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Ron Cheriton

Standing at attention with his sword held properly at the carry, Lt.-Col. Ron Cheriton filled his lungs with air before bellowing a spine-tingling command that sent 200 soldiers marching across Ottawa's Parliament Hill in perfect unison.

"Guards will march past, in slow and quick time. Guards, by the left, slow march!"

A split second after the last word of that thrilling command rang across Parliament Hill, the men of the 2nd Battalion, Canadian Guards, thrust their left legs forward, knees locked, and started a stately march at 58 paces per minute.

Led by Cheriton, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, the four guards of 50 men each manoeuvred their way around the Hill in slow time. Back in the 1960s, parade square ceremonial was still an important part of the regular army and no one was better at it than the Canadian Guards.

Each guard commander ordered an "eyes right" to Governor-General Roland Michener and the guardsmen snapped their heads and eyes to the right, looking Michener in the eye. Hundreds of years before, that privilege had been reserved for a lord's fighting men and denied to serfs.

As the band played From Sea to Sea, the regimental slow march, the young officer carrying the Queen's Colour lowered it carefully in salute to the Queen's representative in Canada. He, in turn, raised his right hand to his cap in salute.

Dressed in their famous scarlet tunics, dark blue trousers and bearskin caps, Cheriton and his crack guardsmen drilled their hearts out during the trooping the colour ceremony on June 6, 1970, in front of 10,000 appreciative spectators. But the parade marked the end of an era and everyone present knew it.

Underneath the glittering pomp and pageantry of a ceremony whose antecedents dated back to the mid-18th century, Cheriton and his men felt sadness and even anger. Their battalion, the last regular unit left of the Regiment of Canadian Guards, would be reduced to nil strength. Their comrades in the 1st Battalion had suffered that fate two years earlier.

But Cheriton, who died in Pembroke, Ont., on June 1 from a heart attack at 79, knew that professional soldiers must obey the orders of their civilian masters, or resign in protest. A shining star in the infantry's officer corps, Cheriton had his career to consider.

He disagreed passionately with the government's decision but he suspected he would rise higher so he decided to stay in and do his job, which was commanding infantry. That decision proved to be the right one as he made it almost to the top through merit and dedication.

Pam Cheriton, his daughter, said her father never talked about the Canadian Guards being placed on the army's supplementary order of battle after just 17 years. "It was a very sombre [time] Hard, hard times for soldiers who had lost their regiment."

After the ceremony, her father had said, "The trooping was a moving ceremony, covered by national television, and one that all guardsmen, both serving and retired, could remember as a proud tribute to a regiment which, throughout its brief tenure in the Canadian Army's order of battle, served as the very model of the bedrock of soldiering, duty and discipline."

Reporter Wain King of the Ottawa Journal wrote, "from a technical point of view everything about the trooping seemed to run like clockwork. The colonel, the sergeant-major, the guardsmen might well be happy with it. But this is unlikely. This was not a happy day for them."

On July 7, a month after the trooping, Cheriton put on his full dress scarlet uniform one more time and went to Rideau Hall, the home of Canada's governors-general.

Cheriton watched sadly as the Governor-General took charge of the colours of both battalions.

"I have this day accepted these colours for safekeeping in this our Government House; in the city of Ottawa, until such time as the regiment may be called upon to serve our sovereign and country," the certificate signed by Michener read.

Those colours, along with all 13 company colours, are still displayed at Rideau Hall, despite an attempt by the late Jeanne Sauvé to remove them when she was governor-general during the early 1980s.

Ronald Cheriton was born on April 23, 1931, in Hamilton. An all around athlete, he played football in high school. When the Korean War erupted in 1950, he lost no time in rushing down to the recruiting centre and volunteering for the army. Although he never made it overseas - which always disappointed him - he was selected for officer training.

After being commissioned as an infantry officer in 1952, Cheriton was posted to the 1{+s}{+t} Canadian Infantry Battalion. The regular army had just started its postwar golden era and Cheriton was one of thousands who made a career of it.

The Canadian government was determined to support its NATO allies against the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc satellites, so a brigade was quickly formed and sent to Europe.

In late 1953, Cheriton, who possessed an inquiring intellect, fertile imagination and a focused drive, became a charter member of the new Regiment of Canadian Guards when his unit was re-designated as its Third Battalion.

Lt.-Gen. Guy Simonds, the chief of the general staff, wanted a nationally recruited Guards regiment to give the regular army some much-needed glamour.

"He really believed that a guards regiment would do much to glorify the infantry soldier, who bore the brunt of war," wrote William Patterson in his 1997 history of the Canadian Guards, A Regiment Worthy of its Hire.

But Cheriton and the other original members soon found themselves at the centre of a firestorm. No one seemed to want the new regiment and Simonds and his baby came under intense criticism in Parliament and the newspapers.

It got so bad that the Queen even heard of it and wrote Simonds on Oct. 19, 1954, counselling him "not [to]allow any criticism of this sort to depress you unduly."

By the end of 1954, Cheriton was at Camp Petawawa, the new home station of the regiment, as a platoon commander in charge of recruits training at the depot. Howie Pierce, who arrived soon after as a raw recruit, was assigned to Lieutenant Cheriton's platoon.

"He introduced us to the military in a gentle and intelligent manner, taking out the fear from this strange new place we found ourselves.  He had a quite mild demeanour, having a different approach from all that shouting and yelling," said Pierce.

Pierce and his fellow recruits saw Cheriton as an officer and a gentleman with a genuine concern for their welfare. "[He]encouraged us to believe in ourselves, right down to that awkward lad with two left feet always attracting unwanted criticism.  Never give in, meet challenges head on and do not hesitate to seek out help when needed, for it is not a sign of weakness."

After several staff jobs, Cheriton was posted to Camp Picton, Ont., and the 1st Battalion in 1964, just in time to deploy to Cyprus for six months of peacekeeping duties. "We lived for his blue airmail letters. We got at least one a week. We were all proud of the job they were doing," said Pam Cheriton.

His promotion to lieutenant-colonel in 1969 and appointment to command the 2nd Battalion was bittersweet because the writing was on the wall. Cheriton knew his battalion had just a year to live. The Liberals and Pierre Elliott Trudeau were in power and cuts to the newly integrated armed forces were not slow in coming.

At midnight on July 5, 1970, the Canadian Guards disappeared from the order of battle and Cheriton was now the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. After more staff jobs, he became base commander of CFB Gagetown, N.B., in 1980.

Cheriton was a wise commander who was "intuitively good and humane. He knew when to come down hard and when to be considerate," one of his former officers said.

In 1984, Cheriton was promoted to major-general and posted to the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., where he and his wife, Nita, spent a very social two years. He also represented the Canadian army in Pakistan, West Germany, Britain and Egypt.

After retiring from the military in 1988, he worked as a consultant and spent three years as the chairman of the Canadian Government Counter Terrorism Task Force before retiring for good in 1993.

Pam Cheriton said he loved painting in oils and travelling. Despite undergoing a triple bypass, followed by a heart attack in 1987, he kept physically active until the very end, she said. "He bought a kayak three days before he died."

He leaves his daughter Pam. His wife Nita predeceased him in 2004 after 49 years of marriage.

Special to The Globe and Mail