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Wednesday January 9, 2013

James McNiece Austin

Lumberman, volunteer, great-grandfather. Born July 18, 1924, in Chapleau, Ont., died Nov. 2, 2012, in Sudbury, Ont., of pancreatic cancer, aged 88.

"Allo Papa!" "Allo bébé!" In the last two years, that was how conversations between me at home in British Columbia and my father in his suite in a seniors' residence in Sudbury began.

Why we spoke French I don't know, but my father had taught my sister and me some rudimentary phrases when we grew up in Chapleau, a small railway town smack in the middle of Northern Ontario.

Tarte aux pommes avec fromage was his favourite dessert, and "tout de suite" was what he said as he headed out the door, off to the bush. I thought it meant goodbye but I'm sure he was thinking more of "see you soon!"

Jim was the eldest of four sons of Allan McNiece Austin, a lumber executive, and his English war bride, Alice Dickinson. The brothers all grew up in Chapleau and spent their summers at Dalton, one of the Austin Lumber Company mills, not far down the CPR tracks.

As the largest supplier of railway ties in the British Empire at one point, the business started by Jim's grandfather needed all hands on deck. He was "immersed in sawdust" from a young age.

In 1939, with a new baby brother at home and the prospect of boarding school in Southern Ontario in the fall, Jim went to Sudbury to learn to fly. His uncles Chuck and Jack had started Austin Airways, a bush airline that grew and grew (and later became part of Porter Airlines).

Jim loved flying, and in 1942 was keen to join the RCAF. His father, having experienced the trenches in the First World War, persuaded him to take at least one year of university, probably hoping the war would end soon.

In the first week of classes at Victoria College, Jim met Rosamond Mills, a Toronto girl who probably never dreamed of becoming a "wilderness wife." His diary from that year reports that he heard concerts by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Duke Ellington, but makes no mention of classes.

From 1943 to 1945, he served in the RCAF, training in Southern Ontario before being shipped to England and becoming part of Squadron 429 (Bison), Bomber Command. He did drop "window" from a Lancaster Bomber, but his only real action was a fight with a member of the Free French in Betty's Bar in York.

Within weeks of Jim's return home, his father died suddenly at the age of 49. Jim married Ros and went to work for the family business. Ros died in 1948, after less than 10 months of marriage, of toxemia while giving birth to twins Elizabeth and Rosamond.

Jim stayed in the industry until 1988, moving to Espanola, Timmins, Nairn Centre and finally Sudbury. He remarried, but it did not last. His life in Sudbury revolved around his volunteer commitments with the Lions Club, Meals on Wheels, Memorial Hospital and St. Peter's United Church, where he was known as the "candy man" for the Werthers he handed out before services. His church family rallied around when he moved into a hospice this past September.

Although his ashes were interred in Toronto, a part of Jim will always be in Northern Ontario, under our favourite birches on the shores of Lake Ramsey. Tout de suite, Papa!

Elizabeth Austin is Jim's daughter.

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