Family patriarch, war veteran, storyteller, lifelong learner, teacher. Born April 2, 1920, in Kingston. Died Nov. 30, 2011, in Thunder Bay of old age, at 91.
Douglas Exley’s rambunctious boyhood was spent in Napanee, Ont. In the thirties, he perfected the art of build-it-yourself and homemade fun, making rafts and slingshots. Being the youngest by eight years of Walter and Ethel Exley’s five children, he was often left alone and in charge of himself, a habit that suited him.
In senior high, Doug had a keen eye for female beauty and quickly noticed Mary Margaret Raby, the dark-haired, long-legged new girl in town. They became an item while Mary trained as an RN in Kingston and Doug attended Queen’s University for a year before beginning officer’s training.
Family disapproval of anything serious between a Protestant boy with Loyalist roots and a French-Irish Catholic girl led the determined couple to wed quietly, with only a maid of honour and groomsman present, in 1942. Their first child, Mary Anne, was born in 1943 shortly after Doug shipped overseas.
Doug served as lieutenant in the 17th Field Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Italian campaign. After being wounded in the leg, he convalesced in Rome by walking the many squares and alleyways. Once recovered, he rejoined his unit to continue the war through northern Europe and the Netherlands.
His return to civilian life in 1946 had to be swift as Patricia, Ruth, John and Stephen arrived in the baby-booming forties and fifties. Doug sold insurance and worked in construction until he found his true calling as a teacher. He was excited to be offered a teaching position in Thunder Bay. Leaving familiar territory was a leap of faith, but the Exleys landed soundly and thrived.
Doug finished his degree part-time and taught high-school geography and history. Students described him as strict but entertaining. His children and students heard highly edited stories of the war. Only late in life did he allude to the most horrible truths about his experiences.
Doug and Mary taught their kids about homemade fun on picnics and camping trips. In the 1960s, they built a rustic, one-room cabin on Castor Island at Lake Shebandowan.
Mary died of cancer in 1983, and Doug lost a granddaughter in 2002. Life has a way of wearing off the sharper edges of a person, and the stern, impatient and authoritarian traits Doug’s children sometimes saw were smoothed out in time for his 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. He made them elastic guns and took them on boat trips with hand-drawn treasure maps showing where to find drill cores left by prospectors. He taught them how to hammer a nail, to skate, to drive and to strive for lasting relationships.
They’ll continue learning from Grandpa Doug by remembering the things that were important in his life.
By Ruth Walton, Doug’s daughter.
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