Lest we forget

John Kenneth Macalister was born in Guelph in 1914 and attended Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute where he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford and the Institute of Corporate Law in Paris. When the Second World War broke out he tried to enlist but his eyesight was too weak so he joined the Special Operations Executive, a British intelligence agency.

Macalister and another Canadian, Frank Pickersgill, parachuted into France in 1943 to help organize the resistance movement but were captured almost immediately by the Gestapo. The two were treated as spies, imprisoned and tortured, and in 1944 were sent to Buchenwald where they died terrible deaths, hung on meathooks.

I grew up two doors from Macalister’s parents, Celestine and Alex. Like Kenneth, I was an only child, born in the year he died. Celestine liked me and would regularly invite me in for visits when I was a lad of ten or twelve. We’d sip tea from bone china cups as we sat in her drapery-darkened front parlour decorated in the Victorian style with every surface covered in knick-knacks. Alex was editor of the Guelph Mercury for years. I don’t think he and I ever spoke. He’d come home from work and hoe alone in his vegetable garden until sundown. He seemed a broken man.

Celestine gave me three books that had belonged to her beloved Kenneth: Northern Trails, by William Joseph Long, Red Fox by Charles G. D. Roberts, and Tom Swift and His Big Tunnel by Victor Appleton. The first two are inscribed to Kenneth, one as a Christmas gift. She also gave me a walnut document box with her husband’s name on a small brass plaque attached to the top.

I have treasured these keepsakes for decades but I decided, with Remembrance Day coming, I should share these treasures with others. Today I visited GCVI – where Macalister is a member of the Wall of Fame along with other illustrious Guelphites like George Drew, Edward Johnson and Joey Slinger – and donated everything to the school archives. Walking those halls for the first time in fifty years was a chilling experience. Time has flown by so quickly. But I have been able to have my life and my freedom because of Canadians like Kenneth Macalister and soldiers from many other nations who fought with bravery for those of us yet to come. For that, I give thanks.

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