10 March 2000

Frank Woodhead
A Renaissance Man

29 August 1916 - 7 March 2000

My father was born on 29 August 1916. He had (at least) four step-brothers and seven step-sisters, as well as his own sister and brother. He never knew who his real father was.


At the age of 14, when his mother couldn't afford to pay for piano lessons for him, my father became an apprentice to a professional house painter; during the next seven years, he learned the painting trade. This included painting interiors and exteriors, laying down the gold paneling on church walls, mural painting, borders, doorways and general decorative designing. And since his boss was lame, my father was obliged to be the one to climb the ladders and do all the high work. This in spite of the fact that he was scared of heights


In 1938, at the age of 22, my father volunteered as a firefighter in the local Auxiliary Fire Service. Shortly after that, a police car came along and asked him to get in. He wondered what he'd done wrong, why they arrested him; but they told him he'd been called up for full-time firefighting service in the National Fire Service. This he did until after he married.


Shortly after his marriage to Ivy and the start of World War II, he was called into the military. He joined the Yorkshire Beach Defense Regiment. Here he enjoyed a sumptuous meal of one herring, one potato and several sliced peaches. Because of his firefighting experience, he was put in charge of the "troops", had his own little classroom and taught them rifle drill.

While stationed at Tewkesbury, the troops were mustered on the parade ground in the rain in order to meet the king and Winston Churchill. As it happened, the car containing the two important dignitaries passed by so fast, no one saw them. Someone yelled "Three Cheers!" and the troops responded with "Booo!!"

In 1942, my father sailed to India on the Empress of Canada. The trip took eight to ten weeks. The troops were crammed onto the decks of the ship, had to sleep and go to the bathroom wherever they could find space, weathered heavy storms and high waves, ate rations and suffered sickness.

My father, however, managed to spend the whole trip in the comfort of his own cabin. Once again, as was to happen so many times throughout his life, synchronicity stepped in.

As he was boarding the ship, the medical officer noted that my father had done some first aid with the firefighting service. As a result, he was conscripted into the ship's badly understaffed medical crew.

From there, my father spent nearly three years in the humid Burmese jungles tending the wounded, and seeing so many of his friends slaughtered. Yet other than a few bouts with sickness, he suffered only a shrapnel wound to the knee.

He considered himself a very fortunate man indeed to have returned.

Following the war, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a nursing orderly, and later worked as a Commissionaire at Calgary's Currie Barracks.

His memories of his military career were still sharp and clear even up till the present time. Those were times, he said, that one could never forget.


By that, I do not mean to imply that he was promiscuous. Rather, his wit, charm and singing ability garnered him the attention of a multitude of young ladies, not all of whom were necessarily "proper".

One time, upon bringing home his first serious girlfriend who wore a wide-brimmed hat with a rose, his mother took one look at the woman and instantly declared, "She's a tart -- get rid of her!"

Shortly thereafter, hoping to appease his mother, my father came home with a Salvation Army girl.

"What faith are you?" asked his mother.

"Anabaptist," replied the girl.

"Get out!" said his mother.

Eventually he met Ivy, his wife-to-be who was five years older than he. Even at the tender young age of 27, they were both still chaperoned by her overprotective father.


My father began his singing career at age 10 as a tenor in the choir of what was then known as the Christian Endeavour Party. Later, for the Bethel Evangelistic Society, he conducted open-air meetings by preaching the gospel and leading the singing. He was also instrumental in starting up Bethel Evangelistic Church.

During the early years of the war, when he was posted to different bases, he attended whatever church happened to be in the nearby village or town. While singing along in the congregation--usually singing the tenor part--his voice was noted by the young ladies in the congregation. And, as frequently happened, he ended up singing solos, or duets, or joining in with the choir, after which he went home for dinner with the vicar's daughter.

The war also brought him opportunities to sing with Vera Lynn, Gracie Fields and George Formby when they were traveling around entertaining the troops.

After the war, he spent the next 40-odd years singing in church choirs and performing solos at every available opportunity.


Following his discharge from the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1966, my father took up oil painting as a hobby. When the fumes proved unhealthy for him, he switched to pastels and eventually watercolor. He turned out to be a prolific artist, selling literally hundreds of paintings at very cheap prices. Many of these paintings could, and probably still can be seen in various offices, the Library, the Kerby Centre, the hospital and, no doubt, the homes of friends and relatives, acquaintances and admirers of his work.


In his later years, my father also began writing various articles, short stories and novels based on his experiences as a young boy in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and as a soldier during the war in both Britain and Burma. Several of these were published in various specialized publications.


Beginning in his late thirties, my father trained to become first a Cub Leader, then a Scout leader. During this time he taught hundreds of young boys and teenagers various handicraft, artistic and practical skills utilizing his pre-war and wartime experiences to add his own particular flavour to the lessons. Once he retired from scouting, he continued to teach in a similar fashion in the Christian Service Brigade for several years.


Interestingly enough, my father has always seemed to be a caregiver. As a young boy of 9, he would often have to take care of his mother when she came home drunk after singing in the pubs. He learned first aid with the firefighters, became a medical assistant during the war, was a nursing orderly at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, at the hospitals on several RCAF bases both in Canada and France, and finally spent ten years at the Calgary General Hospital. When my mother became ill, he looked after her for many years.


For the past 53 years, my father has been my dad. Not long ago, he said to me that he wished he'd been home more often to be with my sister and me when we were children. But in the last three years since my mum died, I have learned more about him, loved him more and shared with him more than I had ever done before. And those three years have more than made up for the times we missed.

I am proud of my father -- proud of the man he was, and proud of the things he did, proud of his accomplishments.

I could not ask for a better father than my father.