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Antoon Theunissen: Opa. Gardener. Chess player. Gentleman. Born Nov. 22, 1929, in Waubach, the Netherlands; died May 16, 2021, in Oshawa, Ont., of cancer; aged 91.

Antoon Theunissen.Courtesy of family

Toon, Tony, Opa or Ollie to those who knew him best, Antoon Theunissen was 10 years old when the Germans occupied the Netherlands in the Second World War; he experienced more in those years than most people do in a lifetime. He had many stories to tell, but his family’s favourite was how he threw a big rock at a car full of German SS soldiers. After the car stopped, 11-year-old Antoon and his little brother came face to face with two officers, one with his hand on his pistol. Antoon said it must have been his blond hair and blue eyes that saved him that day.

When the war was over he prepared to work in the coal mines in Limburg, as his older brothers and father had done before him. He spent 10 years mining coal and, despite having only an elementary-school education, he decided to try for a new life in Canada.

Antoon arrived in the late 1950s along with his older brother Leo. He wrote letters often to his sweetheart, Maria De Bruijn, back in the Netherlands and she was able to join him and move to Canada in 1960.

He married Maria in 1962 and they began their lives together in Oshawa. Antoon was a husband somewhat ahead of his time. He was there for the birth of each of his three daughters and helped change diapers when it wasn’t a commonplace thing for dads to do.

While working as a punch-card operator in Whitby, Ont., Antoon scored high on an aptitude test and was sent to night school by his company to learn about new devices called computers, just in case they might really be a thing some day. He learned to program in the early languages of COBOL, Assembler and FORTRAN. The benefit to his three daughters of this new profession was that he often brought home reams of computer paper to colour on, make hats out of, or create banners for parties. They only got in trouble once for colouring on an actual computer program that he needed for work.

Antoon’s favourite pastime was his vegetable garden. He composted before it was cool and Maria made the most delicious soups with the harvest from that garden. And yet it seemed every time she went outside, her husband was in the hammock. His explanation was always the same: “I do no work, yet the work gets done!”

Antoon revelled in his role as a grandfather. When they were infants, he wore down a path in the long hallway of their bungalow to help them fall asleep in his arms. During the summer months, he took them on the riding lawn mower around their half-acre backyard in Whitby – the smile on his face was always bigger than the grandkids’ grins.

When Maria died in 2013, his inner strength and resolve saw him through the worst of those times. He continued bowling with his Dutch friends (of course, Antoon wrote an Excel program to keep track of their scores every week). One Wednesday he broke a score of 300 for the first time. He said it was because of the good luck Maria sent down to him.

Antoon enjoyed euchre (he and Maria were a practically unbeatable team) and he loved chess but played with the computer because his daughters didn’t stand a chance against him. Before computers, back in the 1970s, he played with one of his brothers in the Netherlands by mail. He would send a move, keep the board set up and his brother would write back.

Antoon’s biggest wish was to see Maria again, and she has likely found him in the backyard spruce grove, just waking up from a nap in his hammock.

Mathy-Ann Rudkins is Antoon’s daughter.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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