Done Roamin’

Posted on September 8, 2020 under Storytelling with 3 comments


The late Ronnie Gillis

I interviewed Ronnie  5 years ago in early September. He died last week. He was one of the most interesting people I had met and I enjoyed hearing his remarkable life while sitting in his living room on Dunroamin Road. I thought it might be appropriate to re-post this story. Godspeed, Ronnie.

The first thing you notice when you enter Ronnie Gillis’ carefully manicured property is an old ride-on lawn mower. When you have a sizeable acreage this is understandable; and more so when one considers that the driver of this piece of equipment is within arm’s reach of 90 years of age. I am scarcely out of the car when he walks spryly onto the deck to welcome me. I am soon to find out that Ronnie has spent most of his life driving things.

There was a time when being able to drive anything seemed a stretch. When he was 13, Ronnie developed blood poisoning. For a month he lay in a hospital bed with the very real possibility of losing one of his legs. Only through the intervention of Dr. MacIsaac was his limb saved. However, this proved to be the end of Ronnie’s schooling, as the 3 kilometer walk to and from school in Malignant Cove proved impossible.

But this setback did not prevent Ronnie from living a long, busy, active life. Far from it.

While his father was in the services in the Second World War, Ronnie worked hard tending to the family farm. He raised two colts and cared for the other farm animals. During one memorable winter storm, his mother and their neighbor, a Mrs. Mac Kenzie, got stranded in Antigonish. The roads were impassable. Ronnie and his siblings managed to keep the household going. When it became apparent that the women wouldn’t be getting home any time soon, Ronnie wandered over to the Mac Kenzie’s house knowing that they had a dog. But it wasn’t just any dog. It was a beast, and some say as ferocious as the one in Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

Ronnie, although slightly intimidated, knew that the dog would be hungry. He brought him some food; the dog was appreciative and befriended him. He brought the dog bones and scraps every day of its owner’s absence.

After three days, the road still weren’t open and so Mrs. Gillis and Mrs. Mackenzie decided to walk on foot from town to Doctor’s Brook, going the back road through Cloverville and Big Marsh. They waded through hip-deep snow and found accommodation each evening along the way. Two days later they arrived home. When Mrs. Mackenzie got to her house, the dog was very happy, needless to say. When she entered the house, she gasped, for there on the floor stood a small pile of bones. Her immediate thought was that an intruder had broken in, only to be eaten by her four legged friend.

In his late teens Ronnie bought his first truck from Phonse Sears at Eastern Auto. And no, this wasn’t for driving around to impress young women. This was a working vehicle and it didn’t take too long for Ronnie to find employment hauling pulp. He worked for a spell with the Department of Highways and credits his supervisor, Rod “The Highways” Chisholm, for much of the good fortune that would befall him in his work career. You see, Rod gave him a letter of recommendation which turned out to be his ticket out of Nova Scotia to the “Boston States”.

His first job in the mid 50’s in Boston was with Railway Express, where he worked for 20 years. The work day only started at 9:30 A. M. But Ronnie was an early bird because of his life growing up on a farm. A friend suggested that he take a job driving one of the early morning school bus routes in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston. When Railway Express went out of business in 1975, Ronnie became assistant superintendent of transportation for the entire Wellesley School Board. His knowledge of the streets in and around Boston became legendary. He continued to work for the Board until his retirement in 1986.

During his time in Boston he met some very prominent citizens, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology being one of them. The first time they met, the president asked him the routine questions one would expect in a first encounter. “I’m from Canada,” said Ronnie. Upon further prodding he explained “I’m from Nova Scotia; a place called Doctor’s Brook”.   The president’s eyes lit up. “Oh, you must live between Dunn’s Rock and The Brook!” Needless to say, Ronnie was flabbergasted. You see, for over a quarter century, geologists and other scholars from the New England States had made an annual pilgrimage to Crystal Cliffs to study, among other things, the composition of rocks. They were intimately aware of the coast line along the Northumberland Strait.

After his retirement in Wellesley, Ronnie and his wife, Celestine, decided to move back to Canada. He hinted that it might have been his wife who made that decision. I asked him if they ever quarreled. He was quick to point out that “Celestine was the boss of the house.” (A good answer – the Editor). They lived at first in the town of Antigonish but eventually built a house out on Dunroamin Road in Doctor’s Brook, where he still resides.

Celestine died in 2007 and Ronnie remains in their home, tending to all of the household duties and the yard work. He figures that his active lifestyle has contributed to his longevity. He goes to church regularly, something that his mother insisted from an early age. He is a dyed in the wool Boston Red Sox fan and enjoyed their World Series wins in 2004, 2007 and 2013. Ronnie never took part in sports because of his leg injury as a teenager, and because he was simply too busy for most of his working life.

He is resourceful and independent. His upbringing demanded both.

As he escorts me to the door, I ask him about the lawnmower. Apparently he has taken it apart and put it back together more times than one can count. Has he ever entertained the thought of buying a new one, I muse? “No. Someone might steal it,” he replies, with a twinkle in his eye. I ask him to pose for a picture.

The boy from Dunroamin is done roamin’.

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