A tool box is stolen, and memories of my father come rushing back


Kevin Donovan's father, Tom, seen in Moncton, N.B., in the late 1940s. Tom Donovan was many things, Kevin writes: among them, a boxer, a builder and a raconteur.
Kevin Donovan’s father, Tom, seen in Moncton, N.B., in the late 1940s. Tom Donovan was many things, Kevin writes: among them, a boxer, a builder and a raconteur.  (Family photo)  

There’s a story that goes with the vintage green and yellow Robertson No. 1 screwdriver I no longer own.

In 1966, when my father was building our home on 40 acres in Lambeth, Ont., he had an electrician named McDuff. Working on the electrical panel in the basement one morning, McDuff was holding the grip of the screwdriver and inadvertently touched a hot spot. The resulting flash from the panel had two results: it jolted the electrician back and it fried the screwdriver. McDuff was fine; the screwdriver emerged functional but with a slight bend in the centre.

When my father, Tom, died in 1983, I inherited his tool kit. That well-used screwdriver remained in my tool box until it, and my Toyota Highlander, was stolen from our driveway on a recent rainy night in Etobicoke.

My father was a jack of all trades — labourer, carpenter, real estate agent and singer (the latter only at home). I grew up in his shadow, hammering, building, painting — whatever he told me to do, because that’s the way it was. I became a tool guy, and if you are reading this you will either get what I mean or you won’t. Other than some photos, that green screwdriver with the distinctive grooved, yellow stripes and the perfectly honed square head was my last physical connection to the man I credit with teaching me some valuable life lessons.

“Work hard. Do your best,” he would say.

Tom Donovan was born in September 1923 and grew up in Lambeth, a borough of London, England. He had many brothers and sisters, some who died very young and hardly any who lived to a ripe old age. Mother Ellen was a matriarch. Father Patrick was gassed in the Great War, became a drunk, a “barrow boy” hauling produce to markets, and died when my dad was 5. Young Tom kept vigil alone overnight with the coffin.

Tom Donovan as a boy in London, England, in the late 1920s.
Tom Donovan as a boy in London, England, in the late 1920s.

The closest approximation to a description of his upbringing in a tiny tenement was the book Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. All jammed into two rooms, no toilet, no running water, an icebox that ran on ice. Dropping out of school in the early grades, he showed an entrepreneurial streak. He would trundle a wheelbarrow to Fleet St. and with some friends collect tightly wound leftover newsprint, selling these chunks of compressed paper either to road builders who would tar over them, or to the local fish and chips store for meal wraps. He broke his arm twice playing football. The second time he did not tell his mother for several days because he did not want to bother her. She spotted the swelling and it was off to the hospital.

When war came in 1939, Tom was at first too young to join, and took a job as a bellhop at the famed Savoy Hotel. Singing cowboy and movie star Gene Autry rode his horse into the lobby one day as a stunt. In 1941, American war correspondent Ernie Pyle had an encounter with my dad at the Savoy which Pyle immortalized in a war dispatch that, unlike the screwdriver, nobody can take away. More on that later.

Those were years of frantic excitement. Dad had to cross one of London’s famous bridges to get home each night. Dogfights between German and British aircraft raged overhead. He joined the Royal Navy in 1942 and served in the Adriatic on a small battleship whose name I never wrote down. And he was a boxer, a good one, continuing to fight when after the war he left for the promise of Canada. With his first wages he sent home an electric refrigerator to his mother.

He was not at all a tool guy when he took a job for meagre wages as a stevedore in New Brunswick. Told to cut a plank in half with a handsaw, he stood it on end, climbed up a makeshift ladder and was about to cut it lengthwise until the foreman yelled at him.

He gave me hammering, building and boxing lessons. There was an old 78 record (which my sister Wendy has transferred to a CD) of one of his boxing matches in New Brunswick. Through the crackle of the old recording it’s clear Tom Donovan is winning, and the squeaky play-by-play commentator gives staccato reports (“A jab to the left from Donovan, to the right … to the left!”). At every break in the action the voice of the sponsor cuts in with “That Tommy Donovan, he’s as wholesome as Lane’s Bread,” a reference to Lane’s Bakery in Moncton.

Both of my parents shaped me in different ways. My mother, Norma, was and is peace. Dad was thunder. And oh how he could carry on when he was angry. If he was mercury, he would burst a thermometer.

Tea was always served after lessons. On Father’s Day, I always set aside a few minutes to reach back and capture a memory from growing up under his critical, chaotic eye.

