Jim Foort: Local hero. Inventor. Urban farmer. Artist. Born Dec. 10, 1921, in Vancouver; died April 15, 2020, in Vancouver, of congestive heart failure; aged 98.
Following up on a rental ad, I knocked at the open door of a modest home on the western side of Vancouver. Jim Foort answered. The sun shone through the converted basement and we fell in love with the place and with soft-spoken Jim, who had built the apartment, giving his tenants a space equal to his own.
Jim introduced us to Margaret McPhee, his engaging, tough as nails common-law partner whom he met in Scotland in 1971. Jim and Margaret were known by hundreds of Vancouverites, including visiting first graders from the nearby school who called him “Farmer Jim.” His house was the first in the neighbourhood to display a front yard and boulevard vegetable patch, where, every October, he created a new and wondrous Halloween world made of pumpkins, scrounged clothing and tree branches.
Jim painted, wrote books and composed an opera. His work had one overriding theme: the power of love – love of nature, love of humanity – in opposition to greed.
Jim grew up on Quadra Island, learning to fish and tell stories, tutored in those pursuits by Jack Naknakim, an Indigenous fisherman. Jim’s stories were oft repeated – Margaret always said that he enjoyed telling stories far more than listening to others – especially the stories about how Jim’s father, against the protests of Amineh, his Lebanese mother, forced him out of the house. At 17, Jim learned to survive on his own in Vancouver.
In 1942, Jim joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was eventually posted to Victoria, where he tutored cadets in Morse code. One of his pupil’s introduced him to his first wife, Rosemary Darvill. The couple had two children, Heather and Michael, and adopted two more in the 1960s, Ernie and Peter. Jim protected his family, and Michael remembers well an incident at a roadside diner. A man, pointing to Ernie, spouted a racial slur. Jim warned him that, if he said another word, he would have to step outside and fight. The man backed down and left, much to Jim’s relief.
In 1946, at the age of 25, Jim enrolled at the University of Toronto and graduated with a bachelor and masters in chemical engineering. He worked at Sunnybrook Military Hospital in Toronto, where his compassion for soldiers stuck with cumbersome prostheses determined the course of his professional life. In 1952, Jim was recruited by the University of California, Berkeley, where he began a 10-year stint at their physiological engineering laboratory. He worked at the University of Winnipeg for nine years where his lab produced advances in orthotics, prosthetics and wheelchair design.
Rosemary and Jim ended their stormy marriage in 1970, and in 1971, Jim returned to Vancouver. He worked at Shaughnessy Hospital and helped revolutionize the field of prosthetics with the first machine-fitted and cosmetically dressed lower limb prosthesis. Jim never pursued patenting his inventions; he believed that they belonged to all. Tens of thousands of people continue to benefit. For his pioneering work, Jim was awarded an honorary doctorate at Queen’s University in 2005.
His nine grandchildren, six great grandchildren, and our son, Ray, were attracted to him like Johnny Appleseed. He taught them how to dig for clams, find branches that could be carved and painted to look like snakes and to understand the animate nature of stones. Later in life, Jim’s paintings were exhibited at the Orpheum Annex, and excerpts from his lyrical opera, composed with Earle Peach, were sung at Crofton Manor Care Home.
Margaret died from cancer in 2018; it was a blow from which Jim could not recover. He died peacefully at Crofton Manner, and while COVID-19 never came to the facility, visits were banned. What good was life to him at that point when no one could listen to his stories anymore?
Ken Klonsky is Jim’s former tenant and friend.
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