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Jack Aldred, our hero

Jack Aldred was born Dec. 18, 1923. His 89th birthday is just around the corner, and his eyes widened at the mention of it, as it is one more year Jack has spent doing what he does best– helping others, and keeping memories.

Jack Aldred holding his Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Medal which he received this month from Peter Tabuns, MPP for Toronto-Danforth. PHOTO: Phil Lameira / Beach Metro News

He was born at home in a cosy house on Kingston Road between Waverley and Kenilworth. His father, Fred, was a tailor at Tip Top Tailors and a First World War veteran, while his mother, Florence, was a homemaker. Both his parents were from London, England.

Growing up across from Norway School, Jack and his older brother Frank spent much time “horsing around” in the school’s playground. “As soon as the summer came we’d spend our time at the school playing quoits and baseball,” he explains.

Jack recounts how he looked forward to going to the Beach Theatre so he could get his card punched. In those days, after you got your card punched a certain number of times you would win a prize.

“One time I was going down without my brother and someone yelled at me to tell me my brother had been hit by a car while riding his bike. I asked them ‘is he alright?’ and they said ‘yeah, he’s fine’, so I kept going down Waverley,” Jack chuckles. “But I let him play with the football I won for getting my card punched 14 times.”

Jack and his brother also played tackle in the backyard, even though the space was tight. “In those days we used our imagination, and made do with what we had,” he says.

His older brother was like an idol to Jack and everything he did, Jack soon followed. They both attended Norway school and then Danforth Technical and Collegiate Institute. Jack would sign up for the same courses his brother took, and would also play high school football- just as Frank did. “Everything he did, I wanted to do. He was the best. Everything we did, we kept at it. Of course we were lucky because we never moved.”

Jack will be giving his class pictures and his Norway crest to the school so they can be kept in the archives.

Jack Aldred in uniform in 1943.

In 1942, at the age of 19, Jack joined the Royal Canadian Navy, just as his brother had done. After one year of training, Jack was placed in the HMCS Prince Robert, an anti-aircraft cruiser converted from a Canadian National steamship.

“We joined it in Vancouver after it had just been refitted and we took it out. We had to test it, so we dropped depth charges and blew up salmon and then we would go out in a sea-boat and gather the salmon,” he explains. “We ate good for a while.”

Jack got married in 1943 to Marian after his training was done. His best man was Bob Smollett, who became a staff-inspector with Toronto Police Service. Jack joined the Navy with Smollett and Ray Westaway, his “best buddies.” Westaway was one of the survivors of the sinking of the HMCS Athabaskan by the Germans in 1944.

After setting off to sea, Jack recalls how “marvellous” the whole experience was. “Here we are, 18, 19 years old going into the Panama Canal and there were bars! Lots of bars everywhere,” he says with a smile. “They had seven kinds of rum, wow.”

Jack did see combat action when his ship was sent out of Plymouth to rescue a convoy that was under attack by the Germans.

“As we approached the convoy, from miles away you could see the ships on the horizon and a couple of them were in flames. We could see the black specks up in the sky – those were the German aircraft,” explains Jack. “So we opened fire. We fired all the guns for two hours. Then we went back to Plymouth.”

He says the crew had no idea what had happened and only found out when they finally got a newspaper from home that sensationalized the event with a headline of ‘The Prince Robert in a giant air-sea battle!’

“All we did was fire the guns like we did when we were practising,” says Jack with a laugh.

In 2005, Jack came across a book by Mark Milner that described the battle Jack was in. It was only then that Jack learned they had knocked down three German planes and hence stopped the attack on the convoy. “They kept things very hush-hush in those days,” he says.

That was the only time Jack was in battle in the two years of service as a twin 4-inch guns sight-setter.

He recalls the trips to Gibraltar and to Naples, where he once got so drunk at the wine bars he fell off a motorboat while getting back to the ship. “And there I was, in the calm warm waters of the Naples harbour just having a great time,” he says with a smile. “Luckily, the guys pulled me out.”

Jack also recalls the camaraderie amongst his fellow crew. “We all got along because we had to work as one. We had to stick together all the time.”

In 1945 Jack returned home and went back to John Woods Manufacturers, at Coxwell and Hanson, where he had been previously employed. In 1948 he got a job with Canada Post as a clerk. In 1950 Jack became a letter carrier and then got promoted to supervisor in 1967. After four decades with Canada Post, Jack retired in December 1987 and was awarded a plaque for his long-time service.

Asked what he did after retirement, Jack points to a wooden box in his living room. “The first thing I did was build that box. I also decorated it with all those photos,” he says, explaining the box was built to hold many of his memories.

Over the years, Jack’s collection of photos of his family, his friends from the navy, and his school years have accumulated dramatically. “When we were kids there was no TV and me and my brother would spend time looking at my mother’s photo albums,” says Jack. “I like to keep a lot of things. I have old postcards, letters, porcupine quills, tree bark, and all sorts of things that are memories to me.”

Jack hopes his collection can be used by kids at schools some day so they can learn from them. He also has an extensive collection of “good old music” on tapes. Some of his war memorabilia has already been donated to the Legion.

From 1987 on, Jack spent his time as a crossing guard at Carlaw and Mortimer, where he got to meet lots of people. He retired from his post last year. He recalls meeting the Chu family when he first started at the intersection and how they have become a second family to him. The Chus often visit him at home with some delicious home-cooked Chinese food, and Jack still delivers birthday cards to their son, who he helped cross the street over 20 years ago.

But what he will be mostly remembered for was his involvement in creating a pedestrian crosswalk on Mortimer after filing a petition with the City of Toronto. Noticing that many of the Centennial College students crossed the street and also that many parents picked up their kids from after-school programs, Jack felt the intersection would benefit from a permanent crosswalk.

His wife passed away in 1995, the same year he joined the Royal Canadian Legion Todmorden Branch 10.

Hanging on Jack’s wall are various citations and awards including a Dean’s Award from Centennial College, a Lifetime Membership Award from the Royal Canadian Legion, Crossing Guard of the Year (2005-2006) from Toronto Police Service, and a Minister of Veteran Affairs Commendation.

“All the people are so nice,” says Jack of the individuals he has met in the years of working as a crossing guard. “All the people that I have met and had a chance to get to know them.”

This past Sept. 16, Jack participated in the Terry Fox Run for the third time. He does so because his brother died from cancer two years ago. He was also treated successfully for skin cancer eight years ago. Jack raised $750 this year by “standing in [his building’s] laundry room and looking sad while asking people to donate,” he explained with a grin.

Jack is now in the process of writing a book with the stories of about a dozen veterans that he has interviewed. “We’re dying off. There’s only a few of us left, so I thought it would be great to record their stories so that we don’t forget them,” says Jack.

He hopes to sell the book and donate all the money to his legion branch which is in desperate need of a new roof.

As for the changes he has seen in his lifetime, Jack thinks that nowadays people are more self-centred.

“There seems to be a lot more people in need of help. Yet there are less people willing to give,” he says.

Jack is certainly not one of them.

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