Ronald Francis Whelan. Physician. Sailor. Adventurer. Family man. Born June 18, 1934, in St. John’s; died Sept. 18, 2020, in St. John’s; of dementia and Parkinson’s disease; aged 86.
In Conception Bay, early on a July Saturday morning in 1986, Ron Whelan captained Photon, his 32-foot sailboat, heading downwind. “Wing on wing,” he shouted to me, his 22-year-old first mate. The wind was coming in over the stern and both sails were full in front as we plowed through the swell. Ron belting out Waylon Jennings.
This is the thrilling image that lingers with me, of life being lived at its fullest. Though Ron was many things to many people – a pharmacist-turned-radiologist, an associate professor of medicine at Memorial University and St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital, one-time president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association and at the Canadian Medical Association – it’s the time spent on his boat, hand on the wheel, that stays with me.
Ron was the youngest of six siblings. School did not come easily to him, but he liked being able to help people and followed his brother Pat into medicine. After getting his medical degree at Dalhousie, he returned to Newfoundland.
Betty-Lou was the head nurse on the floor where Ron worked as an intern. She was beautiful, competent and, as rumour had it, unapproachable. Ron was the only one who had the guts to ask her out. They shared a strong bond that was built on mutual respect and love, and married in 1963. They later adopted Beth and Paul, loving them unconditionally.
Ron sailed to parts of Newfoundland many will never see. His passion for reading history, particularly stories of polar exploration, took him to Antarctica and the Northwest Passage. In 1982, he joined a group of sealers to travel to “the front” – the sea ice where harp and hooded seals whelp off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. Ron wanted to research “seal finger,” a hitherto unknown soft tissue infection that plagued Newfoundland sealers.
But the adventurer always returned home: He shared epic slide shows with his children, grandchildren, students and friends in the history club he formed in the early 1980s. Ron never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Like the sea, storytelling was in his blood. He enthralled all generations with a varied and diverse quiver of tales of exploration and happenstance.
When his brother Pat died, he stepped in to watch over Pat’s family. He gave them their first colour TV and stepped in to give his niece Mary away on her wedding day.
Ron showed up when you least expected it. When his nephew Paddy was studying at Dalhousie and living with his uncle, the archbishop of Halifax, Ron once stormed into Paddy’s bedroom early Saturday morning. “And it’s a good goddamn thing you are alone in that bed!” he shouted. Then he left town without saying another word.
Ron loved life, he loved good food and good wine. And bread: homemade, with lots of butter. He fancied himself a bit of a gourmand and was not above taking credit for Betty-Lou’s cooking. But ultimately, he was a man of simple pleasures: the wind in his sails, followed by a good book in front of a roaring fire at his country home in Holyrood.
After he retired, Ron enjoyed taking lunch at Bianca’s Restaurant on Water Street. One day the waitress brought over some fresh warm bread and whipped butter. Ron caught her eye, smiled, and said, “Darling, I can tell you something right now, that ain’t going to be enough butter.”
Sometimes in life, it’s the simple pleasures that matter. An invaluable lesson I learned from an extraordinary man.
James Whelan is Ron’s nephew.
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