|Dr. Jack Leeson
Mar. 30, 1912 - Jan. 28, 2009 Updated: Feb. 16, 2009
My father died two months prior to his 97th birthday.
At his funeral service on January 31st, a number of people in my family asked for a copy of the comments I gave at the service, so I decided to post them here. The newspaper obituary is also below. On another page are the poems read, and the song played at the service. (My eulogy is also here in WORD format)
Click photos below for larger images
"Veterinary Students Receive Awards", from the (Toronto) Evening
Telegram, May 9, 1936.
"John E. Leeson [top left], who captured the gold medal for the first proficiency award..."
At the Toronto Humane Society
Newspaper obituary notice:
John Emery "Jack" Leeson
Jack's gold medal from OVC
Wednesday afternoon, a life that began almost 97 years ago – more than two years before World War One – ended quietly. It was a life however, that those who knew him in earlier years could attest to, was often anything but quiet. Dad had a way of making his views known.
Many of the facts of his life were in the newspaper notice. He was born in rural Ontario, in the small town of Walkerton in 1912, the 2nd of four children, and only son of Emry and Florence Leeson. Leeson isn’t a common name, but you will find Leeson's spread around western and south-western Ontario. I clearly remember being taken aback once spotting a business sign near Stratford advertising “Leeson Killer Insurance”. I wasn’t at all tempted to buy life insurance there, but later learned it was a partnership between a Mr Leeson and a Mr Killer.
His father was a music teacher and church organist in the Presbyterian Church, and the family moved to Guelph when Dad was 10. It was a move that turned out to determine much of his life.
Dad was an excellent student … he was smart, and those who knew him would agree, very hard working, and driven. However, the family couldn’t afford to send him to a university which would have meant living elsewhere, and so Dad ended up going to the Ontario Veterinary College based in Guelph, but then a part of the University of Toronto. He was just as determined there, and graduated in 1936 at the top of his class. He was always very proud of being the gold medallist of his class, as are we. You can see the banner headline announcing his accomplishment in an issue of the Guelph Mercury, and photos of that medallion, which is now proudly kept by his first grandson Andy in England, who wanted to come today, but wasn’t able to.
There were two sports that I know he took part in at school, because of stories he told. One was football. He was small, but tough, even if only in attitude. He told stories about someone making fun of his bad eye, and, according to Dad, he then took it out on the other player when play started. He was also a champion in walking races. It’s a sport you don’t hear much of these days, but the one time I saw an event. Watching the athletes doing this high-paced, high-speed, walking, it seemed a sport custom made for Jack.
After graduation, he went to work in the country, treating farm animals. Dad always talked about his love of horses, and his fondness for that time. He also used to joke about being so short he needed to stand on a stool to reach whatever he needed to.
He later moved to Toronto, and became the Chief Veterinarian at the Toronto Humane Society. Even though he was in the city, he still had the opportunity to treat horses, as they were still often used as delivery animals. In those days, Dad was a tennis player, and would sometimes play tennis with a Toronto man, Murray Young. One day in 1941, Murray introduced Dad to his older sister, Eleanor. The next year, Jack and Eleanor were married. This fall would have been their 67th anniversary.
During the war, housing was scarce in Toronto, but they managed to find a flat for rent in a large house on Cluny Drive in Rosedale. The main floor was occupied by the Cuban Consulate, and Dad would talk about the cigars he used to get from the consul. (In those days, he smoked – a lot. Three packs a day… but when a doctor found something on his lung in an X-ray, he quit cold turkey).
In 1947, he and a classmate from OVC opened their own animal hospital, the Avenue Road Animal Clinic, in what was then the relatively suburban location of Avenue Rd. & Lawrence. The site now is occupied by one of the most expensive food stores in Toronto, Pusateri’s. To save money, Mum, Dad, and Anne, who was now on the scene, lived upstairs from the hospital. I joined them a few years later.
In 1955, they finally had saved the money to buy a house, and we moved to Willowdale, and the house that Mum and Dad lived in for almost 50 years.
Most children seem to love animals, and so we had more than our share because of the hospital. Dogs, cats, a few other species now and then, including one ocelot. Being the children of a vet had its attractions – and drawbacks – as all family situations do. It meant we always had ready-made summer and part-time jobs, but it also meant a job spent mainly cleaning dog and cat cages. People sometimes refer to bad jobs with a certain crude, figurative adjective. In our case it was meant literally.
