The late sixties were times when young art students, who graduated with hopes of creating a budding art and design studio, loved to choose "funky" names for their businesses. I was no exception. I got together with nine such graduate students and rented a fourth floor loft on 74 York Street in the heart of downtown Toronto. We called our budding art and design studio, "The Only Available Door" graphic studio. Perhaps it was youthful enthusiasm or simply ignorance of competition and other business matters that made us think we were "the only available door," the only place we believed where Toronto's advertising establishment could buy the latest and greatest of commercial design.
There we stood, posing for our first of many publicity photographs in Marketing Magazine, a publication committed to the advertising industry in Canada. Side by side we all stood on a fire escape some four stories up from the ground just behind our building. Our famous OCA yearbook posters had been hastily taped to the old brick wall behind us, and together with a large sign that said "The Only Available Door," the press photograph was complete. Holding on to the metal railings of that fire escape were Rod Brandt, Ken Boyd, Alec Toth, Stanley Marshall, and I. The black and white photograph along with a major press release made it into the June 7, 1968, issue of Marketing Magazine, the industry's bible. We were the full-time artists in our studio business, with five additional part-time artists, who did not appear in the photograph. All of us were veterans of the 1968, OCA yearbook.
I made a bold claim in that article that.
"We graduated on Friday," I said, "spent the weekend cleaning up this loft, and on Monday, out we went with our portfolios, looking for business."
The fourth floor loft on 74 York Street had been vacant for some time, and pigeons had entered through broken windows to make frequent use of the interior. It took major elbow grease and twenty gallons of white paint to clean and cover the entire loft, a space occupying some two thousand square feet. The front area of the studio was our "commercial" space, complete with a number of large drafting tables, a work table, storage space, a client meeting area, and three of the grandest windows overlooking York Street and downtown Toronto. The Toronto Dominion Centre at that time was only one tower. A second tower came later. At the corner stood the old Metropole Hotel and across the street was the most incredible corned-beef-on-rye place we could have ever imagined. The back of our studio space was for fine arts, especially drawing. One night a week, we all stayed to enjoy fellowship and life drawing. Sometimes we came on weekends to paint together. The back of the studio served to keep our drawing skills fine-tuned as well as to continue building on our foundation of fine art, especially important now that we had entered the world of commercial art. George Pastic, an art director at McCann-Erickson's infamous Group X was very generous in his praise of our group.
"This group has a strong bent of creativity - they're fresh in their approaches to everything, perhaps they're even a bit rebellious. Whatever it is, they have a quality of excitement in their work that makes it excellent."
These were flattering words, but we soon discovered that actually getting advertising design assignments and contracts was a lot more difficult than we thought. We were not "the only available door" in town. There were many design studios and freelance designers and good ones as well. We spent days and weeks talking about a major breakthrough, hoping to build confidence while our pens remained silent and our drawing tables collected dust. Within a few weeks after our much publicized beginning, five artists left the studio to make a better living elsewhere. Then came our first contract. We were commissioned to design a poster for The Camp Boulderwood Fund, a local fundraising effort for some summer camp I cannot remember. The price tag for our commission was twenty-five dollars. We were so eager to do the work, we must have given our client a thousand dollars worth of ideas. If only we could have billed him for that much. A few weeks later, however, came the major break we had hoped for. It came from George Pastic, our friendly art director at Group X, who had been so kind with words in our first press release. Group X was a trendy design group within the large national advertising agency of McCann-Erickson. George Pastic asked us to design a complete corporate and retail image for a very upscale fashion and accessory store in the Bloor and University area. The place was called The English Sheepskin Shoppe. One can only imagine our enthusiasm, and George was not disappointed. We were successful in creating a wonderful image that did much to promote sales for the clothing retailer. Our designs were printed on everything in the store. The English Sheepskin Shoppe was followed by a number of design projects that ranged from retail to manufacturing, including all the graphics for El Zorro, a large downtown nightclub. Studio work, however, was not enough to sustain the lives of four artists. Alec Toth, Ken Boyd, and I, were married and our wives were looking forward to some sort of income from the studio. Alec had children as well, and we were all desparate to make a living. After rent, utilities and supplies, there was very little left over to divide between the four of us. In the Spring of 1969, just about a year after we began, Alec and Ken left as well for jobs elsewhere. That left Rod Brandt and I to continue the journey together.
To help make the change less painful, we changed the name to OAD Studios, borrowing the initials of our original name, but making the studio sound a whole lot more traditional and less pretentious. We vacated our huge fourth-floor loft and settled into a comfortable and reasonably new commercial townhouse on Clarence Square, just a few blocks from downtown and a stone's throw from Cooper & Beatty Typesetters, one of our major suppliers. It was a timely and profitable change. No longer the young upstarts fresh out of college, we were determined to be more business minded. It worked. The number of assignments began to increase. When Alice and I decided it was time to draw an actual salary, especially since our first child Jeffrey was expected to make his grand entrance in a few months, both Rod and I made the switch from unpaid workers to paid staff. The change went smoother than we had anticipated. No sooner had we settled into our jobs as paid artists, when the next major change shook our lives. Clarence Square was a small and beautiful commercial area tucked between the rumbling railroad yards of Canadian Pacific Railways and King Street, just east of Spadina Avenue. The square had many trees that filled our day with green leaves, gentle breezes, and filtered sunlight. It was a quiet square. Our studio was spaceous and comfortable and with only the two of us there, it made for long productive days as we designed our way through a variety of advertising assignments. Spring was followed by summer and OAD Studios continued to design away the hours creating newspaper ads for Toronto's major dailies, magazine ads, package designs, corporate brochures, annual reports, and record album covers. Record albums were a unique aspect of the business we sort of "fell into" because next door was a record producer. He had a number of associates who were agents and promoters for a rapidly growing music industry in Toronto. These were the days of rock and roll. Bands sprang up overnight to fill the vacancies in a string of coffeehouses and clubs throughout the city. I met so many musicians and bands, from folk to rock, from solo artists to large bands, I cannot begin to remember their names. Our policy was cash up front as the future of each band was as unpredictable as the clubs they played. It was a lot of fun and we created some very special graphics. Summer on Clarence Square turned into fall. It turned out to be a spectacular autumn season that year with more than a change of colours in the trees to mark the season.
