Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Roly Armitage, WWII veteran and celebrated community builder, dead at 99 | CBC News

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Roly Armitage, the Second World War veteran, accomplished veterinarian and influential community leader whose keen involvement in local affairs made him a household name in Ottawa’s rural west end and beyond, has died at the age of 99.

Armitage, who landed on Juno Beach as a 19-year-old artilleryman in 1944, was due to return there with the Canadian contingent earlier this month to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, but was told just days before that he was too ill to make the trip.

“He wasn’t happy for not going, but he accepted it,” said former Ottawa city councillor Eli El-Chantiry, who credits much of his own political success to Armitage’s mentorship.

Instead, Armitage laid a wreath on June 6 at a remembrance ceremony at Ottawa’s Perley Health, where he took up residence last fall. It wasn’t France, but he wouldn’t have missed it, say those who knew him.

‘Although he was disappointed not to attend the D-Day events in person, Armitage proudly laid the wreath during the D-Day ceremony at Perley Health,’ said Perley’s CEO Akos Hoffer in a statement to CBC following Armitage’s death on Wednesday. (Tom Lilly)

Roland Montgomery Armitage was born on Feb. 8, 1925, and grew up on a farm on March Road, about 20 kilometres due west of Parliament Hill.

In March 1942, he and a schoolmate were on lunch break from Ottawa Tech when they decided to join the line outside an enlistment office.

Armitage joined the 3rd Medium Regiment of the Royal Canadian Artillery, and was in the second wave to land at Juno Beach during the Normandy invasion.

“Many people say, ‘What was it like there?’ I tell them that I got my feet wet and I wasn’t welcome,” Armitage told CBC in November. “I don’t like talking war. I dismissed it because it … it wasn’t Sunday school.”

Armitage survived the war and had many interesting encounters along the way. While stationed in the Netherlands, he rescued a young girl who’d been abandoned at the roadside, taking her back to the Canadian camp to be fed and cared for. 

Last summer, Armitage and Sonja Jobes, by then 83 and living in the U.S., met in an emotional reunion.

A young man in white shorts and an army tunic poses in this black and white photograph.
Armitage, 17, poses in shorts at what was then called Camp Petawawa in 1942, shortly after enlisting. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Family, career and community

After the war, Armitage finished high school and married Mary Spearman, a girl from Stittsville he’d known before the war in 1947. He later enrolled in the Ontario Veterinary College, graduating in 1951.

They had four children and spent 20 years living in Shawville, Que., where Armitage looked after the horses up in the logging camps as well as the livestock on local farms. He’d go on to enjoy a successful and varied veterinary career spanning five decades.

The family eventually returned to Dunrobin, not far from where Armitage grew up. An aerial photo of the house he had built there hung on the wall of his room at Perley’s.

Mary died in 1985, and five years later Armitage married Karen Flahven. She died in 2013.

Two framed black and white portraits lie on a bed. One shows a couple, the other a woman.
Armitage married Mary Spearman in 1947 after returning from overseas. She died in 1985. (Alistair Steele/CBC)

Armitage served as mayor of West Carleton Township from 1991 to 1994, and was a member of the old regional council. He ran the Carp Airport and the Rideau Carleton Raceway, and also raised and trained Standardbred horses, earning him a place in the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame.

Armitage was awarded the Order of Ontario, the Order of Ottawa and the key to the city, but those who knew him well say he was driven by community service, not official recognition.

“This sounds biased, but I don’t know anybody who has done so much with their life,” said his nephew Jeff Armitage. “Very few of us can say we’ve given more than we’ve taken from life, and Roly is certainly one of the ones who has given more than taken.”

A hero’s welcome

El-Chantiry said when he first considered running for Ottawa city council in 2003, many local politicians wrote him off because as an immigrant, a Catholic and a Liberal, he wasn’t a likely candidate in conservative, traditional West Carleton. But not Armitage.

“Roly said, ‘If you run I’ll support you, I’ll stand beside you,’ and he did,” El-Chantiry recalled. “Roly, if he believed in that individual, he would go all in.”

For El-Chantiry, the void left by Armitage’s death will be difficult to fill.

“For me, I lost a mentor, I lost a hero, I lost a legend, and I lost a good man and a good friend,” he said.

A soldier with medals shakes hands with an older seated man at a Remembrance Day ceremony.
Then chief of the defence staff Jonathan Vance meets Armitage at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2015. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

About 10 years ago, Jeff Armitage began accompanying his uncle on his many return trips to Europe, and said Roly was always treated as a hero there, too — especially in the Netherlands where he helped run a hotel after the war, and where he’d always stay for free, including on his final visit there last year.

Jeff Armitage said he plans to return to the Netherlands to deposit some of his uncle’s ashes at Noordwijk General Cemetery. He also plans to make good on a promise to jump from an airplane together to mark what would have been his uncle’s 100th birthday.

“That’s not going to happen now, so at some point I’m going to make the jump, and I’ll make sure I have a little bit of him in my pocket,” Armitage said. “He would have got a kick out of it I think.”

Roly Armitage is survived by his brother Kingsley and his children Mickey, Ann and Donald.

According to an obituary published Friday, a celebration of life will be held at the Highland Park Funeral Home in Carp on Saturday, July 13, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. A private interment will take place at the Anglican Church Cemetery in South March, Ont.

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