Ron Phillips was the oldest sibling in his family in Melfort, Sask. when the Second World War broke out in 1939, but he was too young to enlist for the military, even through the end of the conflict.
As part of a farming family whose key contribution to the war effort was to provide food, Ron always felt that he wanted to contribute in some other way.
Fast forward to the 2000s. Ron, living in Langford with his wife Jean since 1970, continues to support veteran’s causes and is a regular attendee at Remembrance Day ceremonies.
One day his daughter Colleen Donnelly, a local travel consultant who specializes in group excursions, invites him to come along on a two-week European battlefield tour that she and husband Joe, a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian military have set up called Maple Leaf Forever. Phillips is thrilled and quickly agrees to go.
Many of the tours, which ran between 2001 and 2005, included veterans, some of whom actually fought in the areas they were visiting. For Ron, sitting with the war vets and listening to their stories from all those years ago was his way to give back.
“A lot of veterans travelled with us and it was their first time back after all those years, facing their past,” Colleen said in an interview last week. “Dad went on the first and the last tour. What he loved the most was to be able to spend time with the veterans who travelled with us, in the evenings over a beer, and listen to their stories. He was glued to everything they had to say.”
Not only did Phillips provide a listening ear to aging veterans, he came up with another idea to help honour Canada’s fallen soldiers. A meticulous guy who was in the plumbing business for years, he handmade tiny crosses using popsicle sticks and poppies. The handcrafted items were included in a bag given to the tour members as something to leave behind in memory of those who never came back from the war.
“He was a perfectionist,” Colleen recalled. “He would take the poppy sticks and grind them down so they were even, and glue the poppies onto the front. (By creating the crosses) he touched the hearts of the veterans and family members who travelled with us.”
Between 2001 and 2005, she estimated, roughly 350 people took part in the Maple Leaf Forever tours in northwest Europe and Italy. A quick calculation in her head determined that her dad created close to 10,000 of the poppy crosses.
“He always wished that he could sign up, but he was too young,” Colleen said. “This was his way of showing his appreciation and that (others’ military service and sacrifices) really meant something to him.”
Ron passed away in January of this year at 84 from the effects of Alzheimer disease and will be remembered, among other things, for the love and care he put into the cross project. A recent republishing of a photo of two of Phillips’ poppy crosses on the cenotaph on the front of the News Gazette’s Remembrance Day section, prompted Donnelly to see if she had any left. Sure enough, she discovered around 200 in a bag in a drawer.
She gave her seven-year-old grandson, Carson Sanders, a bag of the crosses to pass out to his classmates at school to help mark Remembrance Day. She hoped that he would tell a story of how the handmade mementos came to be.
Jean Phillips, Ron’s widow and lifelong partner, recalled her husband spending hours working on the project. “He just put his heart and soul into it,” she said. She was glad to hear that Colleen found a stash of the poppy crosses to allow locals to keep them or place them in remembrance.
“If they can be placed on the cenotaph each year, I think it would be a very nice contribution and a memorable thing for him,” Jean said. “Unfortunately he’s not around to enjoy it, but our family knows that he is being recognized for his efforts.”
This year’s Remembrance Day service was Ron’s family’s first without him. But every time they find a tiny poppy cross laid carefully on the cenotaph, it’ll be a reminder of the man and the importance he placed on the service of others.