RCAF officer, family man, floriculturist, outlier. Born on Nov. 1, 1932, in Clinton, Ont.; died on March 31, 2016, in Ottawa, of lung cancer, aged 83.
John, the eldest of five children, was raised in a village in Huron County and spent his early years creating much mischief and some occasional chaos while dreaming of faraway places. The loss of his mother when he was 12 affected him deeply, fuelling some turbulent teen years that were underscored by a hair-trigger temper and a penchant for fisticuffs.
Several years later his future soulmate Marguerite Appleby, a local dairy farmer's daughter, delivered a bottle of fresh milk to his back door, kindling a love affair that spanned more than six decades and produced two daughters and three sons, and six grandchildren.
Driven by a insatiable wanderlust, John enlisted as an officer cadet with the Royal Canadian Air Force at 22 and proudly served his country in a career that lasted more than 50 years. He logged more than 9,000 flying hours in 10 types of aircraft as a captain and navigator, including his favourite the C-130 Hercules. He worked in search and rescue for many years, and later helped to transport peacekeepers, military equipment, food and medical supplies to more than 40 countries on five continents.
John loved the Arctic and once experienced a powerful epiphany while on a survival test in the Northwest Territories in the late 1960s. The crew came upon a herd of thousands of caribou crossing at a ford in a deep river. "Time stood still," he said, during the most breathtaking display of nature's magnificence he ever witnessed.
He was a good father, firm but fair, running a typical military-style household while teaching us life's core values. He was not a man of half measures, whether it was his latest hobby or a favourite Scotch. Three guppies led to his creation of an aquatic paradise that, over several years, grew to more than 35 amazing aquariums operating concurrently. A jade plant gift inspired him to cultivate many award-winning displays of floricultural splendour. His foray into gourmet cooking, however, generated only mixed reviews and more than the occasional case of heartburn.
Blessed with a photographic memory, he enjoyed military history books, Sudoku puzzles and rhyming off the Latin names of countless flora and fauna. A natural raconteur who was fond of debates, he would draw from an encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects including global politics, oenology and Far Eastern cultures. He wasn't long on patience, though, as unsuspecting telemarketers soon discovered and his homemade cassette tapes revealed (they all ended abruptly, mid-song, as he had no use for a fader switch).
John smoked heavily until one day he was reminded that he might not have a chance to know future grandchildren. He quit cold turkey at 53. On his 80th birthday, Grandpa John partied into the wee hours while regaling his enthralled grandkids with colourful stories from a lifetime of worldly adventures.
He had a complex personality which, to some, could resemble "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" to paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, his personal hero. To his family, friends and many of his former colleagues, John will be remembered as an officer and a gentleman with a heart of gold.
Jeff Peckitt is John's eldest son.