The next change that was about to shake us was the end of OAD Studios.
My life was about to take one of the most dramatic turns ever, not in the form of a natural progession of business success and growth, but through unlikely circumstances that were perhaps the most unusual reasons for this turn of events.
It happened just before our son Jeffrey was born in November of 1969.
The circumstances were unlikely because they involved Alec Toth, a former partner in the studio and a fellow art college graduate. He and Ken Boyd were the last artists who had left us in the spring of that year. Both had gotten good jobs in the city and in advertising.
Alec was now working at a major advertising agency. He had quickly risen to the position of art director, a position that necessitated farming work out to outside designers. Most large advertising agencies contracted their design work out to large and small studios in town. Sometimes an art director could increase his income by developing a personal list of clients and doing the work himself, outside of the agengy. It was called "moonlighting." Alec moonlighted. When he couldn't manage the clandestine workload, we became his source for all the artwork he needed to satisfy his personal clients. The layouts and designs we did for him for newspaper and magazine ads, generated hundreds of dollars for our studio. The work was steady and the pay was good.
One day, he came to the studio and handed us a major contract for advertising design work for Esso. Typical of moonlighting, however, the work was not directly for Esso. It was for another small creative boutique in Toronto who were one of Alec's personal clients, and whose name was Folio Productions. Folio had had been contracted by Imperial Oil of Canada to create promotional work for Esso, the Canadian petroleum giant. I had never heard of Folio Productions, even though Esso was a household name, but the creative boutique was Alec's personal client. We dealt only with Alec, our former partner, and not with Folio Productions. We were what was known as a "third party" in the verbal contract. This time, however, our work amounted to thousands of dollars and we were grateful to Alec for the opportunity to prove our worth to such a major client. One day, during a rush to get everything done, we were asked to deliver our designs direct to Folio Productions, rather than to our former partner's home. There simply was not enough time to deliver our work the usual way. I made the delivery myself. We were thrilled to receive nothing but praise from the people at Folio Productions. They loved our work. After that special delivery, we returned to Alec's more familiar clandestine operations of home deliveries of our design work, including more designs for Folio Productions and Esso. Eagerly we submitted our invoices. Soon it would be payday and a big one it promised to be. We had been on time with all our work and within budget. Things coudn't be better. Our invoice policy was standard industry practise - net thirty days. For dependable clients we sometimes stretched our invoice policy to sixty days.
Thirty days came and went.
Then months passed, and we had not been paid for our work for Esso. Invoices added up to thousands of dollars. Thirty days stretched to sixty to eighty and to one hundred and twenty days - four months and no pay. Constant phone calls to Alec assured us that as soon as Folio Productions paid him, we would be paid. Little did we know that moonlighting was not always the most reliable way of getting paid on time or getting paid at all. Time passed but no money. I couldn't understand the delay. After all, Esso was a reputable account who would not permit such indiscretions as late payment to tarnish their image, would they?
Finally, I got upset and decided to take charge.
Alec had not been paid and Alec no doubt had left us dangling in the middle. Who did these people at Folio think they were anyways? I got on the phone and asked for the president of Folio Productions. I was put in touch with Mr. Joe Hatt-Cook. I spoke to him in firm words asking him why he was holding up payment, and could he possibly be more business-like and understand our urgent need for funds. One can imagine my humbling and embarrasing silence when Mr.Hatt-Cook said Alec, our former partner, had been paid months ago. I was furious realizing we had been had, but not by Joe Hatt-Cook or Folio Productions. Alec had betrayed us. My conversation with Mr.Hatt-Cook froze in silent time. The phone went still. I thought as fast as I could for an appropriate reply. I swallowed hard and offered a genuine apology. Then I did something that surprised both myself and Rod, who was listening to my phone call. I decided to cut out the middle man. I was no longer obliged to remain loyal to Alec and his personal list of clients. Whether his moonlighting would expose him, I didn't care. Without hesitating I made my pitch to Mr.Hatt-Cook,
"Look," I said, "you love our work. Your client Esso is happy. I sincerely apologize for what I said because the matter is not between OAD Studios and Folio Productions. It is between us and that once-upon-a-time friend Alec. So how about we cut out this middleman and deal directly with each other? I'll come over to show you our entire portfolio, if that's allright with you?"
His answer was a polite, but "sure, come on over."
I phoned our former partner and told him what he had brought upon himself. Folio Productions was now fair game and we were determined to get the client. He was not too happy but couldn't do much about it for fear of being exposed for his moonlighting at the agency where he worked. An art director who was caught moonlighting was immediately fired. He promised to pay the outstanding invoices and he did. But I had made up my mind about Folio Productions.
I got on the subway and headed for Toronto's fabled Yorkville Avenue, where Joe Hatt-Cook had his offices. When I reached the address of Folio Productions my heart began to beat rapidly. This was show-time, or should I say showdown time? Joe Hatt-Cook was a warm and courteous man. Before long, our previous telephone encounter was forgotten as we poured over the large portfolio I had brought along. Within minutes of meeting each other we both knew it was a dream come true. I was missing a senior partner with established connections in the professional advertising world. Joe was that person. Joe was missing a dedicated and creative art director who could work fast and efficiently, and who had a keen sense of business management and a strong work ethic. I was that person. To test the potential of a future working relationship, we decided to tackle a major project together. Joe had been contracted to produce the upcoming sales meeting for Imperial Oil. Things couldn't have gone better. Everything in the multi-thousand dollar project went smooth. Everyone got paid on time. Then Joe Hatt-Cook introduced me to his business partner Fiona McCall, whose specific talent and contribution to Folio Productions was publicity and public relations. Together they approached me and offered me a partnership in Folio Productions. It sounded too good to be true.
