worried a lot about his breaking doctor’s rules, but Bill’s motto became: “A short life, but a merry one!” He bought a big old high second-hand car and called it “Diana of the Ephesians”. I don’t remember the make and no one’s left to ask.
One day Bill saw an ad in the paper asking for someone to organize an Optimist Club of Canada. He got the job and after a great deal of effort and contacting some very important people, the Inaugural Ball for the first Optimist Club in Canada was held in Toronto on August 18, 1924. Two of the original charter members are still alive in 1980. Bill and Harold Skilling were both charter members. Later he organized several more Optimist Clubs.
In 1933 Bill went to the World’s Fair in Chicago and made a point of looking up some radio characters he’d been listening to and corresponding with. He returned to Toronto and got a chance to sing and act in several radio dramas.
Bill’s life was very full and he always wanted the rest of the family to enjoy the things he enjoyed. He worked very hard until one day he had a stroke. He was taken to Christie Street Hospital, unable to speak and quite paralyzed on his right side. He refused to allow us to treat him like a basket case. He pushed a jug saw puzzle I brought him to the floor. The first word he taught himself to say, without moving his lips, was “water” because although people would offer him food, the bedpan, or back rubs, no one ever offered him a drink. He regained his power of speech but sometimes the word he intended to say would come out wrong. Then he would laugh heartily. Eventually, he could do a lot of things; but one day, he overdid himself, and on November 7, 1933 passed away.
Bill's passing left a great blank space in our family and we all felt, as my mother did, that a part of us was gone. Bill was a truly great individual. It staggers one’s imagination to think of the good this man might have done in this world, had it not been for the war which cut down the best young men in the flower of their manhood.

Chapter Ten Gert Skilling

Mae was only 22 months when my mother gave birth to Gertrude Edna on April 14, 1887. We all called her Gert though my mother called her Gertie. She was born with the cord wrapped around her neck and nearly died at birth. She had a great many birthmarks on her legs. My mother said Gertie was the cleverest of all her nine children. She walked at seven months. She was quite small in stature and was the prettiest of the Skilling girls. She had green eyes with dark lashes and her skin was ‘peaches and cream’. She was considered a real beauty with her light brown hair that shone almost luminously.
Gert’s feet were tiny and she had a pair of highly desirable ‘Queen Quality’ shoes that I wanted so much for her to hand down to me. But even though Gertie was 9 years my senior, I soon passed her in size and alas, never could get even my big toe into her ‘Queen Quality’ shoes. She really was a little Cinderella and I often used to feel like the ugly sister with my freckles and taller stature by about age 14. I don’t think I ever bore her any ill will.
After going to Normal School, Gert came back to Teeswater to teach for a few years in a rural School called the Eighth School. She commuted the 2 ½ miles back and forth daily on a bicycle. I loved to go out there to her school for special occasions like Christmas concerts and spring picnics where I got to know a lot of her pupils. She also taught in Teeswater School in the Primary room which was a separate building, when I was in about Grade Eight (called Senior Fourth at that time).One day when we were lined up to march into our classroom, Gert came out of the big school to go to the old stone school where the primary classes were held, and one of my classmates remarked with admiration: “Isn’t she a dainty little piece, though?” I was surprised, thrilled and proud. I had always just considered her my sister and did not appreciate her beauty.

by S.Askin
Teeswater, Ont.
After teaching around Teeswater for a few years, Gert did a very courageous thing and accepted a position in Calgary, Alberta, which to me seemed like the end of the world. We looked forward to her letters wanting to read about the exciting things happening in her life. Each year at Christmas a box arrived from Gert that was the highlight of our Christmas season. Besides sending unique and very acceptable gifts for us all, she enclosed holly and pine cones and all sorts of decorative pieces. At that time presents were not wrapped in gift wrappings. Today I remember the imaginative and artistic little decorations more than I remember any of the gifts. She had a real talent for the beautiful and unusual, much more than was often appreciated at that time.

by Arthur Studio
Detroit, Mich.

She met Harvey Kavaner in Calgary and in due time they were married. To save money they were quietly married there on June 1, 1915 and came home on their honeymoon. I remember they were very lovey-dovey. Harvey was a member of the Calgary Grain Exchange and later became very successful. In honour of the occasion, my father painted the house.
Gert and Harvey had three children, Merren, born in 1916, Jean, born in 1919 and Harvey Jr., born in 1920.  They moved to Winnipeg around this time and Harvey became President of the Red River Grain Company.
In 1921 I went out to teach at River Heights School in Winnipeg at Gert’s invitation and lived with them. Merren was five, Jean was two and Harvey was one year old.  There was a year and a day between Jean and Harvey. 

Gert was very talented at interior decorating. Even when she lived at home she would make curtains and hangings with lovely stenciling. Her home was always beautiful. She taught me a lot later after I was married about how to change a room around with a few adept changes and enhance the appearance.
Gert was at least 50 years ahead of her time regarding nutrition. She could have been a doctor, so well informed was she about so many things which she put into practice. In 1924 she got grain from the milling company, did research and experimented using her little hand meat grinder, with different combinations of wheat, rye and flax until she formulated the recipe for a tasty and healthy hot porridge which she named Red River Cereal. I was happy to have a part in introducing this product in 1926 at the Toronto Exhibition. Grace and Vern and I made porridge and served it with real cream in tiny portions while explaining the healthy ingredients: wheat, rye and flax. This cereal has been on the market ever since.

Kavaner Family

Sadly, little Jean died in 1926 just before her 7th birthday, when her dressing gown caught on fire after touching the red hot element of an electric heater. This caused a great deal of grief in the family and strained relations between Gert and Harvey.
They built a very grand home at 901 Wellington Crescent and moved in 1929. In the summer of 1930, Mae, Wadd and Doris Mason and Grace Skilling drove to Winnipeg to spend 6 weeks of the summer with the Kavaners and were feted at a huge garden party there. I never saw the house but heard about it from those who had. That year the exterior and interior of the house on Wellington Crescent, was featured in Canadian Homes and Gardens.

Gert Skilling Kavaner
Alas, the crash of October 1929 had tragic effects on the fortunes of the Kavaners and they were later forced to sell their beautiful mansion.
In December 1936 Gert came home to visit our parents and arrived just a few hours after our mother’s death from pneumonia. Our father was senile and quite a problem. In fact I think this hastened our mother’s death. Gert took hold of the situation and cared for our father until his death the following July in 1937. She got some tutoring jobs and some part-time teaching at Moulton College and she ran the house where mother had roomers after we all had left.
The shock of mother’s sudden death and the pressure of caring for our father compounded the earlier trauma of her little Jean’s death from the fire. When her son Harvey left to join the war as a pilot in 1939, Gert had a stroke and a nervous breakdown. She was hospitalized and after a lingering illness died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Toronto in 1946 just a month before her grandson Craig was born to daughter Merren and George Murray. Her kindness and consideration for others knew no bounds, but her body could not stand all the pressures.  She gave so much, to so many. A clever, sensitive person to whom life dealt too many blows.