-By Petra Wall
Don, like many Haweaters, grew up on a farm that afforded a lot of fond memories. “We created our own improvised games and, of course, we played hockey.” Don later spent over 35 years being a popular hockey coach. His canine pal Rex also played a paramount role in his early life. He was part collie and part German shepherd. “I was four when I first saw him, and we became inseparable and grew up together. He was the dog that ‘money couldn’t buy’.”
“Rex thought he was a person. Mother would make us fresh bread topped with butter and brown sugar. If Rex’s piece fell and stuck on the floor, he would refuse it. A fresh piece had to be made and handed to him, just as mine had been.” From a Manitoulin Expositor story about Rex by Elsie (aka Lou, mother of Don) on January 5, 1967, “….our youngest son, Don, four, took the new puppy, Rex, in his arms and it was love at first sight. Rex was gentle, would talk to us with low short barks, which meant ‘good dog’ and bark loudly for ‘bad dog.’ He would open doors or climb the ladder to get a ball from the eavestrough. He would corral the cows, chickens or pigs if asked, and play goalie for the boys, growling when the ball went in the net. He was much loved and lived to be 14.”
James Donald Gilbert was born on July 17, 1935 to Harry and Loudella (Lou) (nee Nevills) Cooper and was named after two great-uncles, James Cooper and Gib May. Dr. R. B. McQuay did the honours. Don had eight older siblings: Nellie, Jean, Leonard, Alverne, Max and Burt. Sadly, brother Jack died at 21, and sister Lena died of diphtheria at six.
“Dr. McQuay also took my ruptured appendix out seven years later.” Don had been sent home from the hospital a few hours earlier as no lump had been discerned in the right lower abdominal quadrant. Later that night the appendix burst, and Don was rushed back to the Mindemoya hospital where Dr. McQuay operated successfully and saved Don’s life. “I spent 15 days recovering.”
Maternal grandparents were Harrison and Nellie (nee Nevills) May. Both the Mays and Nevills were farming families. Harrison was a grandson of one of the first European families living on Manitoulin, and the oldest son of that original pioneer May family had been the first non-Native baby boy born on Manitoulin. His name was Humphrey May. “I recall that Grandfather Harrison had a foot-driven wood lathe above the garage in the 1940s. He made many items like baseball bats, spindles and cat hooks for logs.” Harrison was a kind, revered man. “Regretfully, in the mid 1940s, Grandma May took sick one Christmas Day, at our place. She was taken home and never left her bed again.”
Paternal grandparents John Perkins Cooper and his wife Elizabeth (nee Whitmore) left England with their two daughters in 1884 and arrived at Manitoulin. They bought a farm that already boasted a house and barn for $750. John’s sister had married Bob Stocks and they were already living on Manitoulin, giving John and Elizabeth more reason to come here. John and Elizabeth’s family grew to six children. “Their son Harry became my dad.”
After Elizabeth died, grandfather John came to live with Don’s family. “I remember my brothers would play a trick on mother. They liked to knock on the door and then run away. Grandfather John used to say they should be spanked for such a prank; however, a short time later, he naughtily did the same thing.” John Perkins Cooper eventually moved to Mindemoya and Harry took over his farm.
“Dad gave me a pony and I wagered him to get a bike. I knew I wouldn’t lose the pony. Dad had bet that a visiting friend would be driving a Buick and I had insisted it was a Pontiac. We had both seen the car before. He said he would buy me a bike if he was wrong, and he was. It seems the American Pontiac was bigger than the Canadian version and that had thrown dad off.”
“I used to play with neighbours Cliff and Ronnie Tan. They lived on the highway close to the Big Lake Dam. One Sunday in winter, we got the bright idea to send Ronnie to our house. We hooked the goat up to the sleigh, just ahead of Rex and put Cliff’s brother Ronnie on the sleigh. I told Rex to ‘sic the goat’ whereupon he bit the goat on the rump and the goat took off. We ran after them but couldn’t keep up. We figured we would find them all tangled up in a ditch. When we got home, the goat was tied to a post, Ronnie was still on the sleigh and Rex sat there wondering what had taken us so long.”
“Occasionally we would skip school and head to Corrigan’s Bake shop in Mindemoya. We loved those fresh rolls and would run back to school before the buses left.” Smiling, Don adds, “I got sent to the office one time, to get a talking-to, but luckily I was bigger than the teacher and the discussion wasn’t too serious.”
Don spent two years in high school, boarding with his sister Nellie. “After that I happily worked with Gordon Thomas for Manager Stan Brown at the Sandfield Fish Hatchery. Gordon was married to my sister Nellie. We had to clean the ponds and feed the trout and bass with meat we ground up. The fish would all surface in one big swell, making the water look like it was boiling. Another highlight was using the shotgun to scare away seagulls, the ones that weren’t intimidated by the scarecrow.”
