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An Important Unveiling

By Honorary Colonel Gerald P. J. Haddon,
Royal Canadian Air Force

NS1 7660

Portrait Bust of The Honourable J. A. D. McCurdy

Amanda and I set off from Oakville, Ontario to drive to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where the Bras d’Or waters beckoned us with a sparkling welcome. Lorna MacDonald, Professor of Voice Studies at the University of Toronto, is the Creator and Librettist of “The Bells of Baddeck”, a Music-Drama which tells the story of Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell and how the small hamlet of Baddeck captured their hearts. Lorna invited me to come to Nova Scotia where the month-long production was taking place, July 2 - August 2, 2016, at The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site to participate in several of the pre-performance “Bell Chats” and to give some speeches. This truly remarkable and inspiring production captures the spirit of one of Canada’s most beloved inventors and I was honoured to have been afforded the opportunity to expand on the life of my grandfather who was one of “Bell’s boys”.

Born on August 2nd, 1886 and brought up in Baddeck, young Douglas McCurdy could be found at Beinn Bhreagh helping Bell with his glider and kite experiments. When not assisting Bell, McCurdy would often be playing with Elsie and Daisy Bell. My grandfather remained lifelong friends with Bell’s daughters and was a frequent visitor to Beinn Bhreagh even into his seventies. During his childhood, McCurdy met many famous scientists and inventors drawn to this small hamlet of 100 people because of Dr. Bell’s worldwide reputation. Having lost two sons in infancy, Bell wanted to adopt my grandfather when he was five years old, so strong was the bond that had developed between the two of them. Had it not been for his strong-minded and motherly maiden Aunt Georgina McCurdy, he would undoubtedly have become the Bell's legal son. “J.A.D. McCurdy was born a McCurdy, and by God, he will die a McCurdy,” she firmly stated. However, Bell did become a godfather to my grandfather and in 1893, Dr. and Mrs. Bell took my grandfather, age seven, to Washington, D.C. where he spent a very happy year as part of their family. Later on, recognizing my grandfather to be a brilliant student, Dr. Bell helped sponsor his education to St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario and encouraged my grandfather to attend the University of Toronto’s School of Mechanical Engineering, where he was the youngest student to be admitted to the University.

My grandparents had a beautiful summer house in Baddeck where I spent many blissful holidays as a young boy. And it was here that “Gampy”, as I called him, taught me how to sail. Navigating around the Bras d’Or Lake as a young boy with his two brothers, he became aware of the power of the wind and what it could do. And from those early days, a life long curiosity was born, a curiosity which would lead him to become an extraordinary engineer and gifted pilot with a list of glittering aviation firsts.

I was asked by Professor MacDonald to give some post performance speeches at the museum about my Grandfather, Honorary Air Commodore, The Hon J. A. D. McCurdy, Canada’s first pilot who made the first flight in the British Empire on February 23, 1909 in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, as a member of the Aerial Experiment Association, in a fragile aeroplane he designed and built called the Silver Dart. To be able to give a talk in the Bell Museum under a replica Silver Dart built by a group of volunteers of which I was one was an unforgettable moment. The Aerial Experiment Association was born on October 1, 1907, in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Members of the group called themselves “Associates” and were five in number: Alexander Graham Bell, J. A. D. McCurdy, Casey Baldwin, Thomas Selfridge, and Glenn Curtis. The Aerial Experiment Association was formed with one purpose in mind, “To get a man into the air.” Commenting on the A.E.A., Dr Bell said: “We breathed an atmosphere of aviation from morning till night and almost from night to morning … I may say for myself that this Association with these young men proved to be one of the happiest times of my life.”

Not only did we participate in The Bells of Baddeck but my wife and I also travelled on to Halifax where we were graciously invited by His Honour Brigadier-General the Honourable J. J. Grant, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia to stay in Government House for the unveiling of a magnificent Portrait Bust of J. A. D. McCurdy, commissioned by the Province of Nova Scotia.