One time when I was young, my friends and I discovered an injured bird. I volunteered to get my father who could look after it. I did, and he did. It was a rather quick but crushing way to learn that the only way to treat a bird with a broken wing was with a quick broken neck.
I belonged to a Cub troop, and one day they asked my father if he would come to talk to the boys about animals. I admit, I had some trepidation. I knew well that Dad could sometimes be impatient, abrupt, and was known to have a bit of a temper. Like many children in these situations, I was hoping nothing embarrassing would happen.
Before starting, he said he would answer any question, but “no stupid ones”. I think I got worried again. Somebody had brought in their pet dog as a “prop”, and before too long, Dad who was dressed in jacket and tie, was sweating either from the heat of the school gym, the struggles with the dog or the newness of the situation and I could see him tensing up.
At one point, the conversation turned to rabies, which was in the news then. He talked about how it was spread, and about the symptoms. One boy asked, “How did rabies actually get started?” “That’s a stupid question!” he answered. “Yes, that’s a stupid question”, one of the cub leaders agreed. To this day, I still wonder how rabies got started, but believe me, I never asked him after that.
But like his graduation achievements, Dad was justifiably proud of his work. He was an extraordinarily hard worker, and contrary to what seems to be the situation today, fundamentally treated animals with common sense, and never over-treated, or over-charged. (As someone with three cats, we wish we could find a vet that had a bit of that approach today).
In the late 1950’s while treating a neighbour’s dog, he discovered what was eventually identified as Canine Haemophilia B, the first evidence that it existed in dogs. A research paper from the British Journal of Haematology is here, and there was also a paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which credited him as one of the authors.
He may have entered the veterinary field through family circumstances, but he genuinely did love animals. One of his most famous pets was an injured cat that a family had brought in. They couldn’t afford the treatment, so arranged for it to be put down. He got it ready, but just before he injected the needle, the cat began licking Dad’s hand. He couldn’t continue, so said he would put it down tomorrow. Instead, he treated the broken leg, and the cat became a resident of the hospital. One day the original family came to see him saying they were now looking for a new cat. Dad went back, and brought them out their cat. He said they could have him, but had to keep its new name, “Tomorrow”.
In 1961, Dad’s partner retired, and he began to look for another vet to help out. Even then, I thought that might be a difficult task. Dad was an excellent vet, but he could be difficult to work with. There’s no doubt he was demanding, and usually expecting things done his way. Young as I was then, I couldn’t picture this working out. It didn’t. He didn’t hire anyone, and as a result he didn’t have a single day off from that time until he retired 8 years later. There was one single Sunday when he was too sick to go in, but that was it. 365 days a year, he worked, 12 hours or more during the week, a shorter day on Saturday, and half day on Sunday. (My mother started working at the hospital at the same time, and worked almost as much, although she did get Sundays off!)
Those were high-energy work days. He’d start at 7 in the morning, eat little all day except a bit of toast, and drink un-ending cups of coffee. He would go non-stop all day, rushing back and forth between treating animals, doing surgery during lunch hours, and constantly running back to the kennels, asking those of us feeding the animals, “What animal are you feeding?” “What are you feeding it?” “How was its stool?” He took the job, his responsibilities, and the animals seriously.
The day would finish with a late night dinner, sometimes at the Steak Pit restaurant up Avenue Road (which is still there), and then he was back at work again the next morning. He rarely anymore had time to play golf; he used his golf club membership mainly for occasional Sunday night dinners.
It was a highly unhealthy life style, one that would seem to be leading to a heart attack, or other quick end. Maybe that is what did him in… but it just took 40 years!
In 1969, a vet who owned some other hospitals came around and made an offer to buy the hospital. At that time, Dad was having some problems with arthritis in his hands – he had trouble shaking down a thermometer – and he surprised many by accepting the offer, and retiring.
How could someone who usually worked 70 hour weeks non-stop suddenly stop? Soon afterward, another vet who was going on vacation for two weeks, asked if Dad would look after his business. He did, and I guess the experience convinced him he had had enough, and that was the last time he worked for the next 40 years.
