Donald Melvin Szmon: Father. Husband. Prairie boy. Storyteller. Born March 12, 1932, in Gilbert Plains, Man.; died May 22, 2019, in Thunder Bay, Ont.; of a massive stroke; aged 87.
Donald (Don) was born the fifth of 15 children in a small Prairie town. Like many rural families of the time, circumstances were limited: no running water or electricity and little money. But he talked of a childhood that straddled the Great Depression and the Second World War with fondness. Needs were few and wants modest. He learnt early to appreciate life’s simple things. Every Christmas, Don and his siblings each received one gift. In 1941, he got a jackknife that was his pride and joy.
A lifelong love of music started when he joined the town band and taught himself many instruments, including the trumpet, trombone and tuba. Eventually, he and a few friends formed a band called the Swing Kings and performed at local dances, with Don on the drums. He took his first “real” job at a butcher shop, mostly for the money, but partly for the free bologna.
In 1956, he met his wife, Mary Lou, through one of his sisters and proposed on their first date. They married the following year. The wedding, fancy for its time, cost only $100 for a sit-down dinner for 100 people. They started their married life together in Churchill, Man., and when Mary Lou saw their first home, a small trailer perched on the muskeg, she burst into tears. But she eventually warmed to the new home and cold location and began to share Don’s excitement at some of its natural attractions, including polar bears and beluga whales.
For the next 15 years, as he worked as manager of Hudson Bay stores, they called many towns home. Don particularly enjoyed the one-on-one negotiations with Indigenous trappers when fur trading.
Before reaching Thunder Bay, where they settled permanently in 1972, five sons were born between 1958 and 1967. The house was active and loud, except at bedtime, when the children would lie rapt as Don regaled. He had a storyteller’s heart and imagination. In 1964, Don and Mary Lou lost their infant son, Brucie, to pneumonia. It was a grief Don carried the rest of his life. Even 50 years later, he would well up at the mention of Brucie’s name.
Don lived in the moment. Nobody laughed quicker. But as his sons knew, he could also have a short temper, although it fizzled as quickly as it was lit. He loved to talk to friends and strangers alike. He had a sentimental streak a mile wide and could melt into tears on occasions both sad or happy. He had a soft spot for birds and spent many hours keeping squirrels from their feeder (crab-apple slingshot or water hose), but the squirrels always won.
Don always found a way to get involved in the places he lived, joining town bands, the Chamber of Commerce, the board of education, church choirs or a barbershop quartet. Don loved to sing. On long road trips, whether the car radio was on or off, he would sing and drum on the dashboard to the mixed appreciation of his passengers. But his greatest pride was family. He liked nothing better than to visit with family and hear their latest news.
Two nights before he died, Don and Mary Lou spent an evening with friends with lots of talk and laughter. It would be a fitting sendoff. Don died hours after a massive stroke. Just as he wanted, he left life quickly.
As he requested, Don’s ashes will be returned to where he was born and raised, to rest alongside his parents and son in a small Prairie cemetery. A circle completed.
Kirk Szmon is one of Don’s sons.
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