Some sixty years ago, I had over the course of my grandfather’s tenure as the 20th Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia stayed at Government House numerous times. It is the oldest official residence in Canada and has been the working residence of the Sovereign's representative in Nova Scotia for more than 200 years. This beautiful Georgian home and National Historic Site contains an impressive collection of art and antiques that reflect the province's history and heritage. Their Honours insisted that Amanda and I explore the history and beauty of Government House adding that we were free to wander throughout the residence. It was wonderful to revisit so many of the magnificent rooms that I had last explored as a young school boy. And Government House was a treasure trove of fascinating rooms to a curious ten year old. On being called downstairs to meals, I remember the long banister which I would zoom down with wild abandon much to the disapproval of my concerned grandmother but to the great amusement of my grandfather.

I also recall many discussions with my grandfather and the lessons which he passed on to me, as I quietly sat at his feet. My grandfather taught me some of the endearing and durable qualities that make Nova Scotians such special people. He was born in Baddeck and never forgot his roots. When Prime Minister MacKenzie King appointed him Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, the press besieged my grandfather for a comment. He said he was privileged and honoured and would perform his duties “as well as a country boy from Cape Breton could.” In spite of the many honours that came his way during his lifetime, he always remained a modest man, who invariably directed the conversation towards others.

As the King’s Representative, McCurdy relished his new position because it provided him the opportunity to serve his beloved Province from where so much of his worldwide fame came. In his Vice-Regal position, he met people from every station in life and invariably treated each individual exactly the same. Whatever he accomplished in his post as Lieutenant Governor, it was McCurdy’s talent for maintaining the common touch - in spite of the required dignity of his official position - which endeared him to the thousands who came to know him. And, to a young boy such as myself, he was a magnificent figure in his official uniform. He truly was my hero.

In 1959, the Queen appointed my grandfather an Honorary Air Commodore in recognition of the 50th Anniversary of his historic flight. The only other person, at that time, sharing the same distinction was Sir Winston Churchill.

That same year, in celebration of his flight, The Royal Canadian Air Force appointed J. A. D. McCurdy, the very first civilian Honorary Colonel of the RCAF. As fortunate as I am to have been mentored by and been born the grandson of J. A. D. McCurdy, it is a singular honour for me to carry on this tradition in my role as an Honorary Colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

A Canadian artist of international stature, Christian Corbet, was entrusted with the responsibility of sculpting my grandfather’s work. At the unveiling of the Portrait Bust, I was breathless at first, vainly searching for words to describe what my eyes were attempting to absorb; the Portrait is so lifelike that I felt my grandfather would speak at any moment. Made of a bronzed resin, the sculpture is a light blue bronze in colour. As Christian explains: “J. A. D. McCurdy spent a lot of time looking to the sky and and to the water for his inspiration so I decided to incorporate the blue hue into the bust.” Canadians are indeed most fortunate to have Christian Corbet create and donate this historic piece and I would like to recognize his dedication and skill as an artist in sculpting this magnificent portrait of a man I knew and loved. Amanda and I are also extremely grateful to Their Honours for graciously hosting this remarkable and unique event and for commissioning the sculpture. Government House has now placed the bust of my grandfather in the State Dining Room and, when one enters this resplendent room, the eye is immediately drawn to the McCurdy Portrait Bust. Opposite my grandfather is a beautiful portrait painting of Her Majesty The Queen which is situated above the splendid marble fireplace mantle as well as a bust of His Excellency Major-General the Right Honourable Georges Vanier, the 19th Governor General of Canada.

Leaving Government House, I could not help recalling a remark made by Gilbert Grosvenor, the Chairman of the National Geography Society, who wrote in 1959 that he had known Lindbergh, Amundsen, Byrd, Peary, Shackleton and stated, “I regard J. A. D. McCurdy as a man who ranks with the very greatest of these.”

As The Right Honourable Georges Vanier put it: “In our march forward in material happiness, let us not neglect the spiritual threads in the weaving of our lives. If Canada is to attain the greatness worthy of it, each of us must say, ‘I ask only to serve.” My grandfather changed forever the world of his time by believing in a dream: a dream of flight and of putting a man into the air. He served his province and his nation with excellence and with pride.

Honoured beyond words to be his grandson, I am delighted that we paid homage in Government House to the man whom many consider to be the Father of Canadian Aviation.

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Their Honours, The Honourable and Mrs. Grant, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, left. Mrs Haddon, HCol Haddon, right.

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HCol Haddon, left. His Honour, right.

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HCol Haddon, left. His Honour, right.

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Christian Corbet, the artist, left; Mrs Haddon, HCol Haddon, left. Their Honours, right.

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 HCol and Mrs Haddon