"Without Rod?" I asked.
"Without Rod," they said.
They needed one art director not two. They wanted an equal working partner and not just another employee. Joe and I had already had many discussions about a future advertising agency and a top-of-the-line creative shop. I was not convinced Rod would fit in anyways, plus the opportunity was a dream-come-true for Alice and I, and soon-to-be Jeffrey. Nevertheless, it was a tough decision. Rod and I had gotten along well and he was a good partner. However, it was I who did all the hustling for work and all the business presentations. I knew Rod still lived at home with his parents and his overhead expenses were small. Our split would not be a financial disaster for Rod. But, I was married and expecting our first child just weeks away. This was an opportunity I could not miss. It pained me to tell Rod that we would have to part. He was not only a wonderful partner, he was a quality human being, and a good designer. Needless to say, he was very upset and decided he would not carry on the name and work of OAD Studios on his own. Nevertheless we wished each other well. We shut the studio down, divided all the equipment and supplies, and parted. I agreed to finish the lease on our premises so that Rod could leave without any financial pressures. I said he could approach as many of our OAD clients as he wished. I would not compete for our former clients as the work that lay ahead of me at Folio Productions was more than enough. I never saw Rod again.
Joe and I spent the next year working on many projects. We became an inseparable creative team. He was the writer and I was the designer. We worked together on all creative projects and success followed upon success. Days and weeks slipped into months. Alice gave birth to Jeffrey Lyon Verstraete, on November 7, 1969, and I was a happy man. My annual personal income doubled. Joe, Fiona, and I, were wonderful partners. On November 15, 1970, an official announcement of our partnership ran in Marketing Magazine and the Financial Post. Soon after we decided to change our business name to Folio Advertising Agency Ltd., and we became a major contender in the Toronto world of advertising agencies.
Even before formal partnership papers were signed, I took up temporary space on Yorkville Avenue in addition to my space on Clarence Square. Then I fell headlong into one of the most visible projects of my career. Fiona McCall had landed the publicity and promotion contract for the rock musical HAIR, which was about to make its debut at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. Soon it became obvious that the space at Clarence Square was no longer suitable. I needed to be on Yorkville and with Joe and Fiona, every day. But commuting through downtown Toronto was a nuisance and the Yorkville offices were too small. However, until we moved to our new space in another town house on Nicolas Street, I had no choice but to spend valuable time commuting between Clarence Square and Yorkville Avenue, and at the same time try to keep up with the work load of HAIR. Somehow I managed. One creative assignment for HAIR was my introduction to the power of publicity. Many cast members of HAIR came to our Yorkville offices to be interviewed for publicity stories, press photography, and other related public relations assignments. One bright and creative day, Fiona masterminded the idea that one particular aspect of the musical HAIR could possibly generate immense publicity.
The musical had a small nude scene.
By today's standards that scene of nudity was nothing, but by the standards of Toronto theatre in those days, it was everything. The nude moment was a very brief frontal, topless-only part, as two actors stood motionless in a barrage of strobe lighting. One would have to be very attentive and on time to catch the brief glimpse of a bare breast. Nevertheless, it was the stuff media died for.
Fiona had arranged for a major press conference and gala affair at the O'Keefe Centre, the other big theatre in Toronto. She had "leaked" to the press ( she was good at that ) that there might be nudity at the gala and press conference, because she had invited the lead actors from HAIR to make an unexpected appearance. The whole media event would take place in the grand foyer of the O'Keefe Centre. The day of the event arrived with lots of buzz and expectation in the air. Rumours of nudity swirled. The lobby was filled with black-tied men and gowned women. Diamonds and gold sparkled everywhere. The who's who of Toronto's theatre world were there, as were the media. Fiona had arranged that at a strategic moment during the festivities, the two lead actors from HAIR, a male and female, would slowly descend down the grand circular staircare that wound into the lobby. They would be dressed in long black and hooded robes, giving the place a gothic air of mystery. As the assembled guests did not know who these black figures were, the mystery would intensify as the two descended down the stairs and music from HAIR's "Age of Aquarius," filled the lobby. The press however, had been warned to be ready as soon as the music started. They were ready. The plan was that suddenly and with great fanfare, the actors would stop on the stairs, and in plain sight of everyone throw off their robes, revealing totally nude bodies underneath. It would be the biggest media event in Toronto's theatrical history and I was in the middle of the action. What the guests and media did not know was that I had spent nearly the entire day body-painting both actors. I painted long swirling lines, Paisley designs and other graphics, in vibrant, day-glow, fluorescent colours, over their entire bodies. Each colour was carefully applied over a tight-fitting bodystocking in such a way, that the designs masked obvious body parts such as breasts and genitals, yet the paint meticulously followed the contours of male and female anatomy. The nudity of the actors was in fact an illusion created in paint and I was the "master" artist. Everything was colourfully hinted at, but nothing was actually visible. All nudity was carefully and artistically hidden in the overall effect of my life-size paintings. But the effect was electric. The artwork was real and magnificent.
When the moment came, the crowd literally gasped as the two actors, with great gesture and drama, threw their robes on to the stairs. The sounds of "Age of Aquarius" filled the foyer and came rolling down the stairs. There they stood, male and female figures, fully "naked" and totally covered in bright psychedelic colours over every square inch of their bodies. Necks turned. Eyes strained. Cameras whirred. Flashes popped and shutters vibrated. Before the audience could discover the actors were not really nude, both actors picked up their robes and with flair and pomp, robed themselves as they turned around and climbed back up the stairs. The whole event was a huge success. I was a celebrity. We had dazzled everyone and offended none. We made it big on the front pages of all the Toronto dailies. HAIR went on to become a smashing success.
