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Donald Erskine
Donald Erskine

Lives lived: Donald Erskine, 94 Add to ...

Musician. Teacher. Husband. Father. Born Jan. 26, 1922, in Regina; died on Dec. 26, 2016, in Oakville, Ont., of natural causes; aged 94.

Don was a business graduate and RCAF airman, a school teacher, accountant, entrepreneur and inventor throughout his long life, not to mention a devoted husband and a proud father of four boys. But it was Don’s lifelong love of music that really set him apart.

Don studied violin in Regina from the age of 5, with lessons funded by his mother taking in a lodger. In his teens, he won a local violin competition despite a minor hand injury. Splinter Fails to Hinder Boy From Title, went the Regina Leader-Post headline. Don, with his self-deprecating humour, would say that it may have been a slow news day, but he had real talent and by 17 was playing in the Regina Symphony Orchestra and later with symphonies in London, Hamilton and in Fort Myers, Fla.

In his teens, Don fell for the swing jazz of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. He wanted to learn the trumpet, but had suffered a serious childhood injury to his right hand. Undeterred, he simply learned to play the trumpet left-handed.

The trumpet was good to Don. It paid his expenses as he worked his way through Western University in the 1940s, playing with dance bands as many as 130 nights a year. A meticulous business student, he recorded every session in his gig book, listing the band, the venue and the amount he earned, often just $4 or $5 a night. In addition to his education, this money covered a series of stylish automobiles and sharp clothes suitable for a young jazzman.

After graduation, Don enrolled in the RCAF and trained as a fighter pilot, but the war ended shortly before he was to ship out. Don maintained a love of flying throughout his life and two of his boys are pilots.

Postwar, Don was an accountant at London Life, and he met Ruth Southern, an accomplished woman who shared his love of music and was a skilled pianist and singer. They married in 1951 and settled in the Hamilton area, quickly producing four lively sons.

When Don became a high-school business teacher, some students learned of Don’s musical background and asked him to help them learn swing jazz. This was the origin of the Hamilton Central Stage Band. During his time as a teacher, Don owned and operated a pool-sanitation business and enjoyed concocting inventions that he hoped would catch on, including fire bricks to ignite charcoal barbecues and an automatic door to allow the family cats in and out of the house.

Don’s love of music never faded. He taught himself to play piano. He continued to play trumpet with various bands well into his 80s, the latter years during winters in Florida with Ruth. He played piano there at restaurants and at parties. Although he played for the love of it, it always gave him a thrill when someone tipped him for his piano playing.

Eventually Don lost the strength to blow his trumpet and the dexterity to play violin, but the piano accompanied him into old age. He loved to entertain the residents in his retirement home until the age of 93. Right to the end, music was the joy of his life.

Tom Feasby is Don’s nephew. Jonathon Feasby is his grand-nephew.

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