Family man, war hero, courteous gentleman. Born on Dec. 1, 1919, in Montreal; died on Oct. 5, 2013 in Toronto, of old age, aged 93.
Paul La Prairie was born into a large, close-knit and exuberant French/Irish Catholic family. As the eldest of nine children, he took responsibility for the young ones, developing the combination of strict discipline, humour and patience that distinguished his personality. To the end of his life, he loved nothing more than having a baby in his lap, a toddler to spoil with cookies, or a child on whom to play practical jokes.
When war was declared in 1939, Paul dropped out of school to join the Irish Regiment of Canada, serving in North Africa, Italy and the Netherlands. Despite his young age, by the end of the war he was a major.
He received a Distinguished Service Order for single-handedly, peacefully, and at considerable personal risk, negotiating the surrender of a platoon of 1,300 German soldiers near Weiwerd, Netherlands. He would only talk about the war in humorous terms, and particularly loved to recount how, when the surrendering German commander asked him his rank, he replied “Boy Scout!”
After the war, Paul returned to school. He completed a mining engineering degree at the University of Toronto, where he founded the still-extant engineers’ group, the Lady Godiva Bnad, dedicated to boosting school spirit. In 1949, he led a legendary campus raid that seized the Hart House Gargoyle in retaliation for the theft of the Engineering Skule Cannon.
He continued his education at Harvard Business School. The most prized result of his time in Boston was not his MBA, but meeting the beautiful and clever Jean Silk, whom he married in 1953 and loved all his life. He missed her greatly after her early death in 1989. During his final years, he often expressed his impatience to be with her again, and requested a coffin with an “escape hatch” so he could sleep next to her once more.
Paul and Jean made their permanent home in Toronto, where he held several senior management positions; he was also a founding director of the Bloorview Children’s Hospital Foundation and president of the Construction Safety Association.
He and Jean were well known for their joie de vivre, and their parties. At one gathering, the black-and-white tiles in their gracious home were employed for a giant game of checkers, using hockey sticks to manoeuvre “pieces” made of Campbell’s soup cans. At another party, Paul’s brother Jules was delivered to him in a box as a birthday present. The festivities often ended with a rousing chorus of Alouette, a family tradition.
Although Paul loved to have fun, he was also a stickler for courtesy and formal manners. As his three children remember, family dinners were served with style and attention to etiquette, whether elaborate feasts or “piggies in a blanket” during the more difficult years.
Due to dementia, Paul’s final years were spent at Sunnybrook Veterans Residence. Always a courteous gentleman, he was full of affection and gratitude. He didn’t complain about the shrinking of his world, but found pleasure in birds, crosswords and family, including four grandchildren.
In keeping with a life well and fully lived, his funeral included military honours. At the reception, the Lady Godiva Bnad provided enthusiastic entertainment and fired the Skule Cannon in his honour. Paul’s family departed the grave site with a final chorus of Alouette, as he was at last reunited with his beloved Jean on their 60th wedding anniversary.
John La Prairie is Paul’s son.