The end of OAD studios and my new partnership in Folio Productions, now Folio Advertising Agency Limited, marked the beginning of an exciting, coller-coaster ride of creativity. Many years lay ahead with numerous adventures in marketing and advertising as executive vice-president of Folio Advertising Agency Limited, an adventure that would last fifteen years. In fact, not only did Joe and I become close friends, we drew straws each year as to who would be president of the agency. Neither of us cared too much about titles and thought the matter rather humerous. After all, we were a sucessful team and that's what mattered. Joe drew president and after a year we decided we'd keep it that way. I was content with my title as executive vice-president whose functions were primarily creative director and general manager of the agency. In time we would have over twenty-five employees, own a beautiful building in downtown Toronto, and an office in Ottawa as well.
The Family Years
I would be amiss if I left an impression that my personal life revolved only around a professional career as advertising executive and fine artist. Just because I have called the next chapter, the "Folio Years," my journey was nevertheless a period of time perhaps better explained if I were to call them the "Family Years" as well, including in those advertising agency years that very special account of my family life. Despite the fact I have chosen to tell both family and Folio years separately, the journey of career and family were a closely knit alliance of all the experiences of life. I must emphasize as well, that never in all the professional years of my career did I sacrifice my marriage and family for some vain-glory of an upwardly mobile career. Even the industrial giant, GM, General Motors, whose president I made cry one evening, could not make me bend my knees in servitude to business at the expense of my family. I remember the incident as if it just happened yesterday. Our advertising agency had been given a lucrative contract to complete some major advertising designs for GM. Their marketing manager, with whom we dealt on a regular basis, was a pushy, self-centered man, whose idea of success was servitude to the company twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He was a true slave. One Friday he phoned me to ask if he could have the next set of design concepts on his desk by Monday. That meant working overtime, something I was always reluctant to do because I had a theory about business that proved to be fact, a fact that affected my decisions not to work overtime if it could be avoided. After some thirty-five years of business observation, I stick with my original conclusion, a conclusion I made back in the seventies, and a conclusion that applied to the General Motors incident as well. That conclusion was that nearly all "rush" jobs and production "panics," are either the result of gross mismanagement of time, or the result of little men playing power games with rank-and-file working class men and women. My man from GM was the latter. I asked him the reason for his "rush," a rush he was quite prepared to pay overtime for.
His anwer was curt.
"I need it on Monday because I say so. I am the client."
I responded quickly.
"Do you need the work, " said, "simply because you say so or because you have other deadlines to meet?"
He was quiet for a moment, so I continued.
"Do you really want me to say to my four children and wife, hey, forget dad for the weekend. He's got other things to do, like satisfying a client with no apparent reason for the rush?"
When I recall the incident I cannot help but wonder why I was so assertive. At stake was a major contract and a big client. In the advertising industry the name GM as client wielded great powers. We were a small agency and for a moment I thought I had lost my cool and as a result lost the job and the client. To my surprise, the GM marketing manager backed down and said he really didn't need the designs untill the end of the following week. I took a deep breath and sighed with relief. A week later, we delivered him the best creative he had seen in years. We made him look like a hero and the campaign was a success. As a result, the following year we were contracted to do one of the most prestigious events of the corporate world, the official retirement party for the president of General Motors Canada. Yet, through the entire overtime incident, all I could think about was not only my obligations to our growing family but also the joy of having a family. We employed twenty-six people in our Toronto office and five in our Ottawa office. I was the only staff with children. Even though I was somewhat of a novelty among my co-labourers, not one of my staff ever considered Alice and the children a liability to my creative journey or a detriment to my management skills, especially since I was their boss. In fact, they were the best bunch of co-workers who wholeheartedly supported my family ventures and willingly looked at all the family pictures in which Alice and I celebrated life with the kids.
Now the family years.
Alice and I were a family. As a family we did all the family things we were expected to do, and we thoroughly enjoyed doing them, especially when we drove to Sauble Beach.
No family destination has as special a place in our hearts as Sauble Beach. Whenever we could, and as often as we tried, whether it was spring, summer or autumn, we packed groceries, inflatables, towels, bathing suits, diapers, blankets, coolers, camera, film, and more, in our trusted van. In the early morning hours we strapped still sleepy kids into their car seats, to head north to the spectacular and sandy shores of Lake Huron. The drive took just over two hours and was well worth the constant, "are we there yet's." Sauble Beach is the northernmost of three awesome Great Lakes beaches. I have frequented all of them. First came Ipperwash Provincial Park with its wide beach on which I could drive my car. Then came Pinery Provincial Park, a camper's paradise. Due north along Lake Huron and well beyond the town of Southhampton, there was the small town of Sauble Beach, a friendly place that boasted a public beach that rivaled Miami Florida. Sauble Beach was famous for some of the most awe-inspiring sunsets, mouthwatering French fries and southern-fried chicken sold right on the beach, and of course endless golden sand that was like velvet to our feet. Lake Huron was always clear, always cool, and always refreshing. We usually managed a long day basking in the sun, playing in the water, and running on the beach, interspersed with generous picnic lunches and snacks. When the day was over we were a tired but very happy family reluctant to make the long trek home. During the summer months we often rented a cottage at Sauble Beach. No General Motors or any other client could ever take that away. We were a family.