One day — I was 10, I think — we were preparing to drywall the high ceiling of a house on Wharncliffe Rd. in London. The topsy-turvy family business included buying and renovating old houses and renting them to university students. My father was on a ladder, his strong arms straining, hollering for a tool. “Bring me the rig!”

Dropping the work he had me doing, I rushed over with what I thought was the appropriate “rig.” It was wrong and he blasted me, as he often did to all his four children. My second guess was better and I delivered a wrecking bar up the ladder. The storm passed, and out came the flasks of tea. The funny thing was, he would get angry at small things. The big stuff, the really big mistakes, he had my back. Our kids never met him, but they know the “rig” and other stories well.

He was frugal. We removed nails from old planks, straightened and reused them. He drove his old Pontiac up and down streets looking for a meter with money on it. He taught me pool and ping-pong. Thanks to him I can build and fix most things. But what he gave me that I hold most dear is his love of storytelling. This was a dirt-poor kid who dropped out of school at a young age, but who became a voracious reader as an adult, amassing a surprising depth of knowledge. And he could spin a tale, breathing warm blood into musty characters from days past.

Tom and Norma, who had their own financial struggles, borrowed to buy a rural plot of land in the mid-1960s in Lambeth, Ont., 6,000 kilometres from where he was born. That’s when the green screwdriver was purchased. I have broken and misplaced a lot of tools in my day, but that one had staying power. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, a car is stolen in this country every seven minutes. Judging from what the cops have told me, the Toyota, and perhaps the screwdriver, is enjoying a new life in Russia or North Africa.

Star editor and reporter Kevin Donovan says his father taught him many things — but most important, a love of storytelling.
Star editor and reporter Kevin Donovan says his father taught him many things — but most important, a love of storytelling.  (David Cooper)  

Tom Donovan died as he lived, dramatically — a massive heart attack in the winter of ’83, while about to have his first bath after a previous heart attack. It was a lucky break that I was home with my parents that night. I broke down the door of the second-floor bathroom and found him naked, eyes back in his head, dying, blood on his face from where he hit the vanity on the way down. My attempts at CPR failed and somehow my mother and I wrapped him in a blanket and got him into one of our ancient cars. We tore off to a hospital, stopping at our local volunteer fire department, where one of the guys, who had once been my scout leader, took charge.

A memory from that washroom drama: for a reason I cannot recall I, then 20, said to him between chest compressions, “Dad, please don’t die. We will never go to another baseball game.” What is odd about that is that though we went to see hockey and other sports, we never once attended a baseball game. Weird, the things you say at these times.

Of all my father’s wartime stories, the one that has a surprising twist is the Ernie Pyle story. Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. He passed through London often and stayed at the Savoy, where my father was employed. Heading out to dinner on the Strand one night with a friend, moving through pedestrians rushing to get home before, as Pyle would write, “blackouts and bombers could catch them,” young Tom ran up behind them and pressed a telegram into Pyle’s hand. His mother, so much a part of Pyle’s life and writings, had died far away, in Indiana.

I remember Dad telling me how he felt so sad for this grizzled veteran of war coverage, how he brought him tea and listened to stories of his late mother. Not long before my father died, we were in the London (Ontario) Public Library and he suggested, given my interest in journalism, that we look for some of Pyle’s books.

“Well, what do you know?” he said later that night from his spot on the couch in our living room, as we pored over volumes that included a collection of Pyle’s dispatches printed after he was killed by a sniper bullet in Japan in 1945.

I know life did not turn out the way my father intended. Too little money. Too much work. Probably too many arguments. But on Father’s Day, I always think of that big smile, and the hint of a tear, on his face as he read published words that brought back a memory from long ago:

On the afternoon that I was leaving London, I called little Tom Donovan, the bellboy, to my room. My bags were all packed. One by one the floor servants had come in, and I had given the farewell tips.

But because I liked him, and more than anything else, I supposed, because he had shared with me the message of finality, I wanted to do something more for Tom than for the others. And so, in the gentlest way I could, I started to give him a pound note.

But a look of distress came into his face and he blurted out, “Oh no Mr. Pyle, I couldn’t.” And then he stood there so straight in his little English uniform and suddenly tears came into his eyes, and they rolled down his cheeks and made him choked and speechless, and then he turned and ran through the door. I never saw him again.

Kevin Donovan is the Star’s investigative editor and a reporter. In his 32 years at the Star he has probed cops, charities, government and the ORNGE air ambulance agency, covered Rob Ford and Jian Ghomeshi, and reported on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.


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