“I spent three years driving the truck for Wagg’s creamery. I could stay on the farm and continue to play ball or hockey. In 1954, at 19, I got work at INCO in the Copper Cliff Smelter and started to make some serious money.” I visited Wagg’s Creamery to see a friend, Ted Taylor, after I had been at INCO for a few months. Mr. Wagg wanted me to do a job. He chuckled when he realized I wasn’t working there anymore.” Don married Karlene Green of Little Current on May 25, 1956. The couple spent four years in Sudbury while Don was at INCO. Two sons, Kevin and Brent, were born.
“The INCO ball team had heard I played against well-known Island players Murray McDermid of Providence Bay and Ken McKenzie of Gore Bay, so they assumed I was at the same level. I politely declined and played fastball instead. I coached the Bing Street Playground team at the Pee Wee level after having been recommended by friend Dennis Taylor, who knew Alec La Roche, chair of the organization. I was honored to have been asked.”
“The Bing Street Playground Hockey Team made it to fourth place overall, on the outdoor rink. The soft ice gave us a forfeit for a final game getting us into the playoffs. We had to beat the Kingsway team, the best in the league. I decided to stay out of the dressing room that day and let the boys cheer each other on. A Sudbury reporter arrived to take a photo of the anticipated winning team, Kingsway. He had some extra time so took a photo of our boys too. He was lucky he did, because our boys won the Northern Ontario Championship that year.” Other teams Don coached included Copper Cliff. They made it to the finals for All Ontario but lost to Noranda 10-8 and to the Manitoulin Midget team.
When INCO went on strike in 1958, Don and his bride moved back to the Island, staying with his parents for one winter and moving to Silver Bay in the spring. “Although I played for Mindemoya, Manitowaning and Little Current, at that time, I was a better hockey coach than I was a player.” In the 1960s, Don was coaching The Manitoulin Islanders’ Jr. B team. “We were in the same division as the Sudbury Cubs, the Levac Huskies, the Capreol Hawks and the Espanola Eagles.” His Manitoulin Legion Midgets won the Northern Ontario Championship in the 1960s.
Don also coached the Little Current minor hockey team to the finals. Don McCulloch was one of the players. “I recall one game in Temiskaming where they put us next to the furnace, insisting the windows stay shut. The boys were very hot. On the ice, we got penalties for little things and lost, despite being well-ahead at one point. It sounds like sour grapes, but I felt it was very poor sportsmanship on their behalf.”
Don was on the Manitoulin School Board for six years and he was still involved with coaching hockey in the 1970s. “We had a team of ex-players called the 35ers. You had to be over 35 to play. Eventually, we became the over 45ers and so on. I played my last game at about age 65.” Don McCulloch and Wendell Buie were on the team. I recall Wendell liked chicken wings. When we went to the Walden Trade Winds Hotel in Lively you could order six pizzas and get six pounds of chicken wings free. Wendell always got there first and the rest of us never saw the chicken wings.”
“I drove the White Rose gas truck for Morley Tracy for six years. I recall one time getting stuck in a snow storm at the bottom of the Allen Line Hill on the other side of Kagawong. There were four of us sitting there and it took a long time to get up the hill. Another incident, when I was driving my own Texaco truck, could have been serious. The starter-bendex that initiated the engine had died and we couldn’t get the part right away, but deliveries had to be made. I cut a hole in the floor by the gear shift and used a stick to negotiate the starter. An ice storm was making visibility poor. I was doing fine until I got to the big hill going north out of West Bay.
“The full 3,600-gallon, 15-gear Road Ranger truck stalled going up the hill and I started to roll backwards towards traffic behind me. I tried to keep it straight until the air brakes gave out, but at one point the Texaco emblem on my truck, was right beside me. I furiously rotated the gearshift, gearing down and popped the clutch until I got it started again, then limped up the hill slowly. The Lord had saved me.” When Don got to the top of the hill, he stopped and Jack Marshall, who had been right behind him, got out and ran over to his window, “Were you as scared as I was?” It had been a close call indeed.
“In 1973, our family bought two farms in the Rowe Settlement near Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK). It included the big plank barn close to the road. It also came with Laddie, a dog who took a nip from my hand, so I wasn’t sure we wanted to keep Laddie, but we decided to give him another chance. This barn dog started sneaking quietly into the porch. If you looked at him, he would crouch down and avert his eyes. Next, he started to sleep in the porch. Eventually, he snuck into the house, crouched low, eyes averted so he couldn’t be seen. He would lay at our feet in the house but always returned to the porch to sleep.”
“We stayed on our Manitoulin farm until 1986 when health issues arose. The farm was sold to neighbouring AOK and we moved to Little Current.” Don was doing maintenance at the Manor. In 1987, Don, Karlene and sisters Alverne and Nellie flew out west to see son Kevin and his wife Pam, as well as nephews and nieces. “In Calgary we rented a car to go to Delhia, Alberta, near the Badlands. You could see for five miles in all directions. While out there, we gladly helped load the last of the oat crop into a grain elevator.”