Alice and I were blessed with four children during those years. Jeff was born in 1968. Wendy followed in 1972. Then came Angela in 1976, and Karen in 1979. Suzanne and Matthew did not arrive until years later in 1984 and 1987. Together, Alice and I learned the art of parenting, one step and one child at a time, with our only trusted companion, Dr.Spock's, "Baby and Child Care." That book fell out of favour many years later because some childcare gurus proposed that children need nurturing not discipline, forgetting that one is impossible without the other. Contemporary childcare also began to shift towards toxic doses of freedom for children. Discipline became a dirty word. I still believe that most of those gurus or "experts" never had children themselves, or their families were so small that between careers and daycare, the sum total of their child-rearing experiences was very little. They may have been gurus but they were not experts.
Many years later as pastors, when Alice and I began counseling people in life-skills and spiritual matters, someone asked me, "what qualifies your wife to be a counselor?"
"Six children!" I replied.
I don't know why they did not ask what qualified me as a counselor. Probably because most knew I had a college degree.
Another favourite place for the whole family was Alice's parent's cottage on Little Bald Lake in the Kawartha region just northeast of Toronto. The nearest village was Bobcageon and the nearest city Lindsay. I soon learned my oldest son loved fishing and one of the earliest photographs I have is of a little boy standing on a dock by the lake, holding a small sunfish on a line. It was a proud moment. Despite the fact that the cottage's doorways were too small for me, the beds too short and lumpy, and often the mosquitos too aggressive, the cottage was a lazy, laid-back place where time stood still except for the children's demands for hot dogs, hamburgers and gallons of Koolaid. A small aluminum boat with a little motor was tied to the dock. It gave us access to Little Bald Lake and Big Bald Lake. Just a short walk from the cottage was a large swimming pool that belonged to the cottager's association of the area. Somehere in my dusty past there is a large painting I made to commemorate a moonlit night over Little Bald Lake.
When Jeff was born in 1969, we lived in an apartment on Manor Road in Toronto, right on the corner of Bayview Avenue and upstairs from Valentine Travel Service, the travel agency which Lukas Koops, Alice's father, owned. We bought our first family home a year later. It meant a move to the suburbs, but in the Metro Toronto region the "burbs" were just another part of the greater metroplex. Hopefully the move would mean nothing more to me, a city boy since birth, than a minor culture shock. We bought a new but modest, semi-detached home on Playford Avenue in Clarkson, a bedroom community that later amalgamated with the communities of Streetsville and Port Credit to become Mississauga. The drive downtown to my office was a forty-five minute commute . Within a few years, the whole area was nothing more than one great metropolitan mass. When we outgrew our home on Playford Road, we were able to sell the place for a good profit and buy a new and detached home on a tree-lined, orderly street in Port Credit. Our new family home was on Pine Avenue just a few houses from Lake Ontario. Our street ended in a little park right by the water. Even though we moved a lot, we never left the metropolitan area until our great migration to Gabriola Island, British Columbia. Other street addresses were Chalkdene Grove, Gatineau Avenue, and Mesa Crescent. When I muse over the many adventures of our family and the joy of experiencing life with so many children, my favourite places, the ones that were really "home," were Pine Avenue and Gatineau Avenue. I have over three thousand slides that chronicle our happy family years.
After we moved to British Columbia, however, I felt we could never put roots down again as a family. The move was so great and left so many friends behind, we were literally without roots, except for our spiritual roots which remained deep and strong. The children did not put down roots on Gabriola either, but soon began to call all of British Columbia "home," a sentiment I shared as well. The oldest two children, Jeff and Wendy, never really lived on Gabriola. The next two children, Angela and Karen, left home a few years after we moved to Gabriola, leaving only Suzanne and Matthew. Suzanne also longed to get off the island and Matthew, well, he truly became an islander. Then Suzanne moved into Nanaimo and all we have left at home is Matthew.
Needless to say, we were a family and we were a diverse family. Each child was a unique person and as we saw them grow up, we realized how much joy there was in watching our children grow up to be who they are, rather than what we wanted them to be. Sure, we raised them, disciplined them, fed them, clothed them, housed them, and above all loved them, and still do, but we recognized that each child would eventually have to chose his or her own path towards tomorrow. Both Alice and I agreed long ago that the best parenting philosophy has been to teach our children to be independent and free thinkers with a will of their own. That included spiritual choices, even though we have taught all our children about the Kingdom of God, and encouraged each and everyone of them to embrace that kingdom. Following in the "footsteps of mom and dad," and the Kingdom of God, would always be their freewill choice and not a mandatory one, even when we disagreed with our children's choices. Neither did we ever attach benefits and conditions to our footsteps. Whatever blessings we could bestow on any of the children we did so unconditionally. Family heirlooms and whatever inheritance may await them will never be on the condition that they did it our way.
I would be presumptuous to begin to describe each child in detail for fear of doing injustice to their personhood and forgetting what they may consider important things, I might have dismissed as minor incidents, yet they were nevertheless major to them. I write these words looking back with regret that times have passed too quickly. Were you to ask me, "would I do it all over again?" I would have to reply, "yes!" I could never imagine peace, joy, and happiness, without Jeff, Wendy, Angie, Karen, Suzanne, and Matthew, or without Alice.
That is not to say we had our "moments." Every real family has their moments. Some were joyful moments beyond words, other terrifying beyond description.
Image the terror one night when Alice and I returned home from visiting friends, only to find our front door wide open. It was late at night and very dark. Jeff and Wendy had been in charge, a task to which they rose often with great capability and absolute trust. All had gone well and the kids had gone to bed on time.
