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V-E Day in Winnipeg

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

For a young sailor with a zest for adventure, Ross Stephen couldn't have been much farther from the action than he was on V-E Day.

While his colleagues celebrated aboard ships across the Atlantic, Mr. Stephen was stuck in Canada's landlocked centre, inside a building named after a boat: the HMCS Chippawa naval reserve facility in Winnipeg.

Still, it was no small feat, considering he was a few weeks shy of 18, the minimum age for military service, when a camera caught him whooping it up with his navy pals.

Mr. Stephen, who rarely met a chance he wouldn't take, was not about to let such a trifling matter as age shut him out of the excitement of the times.

“My dad was not a person who liked to be told what to do,” says Jane Matthews, 53, who spotted her late father's boyish smile in the photo when it appeared in Focus in February. It was only by chance that Ms. Matthews saw the newspaper that day, the only Saturday of the winter that she spent at home in Mississauga.

“It's led me on a journey of discovery that I never expected,” she says.

That journey took her down to the basement, into a trunk she inherited after her father died in 1985. There, she found his navy report card, and an officer's prescient description of him, handwritten in blue ink.

“Certainly an individualist,” the officer wrote. “Can do good work when placed under proper supervision, but left to his own devices, will do nothing except a job he likes . . .”

An only child, Mr. Stephen was raised in a strict Scottish household in east-end Hamilton. Ms. Matthews suspects that the navy was “a means to escape that kind of structure.”

He returned to the city after the war and married Gwendolyn Flett in 1949, but “he never had a sit-behind-a-desk office job.” He worked as a deliveryman, then as a real-estate scout for Texaco, roaming Southern Ontario in search of good sites for gas stations.

The couple and their two children moved to the fruit-belt town of Grimsby, on Lake Ontario, where Mr. Stephen indulged his twin loves of boating and fishing from a vessel he built himself.

Every summer, he took the family to Ocean City, N.J., a favourite among their many U.S. vacation spots. During downtime back home, he could be found in the kitchen making preserves from fresh local fruit, or onstage at his daughter's high school, hamming it up as Tiny Tim on talent night.

When Texaco wanted him to move to Mississauga in 1970, he quit and leaped into land development, a decision that cost him dearly a decade later, when the economy tanked and interest rates soared.

Looking back, his daughter chalks it up to the same headstrong spirit that led him to the navy. “He had vision and a quick mind,” Ms. Matthews says, “but he didn't have the tools, the schooling and learning, to make it all work.”

Mr. Stephen's fortunes were on the way to recovery, and he was settling nicely into grandfatherhood, when a stomach aneurysm took him suddenly, in his sleep, in 1985.

Ms. Matthews last saw him a day earlier, on an outing to the Metro Toronto Zoo with her two young children. “We had the most wonderful afternoon,” she says, though to her regret, she left her camera at home.

Still, she can't help but smile at the V-E Day photo, which amply reflects the man she knew.

“He would be the life of the party,” Ms. Matthews says. “I mean, there he is, right in the centre of that picture.”

— Anthony Reinhart

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