Funeral services were held on April 1 for John Watson "Babe" Learie, who passed away at the age of 84 after battling numerous illnesses. Anyone who ever ventured in the area of Côte Saint-Luc's KIrwan Park or either walked or drove by the corner of Wentworth Avenue and KIldare Road knew Babe. If the man had ever decided to run for political office, he would have won hands down.
Babe was my neighbour growing up. I last saw him in September at my father Larry's funeral. The day before he came to the house to talk to my mom and I, with tears in his eyes. How ironic it was that he and Larry should pass away during the same time period - friends for 50 years.
Babe was the youngest of 10 children, raised in Verdun. Four of the siblings did not marry and they decided to buy a house together on Wentworth Avenue. Babe was a mechanic while Bob, Kay and Jen had office jobs. When their mom fell ill, it was decided to move her into the house. A family meeting took place and Babe agreed to give up his career and become the caregiver and homemaker. So besides taking care of the mom, he did the groceries, made the meals and did the laundry without any complaints. Babe was also a master handyman. He made the garage his workshop. When mom passed on, my brother, sister and I were still very young, The family decided to maintain the arrangement and Babe continued to handle the basic duties of the house. Even though he was more than 30 years our senior, he actually became part of our network of friends.
There was nothing Babe would not do for us. When something went wrong in the house, my dad would shout loudly "Call Babe!" Sure enough Babe would race across the street and fix the problem.
In the glory days of Blue Bonnets Raceway, Babe and my dad shared a passion for the horses. Babe would go there several days a week, sometimes with my dad, but always with some wagers from Larry. He had a whole circle of friends at the track and they would always convene at the Decarie McDonald's afterwards.
My brother Chuck and I were fortunate as youngsters. Larry covered the home games of the Montreal Canadiens for the United Press International wire service. He also worked at radio station CKVL. In those days he had access to season tickets. Every Saturday night home game he promised that one of us could go. We were too young to go alone, so Babe became our companion. The games started at 8 p.m. and like clockwork we'd all pile into Babe's car at 6:30 p.m., park near the entrance to Westmount Square and walk through the tunnel. Babe always had some candy in his pocket for us before the game and bought us a hotdog, chips and drink at the first intermission. Since my dad did dressingroom interviews after each game, we would wait for him at Alexis Nihon Plaza at the Dairy Queen where Babe would buy me a delicious hot fudge Sundae and a coffee milkshake to take home to mom.
Our friends used to like getting lifts home from Babe. He had an incredible sense if humour and was a bit of a daredevil behind the wheel. One night when we came home from a game Babe got out of the car to talk to my mom. His late Saturday night ritual was to head to one of his siblings in Verdun to watch TV. Well on this night Chuck, who was probably no more than nine, came out of the house and crawled into the backseat. Babe took off to Verdun and when he was almost half way there Chuck bounced up and screamed "Boo!" While Babe was in a slight state of shock, he maintained control of the car, turned around and returned Chuckie home.
As we got older, Chuck and I were given the go ahead to sit together at the games. But every now and then one of us would agree to bring Babe, for he was more than a babysitter, but a friend. His commentaries on the game were hilarious and he would make up songs to the organ music and sing them out loud. He became familiar with the ushers, the vendors and a guy named Dutchie who stood near our seats yelling "Go Habs Go!" through a megaphone.
We lived right next to Kirwan Park. In the winter we'd meet our friends for pickup hockey and in the summer we did the same for baseball. Babe was one of the boys and always came out to play with us. He was actually quite a skilled hockey player and often told us how he grew up in Verdun with coaching legend Scotty Bowman. With absolutely no equipment, he insisted on playing goalie. Nobody could get a puck by him.
Except for the winter, when he'd be visible shovelling, working the snowblower or installing Christmas lights, Babe was always outside on his front lawn feeding the squirrels. "Hello Suzy," he would always say to the first of many to arrive in his midst.
For many years the 161 bus actually stopped and rested directly in front of our houses. Passengers were literally on Babe's front steps. The drivers all enjoyed, of course, stopping their vehicles to chat with him. Fortunately the stop was moved just around the corner at one time and this was when Babe truly became the neighbourhood greeter. Everyone going in and out of the park got to know him. Cars passing by would always honk as he leaned on his rake or lawnmower. There was no repair job too difficult for him. He'd climb the roof if necessary.
As the years went by, Bob, Kate and Jen passed away. His niece Priscilla, known to many as the super waitress from the Snowon Deli, Delly Boys and Pumperniks, moved in. We had grown up seeing a lot of Priscilla's two wonderful sons, Gregory and Tony Dyson. I saw each of them at the funeral for the first time in what is probably decades. They were like sons to Babe and the emotion in Gregory's voice as he read the eulogy made that clear.
Tom Savage was there as well. For years Tom was a scout for the NHL's Winnipeg Jets. He actually knew Babe from the Kahnawake golf course. No, Babe was not a golfer, but through his close friend Kenny he was a regular visitor and of course a Mr. Fixit.
Babe Learie touched so many lives. He was a truly good person whom I was lucky to know. When my mom moved to an apartment a few months ago, I thought to myself that the one connection we had all lost was to Babe. He was not on email and did not have a cell phone. I made a promise to myself that I would make some regular visits or call him just to stay in touch. I loved to hear his favorite sayings like, "Things go better with coke," or "She's bananas." To my sister Lisa, Babe was like an uncle and she thoroughly enjoyed his company as well.
Several weeks ago mom learned that Babe had been hospitalized. We had hoped for the best. Unfortunately that was not to be. I only hope that he runs into Larry up there and the two of them can talk about old times.
Rest in Peace Babe. There will never be another person like you.