He was finally able to again play golf, and he did, but he said that his worklife had been too stressful for him to want to compete in any way, and so he wouldn’t keep score. He loved to relax in their back yard, and enjoy the garden. But Dad was never much of a “doer” in any kind of recreational way. In all the years growing up, we took exactly one vacation: a rushed, one-week trip to Montreal and Ottawa. Now that he was retired, things didn’t change. They took one trip to the Bahamas the year after they retired, one trip to England, a quick jaunt to the Agawa Canyon, and, other than spending a few winters in Florida, did no other travelling.
Things became harder over the years for him as he aged. Circumstances and health weakened him, and made him less independent, a situation that was tough for someone used to controlling situations, and those around him.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s he suffered a couple of seizures, and wasn’t able to drive again. As a child, he had had a case of whooping cough which had cost him the sight in his left eye, and now he began losing the sight in his other eye. Eventually, a few years ago, he and Eleanor moved in together to a nursing home. He became quite dependent on her to keep in touch with the world he knew. They were both confined to wheelchairs, but they would almost always be together; unable to see clearly, he would often reach out to pat her arm or hold her hand. However, his sight being what it was he was often known to go up to the wrong woman and hold her hand. “I’m not Eleanor, Jack!” one woman would tell him.
But Eleanor was also getting weaker. Dad couldn’t see, and she couldn’t hear. As well, she has become more confused over the years, and so the contact and communication between them has been much harder.
In the last 2 or 3 months, it was clear to us that Dad was fading; he was eating less and less; until recently he was usually still positive, happy to see people, and would converse, but that was changing. We could see that it looked like his time was near, and we knew that he himself was ready. This was very difficult to see. The last several years were a contrast to the person he used to be, but now there was very little of the old Jack left.
We got a call in the early morning hours of Monday, telling us that he had taken a bad turn. His blood pressure was extremely low, he was very weak, and in some pain and so was taken to Humber River Regional Hospital. The situation didn’t look good. His blood pressure indeed was terrible; a doctor said that he had had a small heart attack; but in his condition, even a small heart attack was serious. We didn’t expect him to live out the night.
But although there may have been little of the old Jack left, there was still some. Driven – by what we don’t know, since we had seen clear signs he had been ready to go – he kept going for another 2 ½ days. But he finally came to a quiet end at 5:10pm on Wednesday.
I know it’s always difficult in many ways to speak about someone who has just died, especially someone close. Certainly it’s almost impossible to try to sum up a life in a few words. All of our lives are complex, often contradictory, and even those close to people don’t always understand how and why others are who they are, and do what they do.
I know I have found it difficult to think of what to say about my father. Because he spent so much time working, we didn’t have the same time together that perhaps other fathers and sons do, so I don’t have a lot of memories of “doing things with Dad”. At times after work on Sunday, he’d take me down to the old Maple Leaf Stadium for a baseball game. There was one brief period where he and I would golf together, and I can say that one of the lasting things he did give me was a complete antipathy to the idea of playing golf.
But there were other things that made it difficult to some extent to get close to him. I never knew Dad’s father, Emry; he’d died before I was born, but from what I’ve heard he was a relaxed and easy-going fellow. Dad’s mother Florence was not, and so we knew who Dad took after. He had his way of doing things, and that was the way things had to be done. He had a temper, and was never reticent in showing it. I’m only bringing this up because it was so much a part of him, and so much a part of our lives. But that’s life; we are who we are, and Jack was always Jack.
It’s also one reason it was hard to see him so
dependent in the last years. There could still be very occasional
glimpses of the old Jack. If someone at the nursing home tried to
take him somewhere he didn’t want to go, he could suddenly snap back
– it was an echo of the past, and it was good to see that Jack was
still there. He would inevitably soon after smile at the person and
thank them for being so good to him. The staff truly appreciated
both Jack and Eleanor. Yesterday when I was there, one woman working
there commented that they no longer had any couples living there. I
said that I’m sure another would move in soon, but she said, “But
there won’t be another couple like them”. One by one, everyone else
in the room said the same thing. “Nobody else like them”.
|Click for larger images|
John & Jack: 1950 & 1989
NOTE: You can see what has become of Jack & Eleanor's first home. They had rented the top floor of 37 Cluny Drive in Rosedale between 1942 and 1947. That house is now occupied by Gerry Schwartz and Heather Reismann, who have expanded it to the point of tearing down two other neighbouring houses. See some recent photos here. Click the "additional images" link under the photo for more pics.
|See this page for poems & a song from the funeral service, and some other memories...|