We pulled into our driveway late that evening to find the front door wide open. A stiff wind blew outside. Rain threatened. Instinctively I dashed inside and checked the bedrooms first. Everyone was accounted for except Angela. She was gone. We searched everywhere. Words cannot describe the feelings of a parent when panic threatens to choke mind and emotions because a child is missing. From thoughts of momentary separation in a busy shopping mall, to slipping out of sight on a busy beach, or going too close to deep waters in a lake, to outright disappearance, the cold icy grip that locked on my heart was horrible. Within seconds my mind recalled every abduction story, and every movie and television program whose ratings depended on violence and abuse. Angie was nowhere to be found. We prayed hoping to overide our fears with God's calm. At last we found her. She was under her bed and sound asleep, thoroughly wrapped in her big fluffy duvet that somehow had managed to fall off the bed on the floor. Like any child yearning for a safe warm place, Angie, in her sleep, had somehow inadvertently "followed" the duvet, only to curl sleepily inside its deep folds of warmth. What a sigh of relief.
I also remember the time a neighbour's child came running into our house.
"Jeff has hurt himself and it's serious."
We dashed across the street and found our son with a deep gash in his leg. Somehow the makeshift rope and pulley he had assembled to stretch from a friend's house to a tree in the neighbour's backyard, had given the kids a bigger joyride than they bargained for. The ride was too fast to control. When his turn came, Jeff found himself speeding uncontrollably towards the tree. Not only was the tree a formidable obstacle, it has a huge rusty nail in its trunk. Jeff hit the tree at full speed and jammed into the nail broadside. I had to fight back tears as his little boy figure sat on the doctor's table.
"This will hurt a bit," said the doctor as he began cleaning the wound and stitching it.
I think Jeff was more brave than I was.
I don't know who cried the loudest.
But such is my pain and anguish when children hurt, especially when they are my own children. That feeling has never left me and to this day when I see a child in pain, I hurt. Often that hurt turns to anger when I realize it was an adult or some playground bully who caused the pain. Sometimes I forget to forgive and "turn the other cheek," and I jump into the situation. Once I grabbed an older kid's arms as he tried to bully a younger kid. I threatened to hold him pinned to the wall until he grew old and gray, reminding him I was infinitely bigger and stronger than he was. I endured a barrage of foul insults, but I just pinned him harder to the wall. In the end he conceded loss and I let him go.
One day I received a call from Queensway Elementary School.
"Karen has fallen in the gym and she's really hurt."
Could I come over quickly.
I drove the six or seven kilometres in about two seconds. It still angers me when I think of the complete incompetence of the school, a very large school with all sorts of resources but no brains. Karen had fallen badly on a slippery gymnasium floor. The fact she slipped instantly into shock should have warned the teachers. Instead, they had carried Karen to the nurse's station, not even wondering if she could move or not or was in need of a stretcher. The designated school nurse simply ordered Karen to lay on a bench. No one called 911. You can imagine the scene when I arrived. I found a frightened little girl, my little "booboo" ( that's what I called Karen ), in complete shock. But, thank God, her dad was on the scene. Here came this big, six foot, four-and-a-half inches tall dad, carrying his precious girl in his arms to the van to take her to the hospital. Everyone cheered except Karen. She had gone into shock. Regrettably, the hospital was a display of total incompetence as well. In my heart I knew something was wrong with my Karen. She has stopped crying and just stared into space, whining softly, and frozen in shock. I carried her into the hospital's emergency ward. Remember, I was not crying "foul" in school and hospital simply because it was my child who was hurt and I wanted so bad to stop her pain. No, even when I think about it objectively, years later, it was borderline stupidity the way both institutions handled the accident.
I said to the desk nurse, "get this child in Xray - NOW! She's badly hurt!"
The nurse on duty groaned: "name please, address, phone, are you the father of the child, do you have an OHIP card, etc.,etc.,?"
I answered angrily. "Yes, but that can come later. Help my child."
I threatened to take matters into my own hands. After all, I knew a lot about hospitals having worked as an orderly in one of the biggest hospitals during my student years. Not only that, I had been a patient myself with kidney stones, an infected appendix, twice a broken arm, a pulled back, and a groin injury, not at the same time of course.
They sat Karen in a wheelchair and there she remained for two hours while we waited for a doctor and Xray technician. This is a big metropolitan hospital whose name I will not mention. All my efforts to expedite matters failed. At last they came for Karen. Amidst horrible cries of pain they tried to straighten her legs for the Xray machine. I still can feel the rage I felt when that hospital totally ignored my daughter's cries. When it was all over, the verdict was in. She had a broken leg. The fracture was major. She spent many weeks in a large leg cast. I tried to remain forgiving to the school and hospital. I have very low tolerance for incompetence, especially when basic first-aid is not even regarded as necessary in a large school, and hospitals are too busy "feathering" their own beds through management and union negotiations, to tend to the needs of a small child whose need was painfully obvious. All my professional training said: "use the media you know so well, and get even." All my faith said, "its not your battle to fight." Faith won.
Among our family moments of angst and helplessness also stand the monuments of laughter and unbridled joy. Jeff was a super paperboy. He loved soccer as well. Wendy took to liking ballet and hanging out with her friend, also a Wendy, but a Van Ravenstein. Angie and Karen were content to play in our family backyard pool during the hot and muggy days of summer. Angie had a knack for parading up and down the beach as if on some Parisian runway for fashion models. She grew up tall and slender with long legs. Karen loved a pail, a shovel and lots of beach sand. She loved eating the sand even more. We graduated our children from cloth diapers to those incredible disposable ones. Concerns for the environment took last place in light of years of diaper pails whose pungent odours crept everywhere through the house. We couldn't just throw them in a washing machine either. We first had to soak those smelly cloths, then wash them. All our children were breastfed and lived to tell about it. Alice and believe it's the best thing for a child. Yes, I even envied some of those intimate moments between Alice and the children as they were so lovingly nursed.
