Naval officer, human resources professional, writer, amateur genealogist, world-traveller. Born Aug. 23, 1919, in Saint John, died March 14, 2013, in Los Altos Hills, Calif., of mesothelioma, aged 93.
Tom Burdon had many titles, but to us he was simply Grampy, our beloved family patriarch. A charismatic man who lived independently until his final days, he always knew what we were up to and he was always up to something himself – perusing the papers, working on his book or planning his next trip. Grampy had a twinkle in his eye that made you feel special; all of us loved being around him.
Growing up in the port city of Saint John no doubt influenced Tom’s love of the water and of travel. He sailed to England as a young boy, and at the outbreak of the Second World War, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve, training as an officer at Royal Roads in Victoria. While awaiting the commissioning of a ship in Sorel, Que., he met and married schoolteacher Janet Smellie. Tom served aboard the corvettes as part of the Allied convoys in the North Atlantic and while he never glorified his memories of the war, he was proud of his service. His eldest son was christened in a ship’s bell and his eldest daughter was named after one of the corvettes he served on.
Tom was the definition of a people-person. He had a flair for public speaking, he was a focused listener and he was a natural leader. His talent for bringing out the best in others served him well at Zeller’s, where he worked his way up from floor manager to become the national VP of human resources. Zeller’s was also where he met Barbara Cameron, the love of his life. What started as a workplace friendship grew into something more. Despite the social stigma of divorce in the 1950s, they started a new life together in Montreal with Barbara’s daughter.
Well before blended families became commonplace, Tom and Barbara found a way to make things work, having three children of their own, and eventually bringing together all their offspring at one time or another. There were no “halves” or “steps” in their hearts, there was just a family that grew to include six children, 17 grandchildren and, at last count, 10 great-grandchildren. Tom and Barbara’s rich marriage lasted nearly 60 years, until Barbara’s death in 2010.
A lifelong learner, Tom was passionately curious about the origin of life, science and ancient civilizations. At a time when many anglophones were leaving Quebec, Tom stayed and became bilingual, though he admitted his accent was terrible.
For years he pored over newspapers and kept clippings as research for a book on economics. A proud Canadian and staunch Conservative, Tom enjoyed lively after-dinner debates, yet he was just as likely to magically pull off his thumb to amuse his grandchildren. He was technologically savvy, mastering the art of e-mail and booking his flights online. He travelled extensively, even taking in one of the first Canada-Russia series hockey games in Moscow in 1972.
He never forgot birthdays and he remained keenly interested in all of his family’s comings and goings. As his illness progressed, he managed final visits and phone calls with grace, dignity, and his ever-present sense of humour. As clichéd as it sounds, Tom lived life to the fullest, right up until his final moments when he passed away peacefully, listening to his youngest granddaughter playing the piano.
Shirley Burdon is Tom’s eldest grandchild.