In 1982 Don went back to school to train as a health care aide and began to work at the Manitoulin Centennial Manor. “You become attached to the residents; after seeing them daily, they become family and I liked the work a lot.” Don took off three months for an esophageal hernia in 1988. “I was warmed by all the queries about my absence and then about my health. It was very rewarding to know that I was missed. In 1995 both Karlene and I retired, she from being a teller at BMO and I from my work at the Manor. We had a trailer in Stanley Park where our six grandchildren loved to visit and swim.”
“I drove Carl Brown’s handicap bus for five children in the Gore Bay area. Kevin, our oldest son, was living in Guelph where he helped people with handicaps find jobs. Sadly, he experienced a brain bleed and was admitted to the hospital in Hamilton. We sat with him for four days, talking to him but in the end he died, leaving wife, Pam and two children, Kyle and Emily.”
“In July of 1995, we moved to Elliot Lake and rented a house with a one-year lease. Five cats had lived there before us and allergies forced us to move. Shortly thereafter we bought a duplex and became homeowners again.” Don drove the school bus daily. On Wednesdays, he delivered newspapers to the post office in Elliot Lake. His son Brent was a reporter for the Elliot Lake Standard at the time.
There was a short entrepreneurial pursuit in 1991, where Don and a partner applied for a government grant to make cedar oil from two tons of cedar boughs at a time, using high pressure and a distillation process. The oil could be used in products like Vick’s Vaporub and various perfumes. “Unfortunately, my partner skipped town with much of the money and I was left holding the equipment which had to be sold and the money returned to the government.”
In 2003, Karlene developed serious health issues. She was dealing with mini-strokes, a painful back and she started falling a lot. “In 2009, after numerous trips to the doctor and a brace for broken vertebrae, we found out she had ALS. We moved to Espanola in 2003 to be closer to Sudbury.” Don began driving the school bus for Espanola’s Veterans Bus Lines.
Sadly, by 2011, Karlene couldn’t walk or talk anymore. She could still communicate by writing. “With my experience at the Manor, I could care for her at home with the help of the Community Care Access Centre (CCAC). She had a feeding tube and needed a lot of assistance. After six months, we had to concede and take her to the nursing home where, sadly, she passed away a short while later.”
Gert and Rodney Aelick had been friends with Don and Karlene since the 1970s. Rodney and Karlene had been second cousins. Rodney died, and Gert was left alone. “I was on the board for the Grace Bible Church, in Little Current, and Gert played the keyboard for Sunday Services.” In time, Don and Gert began to date and on April 14, 2012 they were wed in their church. The reception was at the Sheguiandah Seniors’ Hall. The couple honeymooned in Sudbury, southern Ontario and spent a month in Florida.
“Special memories are woven into our time with our beloved children and grandchildren. Son Kevin had two children. Kyle is a welder and is also apprenticing as a diesel mechanic. Emily, the artist, lives at home. Son Brent manages the sports reporting for four papers in the Muskoka area, and he has four children, including a set of twins. Alannah is a nurse in Elliot Lake and Brendon works at the Oakes Centre. Morgan and Holly are still in school. Between us we have quite a few offspring.”
“My favourite book? Anything by Louis L’Amour. My strengths? I have always admired the skill of negotiation and hope I have used it to good effects in the past. I like to think I am fair to people, and kind. I believe my legacy as a coach was positive and most of all, I like to think of my self as a good husband, father and grandfather. I am very happy as I am. Fears? Heights and driving in the city. I have no regrets apart from not staying in school longer perhaps and working underground at INCO.”
“Gert and I are looking forward to a much-anticipated trip to Israel in May. We are touring with a group and we must stay healthy so we can travel with our son and daughter-in-law. After so many years of learning about the land where Jesus walked, the Wailing Wall, the River Jordan and the Dead Sea, we are excited about being there ourselves.”
“We are trying to live a Christian lifestyle and be a light for Christ. My grandmother always said, ‘Don’t judge people until you have walked in their moccasins.’ When I die I want a gravestone with more than dates—a little history should be there too. My favourite hymn? I admire ‘How Great Thou Art’.” A family reunion for the relatives on dad’s side is scheduled for August 18, 2018 at the Mindemoya Community Centre.
“Manitoulin is the best place. I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else. It’s home. I was born a Haweater and I will always be one. The pace is slower, we have lots of friends and family. If you drive to Sudbury, it’s not bumper to bumper. Our stores here are not usually crowded, and you aren’t rushed,” Don concludes. “Generally, I say, ‘treat everyone the way you want to be treated and you can’t go wrong.’ That means give love if you want love. We all have to put some effort into peace and harmony; it isn’t going to fall in our laps. This Island home is a great place to start.”