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Neil Currie
Neil Currie

Lives Lived: Neil Lawrence Currie, 85 Add to ...

Writer, photographer, inventor, trade commissioner. Born on Feb. 28, 1928, in Turtleford, Sask.; died on Dec. 27, 2013, in Toronto of congestive heart failure, aged 85.

Neil Currie was born in 1928 in Turtleford, Sask., the youngest of four children, and spent his early years in a one-room log cabin. His mother, Hilda, was a Finnish immigrant; his father, Lawrence, was of Scottish ancestry and ran the small town’s power house. Neil’s prairie upbringing instilled the values of hard work, frugality, honesty, self-reliance and resourcefulness that stayed with him throughout his life.

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After high school he headed to Toronto, with a bit of money earned from driving a harvest horse team. He got a job driving a delivery truck for Eaton’s department store and then headed to London, with a goal of attending the University of Western Ontario. He worked as a cub reporter and photographer for The London Free Press for a couple of years, saving enough to pay for tuition. By the time he began studying political science and economics, he had his own column, working alongside a young Morley Safer.

Neil was in the Naval Reserve when he met Margaret Samuel in 1956. They married a year later, just after he was accepted into the Canadian Foreign Service, and had four children – Tom, Naomi, John and Anne – whom they raised in a variety of postings around the world.

Neil served for more than 30 years as a consul and trade commissioner in Colombia, Nigeria (during the during the Biafran War), Johannesburg (introducing the Canadian government’s sanctions against the apartheid government) and several U.S. cities. There were also shorter assignments in the Middle East and China. When Margaret’s parents were ailing, he requested a transfer to Toronto, where he worked for what was then Industry, Trade and Commerce, helping Canadian companies move into foreign markets.

After retiring in 1987, Neil and Margaret returned to his roots in northern Saskatchewan. He read constantly about Canadian history and politics and decided to put his passion into practice. He ran as a Liberal candidate three times: twice for Parliament in the riding of The Battlefords-Meadow Lake and once for the provincial legislature. Although never elected, he enjoyed campaigning and meeting constituents.

From 1996 until 2012, the couple divided their time between their cottage in Ontario’s Kawartha Highlands and on Sanibel Island in Florida. Travelling to visit family and distant relatives took them across North America and to Uzbekistan, Israel, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Finland, Russia and Australia.

Despite his years in the public arena, Neil may be most remembered by family and friends for his ability to design, build and fix things. He was the go-to handyman for Foreign Service families, who would call on him to hang pictures and curtains. He believed that anything can be resurrected if you have ingenuity, patience and a sense of humour. A family car, nicknamed the Blue Bomb, was frequently repaired with chicken wire and Bondo, and outfitted with bunk beds (instead of the back seat) for long family trips.

Neil’s most impressive project, however, was the fully winterized, two-storey family cottage on Lake Chandos, which he designed and built himself. Long before solar heating became popular, he maximized the solar energy potential in his design of the cottage. A labour of love over 30-plus years, it is still unfinished.

It was his favourite place in the world and the inspiration for a poem he entitled The Silence of the Lake: “The lake is silent /The chickadee told me personally/ The raven cast its call wide over the treetops/ And the loon has reclaimed the night.”

Anne Currie is Neil’s daughter.

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