From first sounds, to first words, to first steps, the journey of our family was a living experience of joy the way it was meant to be. Of course we can remember sleepless nights when fever ruled our young household, and babies who puked all over themsleves and us, or when a little bottom exploded so much that a thick and yellow mustard oozed from even the most sophisticated of disposable diapers. Then there were the times of pottie-training, graduation from liquids to solids, favourite junk foods, and not-so-favourite vegetables. But we always blessed our food with prayer. Again, they all survived.
I suspect that our children, when they read this book, will first of all look for any mention of their names in the text. Have I exposed some hidden secret or displayed some embarrasing moment of the past and for all to see? No, I have not. They will be hard pressed to find any such secrets. In fact, I did not intend to write to any great length about any of our children. After all, some day it will be their turn to add to the Verstraete venture the account of their own lives. Suffice it to say, however, that each child has engraved in our conscience unforgettable memories. These memories are the stuff of which special people are made, and our children are special people indeed. Each one is an individual in his or her own right. No two are the same. It also remains a mystery as to which "side of the family" we can attribute any of their characteristics. I must not be too quick or too hasty to point the finger at the Koops family, and credit their legacy through Alice with such undesirable characteristics as an ingrained determination, independence, stubborness and a downright argumentative spirit often displayed in the Koopsies. Nor can I point my finger at more desirable and refined cultural attributes such as academic prowess and leadership qualities, only to conclude they must be Verstraete's. I do know that when I consider math and the sciences, Alice's side of the family must take full credit. Alice's father was a genious with numbers. When I examine the roots of our musical and artistic talents, I concede that these appear to have greater presence in the Verstraete family. My father was a European master bookbinder. My mother was a poet, author of books for children, violinist, and gradeschool teacher. Even though my father's side of the family listed a lengthy heritage of ship builders and related trades, my mother's side boasted of accomplished Dutch fine art painters. There was, however, a certain Théodore Verstraete, who was a renowned Flemish naturalist painter, who lived from 1851 to 1907.
When translated into the unique fabric of each of our children I see the writer, poet, and philosopher, in our oldest son Jeff. Is there a teacher hidden beneath his gentle demeanour? Wendy in turn, is a master in her own right of the complicated twists and turns of business and office management. Is there a community leader hidden beneath her organizational skills? Angela continues to excel in the fine art of music, with voice and piano, with specific application in the area of worship leadership in the church. Is she a pastor-in-waiting? But then she's busy with hubby Jeff and daughter Haley, our first grandchild. Karen definitely has her father's artistic genes with a cross-over between visual arts, voice and music. She denies the connection but I detect a smile in her voice. At last, someone who will walk in my footsteps? But then, she has a pastor's heart as well, like Alice's. Suzanne displays a real passion for writing. However, that quality is better left hidden in secret journals and diaries for now. Her ambition has not ruled out some professional place in television, motion picture, and music video production either. A next-generation Spielberg perhaps? Matthew seems to display mathematical skills whose only expression at present are in a mastery of video games. Like Jeffrey, he also has a desire to play sports, specifically skateboarding, yet he finds time to discipline himself in learning to play electric and acoustic guitars. Will he walk in Alice's footsteps? Come to think of it, when I think of all our children and their talents, Alice and I have everything we need to manage and operate an "in-house" national arts organization and world-wide ministry. Would that Masterpeace Fine Art Studio and the ministry of the Christian Communications Centre could employ them all and give each the freedom to excel in whatever talents they have been given. Is that not the secret dream of every father and mother?
I would be amiss if I forgot to mention Benny.
Alice and I have never been dog lovers, but when the opportunity came in the late nineties, to look after Wendy's little Benny, we had nothing but affection for that friendly pooch. It helped a lot of course that Benny did not shed hair. He also ate well and responded favourably to just about every "treat" imaginable. He was perfectly trained. Except for an occasional hairball, he never dirtied the floor, soiled the carpet, or messed up the furniture. In Wendy's words, Benny has always been a "good boy."
I must speak, however, about one peculiar characteristic of all of our children, at least the ones who managed to survive those awkward teens. Our children developed or inherited a knack for bringing strangers home. I know Alice's father was prone to doing the same thing, but I do not recall my father or mother ever exhibiting such hospitality. Somehow, our children managed to discover the needy, the homeless, and the fractured young souls of a disfunctional world. What usually began as friendships soon turned into co-dependencies. Visits turned into sleep-overs and family meals. Many were completely foreign to the idea of a family that ate and prayed together. To the best of my knowledge, our children have lived in peace with one another and have loved each other as true brothers and sisters. There have never been "family fueds" in our home. For many of the strangers who came into our house, this phenomena called "a real family of love and peace," was something very new and a pleasant experience.
It was a total surprise to Donna.
For a season Donna came to us and soon we became "mom" and "dad". Wendy brought Donna home one day. She was an aboriginal girl from a native band living on Bear Island, near North Bay, Ontario. She and Wendy were classmates. The Bear Island band council deemed it suitable to send Donna south to Mississauga to attend school. We witnessed Wendy and Donna grow up together through all phases of rebellion and obedience, complete with white, black and purple hair. They remained friends for many years. Donna had become part of the family. One weekend Donna ran away. Wendy had a hunch she went back to North Bay. When I volunteered to drive all the way to northern Ontario to find Donna, Wendy's face lit up. It became a wonderful bonding journey between father and daughter. We found Donna. However, she had decided to stay in North Bay. At least the friendship was still secure, only now "visits" were by phone. How much later I do not remember, but one day Donna returned to the metropolitan Toronto area for a a season, but her roots were in northern Ontario. In the end, however, Donna went back to her native home and stayed on Bear Island to raise a family.
On yet another day, Wendy came home with Katherine. That was over ten years ago and to this day she is still our special "adopted" daughter and we are are "mom" and "dad". She was barely sixteen when she came into our family. Slender, with a south European complexion, Portugese to be exact, and long black hair, she certainly was no Verstraete. We were destined to remain blond or light brown, with blue or brown eyes complete with an occasional blend of darker hair, and an overall fair complexion, the northern European kind. Katherine and Wendy became inseparable friends with ambitious plans to live their lives together forever, marriage or no marriage, career or no career. Many years later Katherine became the subject of three large drawings I completed in my island studio. How can I ever forget her laughter and her generous hugs. There were others who came "home" to our cozy and loving family, but Donna and Katherine I remember most vividly. Eventually, as the whole family moved west, Katherine came to British Columbia as well. Yet, British Columbia could not keep her for very long. Soon she moved back to Ontario. Wendy remained in British Columbia.
Perhaps, as the old proverb once said, "the apple did not fall far from the tree."
After all, I brought people home as well during our family years.
There was Tony, who I had met on a mission trip to Mexico. He lived with his mother in Mission, British Columbia. He was a bright and energetic young man who excelled in the art of dressing in-style, and "looking good" with the times. He joined us to help with the church we planted in Missisauga. His mission was to be a youth worker as well as assist our praise and worship team of which we had none at the time. We had high expectations of Tony, but soon, however, his mission changed from ministry work to a fancy for our oldest daughter, Wendy. Things did not turn out according to Tony's plans and he left for his home province.
Some years after Katherine came into our family, a young woman from Jarvis moved in. Her name was Bernice Stegenga. She began attending a young adults group in the church where I was an elder at the time. Within a matter of months, I ended up with a special ministry to our young adults and as church elder, I was given charge over all young people. The group had grown from a handful to over seventy. When word got around that my group was a lively and charismatic bunch, young men and women started to attend from near and far. Bernice was an "out-of-towner" from Jarvis, deep in tobacco country and farm heartland of south western Ontario. She was considerably more mature in her walk of faith compared to the other young adults. She also had a fabulous singing voice. She became a wonderful friend of both Alice and I, and one day she approached us with the news she felt God's leading to join our family and assist us in our ministry work. A few weeks later she joined the happy Verstraete clan to assist in our ministry and specifically to help Alice with homeschooling our children. She was a blessing to all of us and soon became an inseparable part of the family, as much as any of our children. Her room in the basement was a menagerie of books, sewing implements, decorator items, and a big old wooden dresser. When our journey turned west, we gave Bernice the freedom to choose to stay in Ontario or feel welcome to join us in our next faith adventure. She chose west. We towed her car behind a large moving truck as our little convoy threaded along the Trans Canada Highway towards British Columbia. The year was 1993.
We made a comfortable "home" for her in a little wooden cabin right behind our rented house, amidst the tall trees and dense forests of Gabriola Island. It was a cozy cabin just steps from our family diningroom, hot showers and the only washroom. It was also a cabin inhabited by too many spiders - big fat ones. Spiders, however, gave way to country charm when many deer visited our backyard just outside Bernice's cabin window. I must confess it will require another volume of the Verstraete Venture to recall all the adventures with Bernice, so I will encourage her to write her own account. All in all, and many years later, she's still part of the family, and our friendship continues to be an unforgettable adventure with Bernice, an adventure that began an even greater chapter when she met David Dewinetz, who at that time was owner of the island supermarket and a die-hard fishing and hockey enthusiast. Alice and I will never forget their January wedding as bride, groom, friends and family, stood in our livingroom for a special ceremony. Dave installed outdoor spotlights complete with motion detectors to ensure the wedding guests would not trip in the dark as they made their way to our livingroom-turned-wedding-chapel.
Even though our natural family began moving our by the late nineties, our spiritual family kept growing. Wendy and Jeff eventually made their home in Nanaimo. Angie went off to Bible college. Then she met and married Jeff Jaggard in 2000, and moved to Colorado Springs. Karen fell in love with fellow islander Doug Jordan and they were married in 2002. Their home is Nanaimo as well. However, other precious names, perhaps only known to Alice and I and a few close to us, also became part of the family. These were and are a number of special people over whom we were given charge for a season. For many that season is still in full bloom. I risk inadvertently omitting some of them, but Alice and I will never forget such people as Jim, Joanne, Gary, Colleen, Greg, Sandra, Nancy, Dan, Alisha, Kathryn, Nathan, Jessica, Carla, Bernice, Dave, Bonnie, Denny, Lorraine, Al and the other Lorraine, Dennis, Terry, John, Jane, Brenda, Bob, Ken, Tammy, Wayne, Karyn-grace, Ethyl, and Victor, just to name a few, as well as precious children such as Ciaran, Sarah, Katie, Claudia, Timothy, Shekinah, Daniel, Coulten, Jessie, Nathan, Malissa, Jake, Hannah, little Sarah, Josh, Courtney, Dustin, Drew, and all the rest of our "children" in Gabriola's Church On The Rock family. How blessed I am to remain in love for as long as I have breath, in love with a family that keeps on growing.
In July 2001, Alice and I became godparents and legal guardians to Ciaran, Alisha's daughter. Sometimes I feel guilty because I forget my own brothers and sisters, all of whom live in Ontario, except for my older brother Beert, who lives in Nova Scotia. I have the closest relationship with my two brothers, Beert and Baldwin. But I am comforted by the words of Jesus who when told his mother and siblings needed Him, said, "who is my family?" as He turned to His extended family, His friends and disciples. Ours in an extended family whose struggles and defeats, whose joys and pains, and whose challenges and victories, are a daily part of my life. When all our children including our extended ones, face a wild and frightening world they often call or come home for the comfort of a home-cooked dinner, prayer, and words of encouragement. That is family, every one of them. When Alisha's mother died too young on January 14, 2002, her pain became our pain as Alice and I, as well as a others in our fellowship, nurtured her through the sorrow of losing a mother. Her joy became our joy when tears turned once again to laughter. That too is family.