The pillar of Providence Bay
PROVIDENCE BAY—Exceptional individuals illuminate their community, and, with their vision and strength of character, instill courage in others. Exceptional people reach beyond mundane limits in order to achieve the extraordinary, whether on the playing field, in business, faith or family and such an individual was Murray McDermid of Providence Bay who passed away at the age of 85 on September 28.
Born James Murray McDermid on July 16, 1930, on the Anstice farm in Tehkummah, Mr. McDermid was known as “Spud” to many of his teammates on the ball field, the hockey rink or curling sheet—although exactly why that nickname stuck remains a mystery.
“Somebody once mentioned that he liked potatoes,” said his wife of 65 years Audrey “Toots” (nee Lockyer). “I don’t know the truth of that,” she admitted, “but when he played sports some of the guys called him ‘Spud’.”
Church and family played an important role in Mr. McDermid’s life, as he was eventually to follow his father, the redoubtable James F. McDermid, into the mercantile trade following a short but extremely successful professional sports career.
By the age of 16 Mr. McDermid had set his sights on a professional career in baseball. Described as a hard-throwing right hand pitcher and a hard-hitting left-handed hitter, his talent did not go unnoticed in the big leagues. He eventually found himself ensconced on the mound at Maple City Park, playing for the Hornell Dodgers, the farm team for the famed Brooklyn Dodgers. He was called up to play for the Dodgers several times during that time.
There were a lot of talented young men chasing big league dreams in the golden age of American baseball, but it took more than talent and desire to make the cut.
“My dad still watched baseball, but today he would get wound up,” said his son Jamie McDermid of Providence Bay of the lack of work ethic Mr. McDermid saw evident in the ballplayers of today. Mr. McDermid spent literally hundreds of hours warming up, practicing and preparing to step up when called upon. Anyone who wasn’t prepared to stick with the program and work long hours wouldn’t be asked to stick around. “He got to stay,” noted his son, Jamie McDermid.
Playing in the American leagues was a very big deal. “There weren’t very many Canadians playing back then,” said Jamie McDermid. “It was quite an accomplishment for a guy from a little town on Manitoulin like Providence Bay.”
Mr. McDermid’s love of baseball did not abate even following a devastating accident he suffered while delivering drywall for the family store during the off-season, an accident that left the young Dodgers hopeful languishing in a comma that would derail his career path to the big leagues.
“We won a lot of ball games around here when he came home to stay,” noted long time employee, family friend and Providence Bay cemetery board colleague Lyle Dewar. “He played hockey too and he loved the curling,” he added.
“My dad played ‘spikes up’ ball,” laughed Jamie McDermid in describing his father’s approach to playing sports. “He was very competitive.”
Mr. McDermid was a Life Member of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and hunting played an important role in his life. “Some of my fondest memories with my dad were when he took me hunting,” said Jamie McDermid. “I remember him carrying me out of the bush as a child.” Hunting with family and friends, particularly the Sloss brothers, was a lifelong bonding process for many of Mr. McDermid’s family members and friends and the family hunt camp at Carter Bay was a favoured haunt for many a hunting season. “He also had a lot of stories about moose hunting,” said his son.
Mr. McDermid was an imposing figure throughout his life in many ways. Standing six-foot three and weighing in at 200 pounds, his was a physical presence to be reckoned with but his strength of character and community spirit came through, making him stand tall in people’s reckoning in far more important ways. But he was definitely a big man.
“One of my first memories of him was coming into the warehouse with my dad,” said Mr. Dewar. “I was wearing this big bulky coat and Murray said ‘who’s this?’ and reached down to pick me up and brought me close to his face ‘oh it’s you, Lyle,’ he said. I have remembered that moment for the rest of my life.”
“He always picked boys from the farm to help unload the trucks when they came in,” said Mr. Dewar. “There were lots of lads from town, but he seemed to think us farm boys were the best for that job.”
Perhaps it was his own experience that influenced that call. As he was recovering from the accident that nearly took his life, Mr. McDermid’s doctor told him that if he had not been an athlete in peak physical condition, he would probably have succumbed to his injuries.
Central Manitoulin Mayor Richard Stephens recalled another facet of Mr. McDermid that helps to illustrate the Providence Bay merchant’s character. “I have another story my mother told me about Murray that I would like to share with everyone,” said Mr. Stephens. “In the early 1950s, my mother used him as an example for us kids, of how to treat people. At that time the store was selling a Monopoly game, and my mother bought it for us, just prior to Christmas. However, the game was in two different parts, and she hadn’t taken the game board. Well, early on Christmas morning, there was Murray on our door step, with the board, to give to my mother,” said Mr. Stephens. “He didn’t want to see the kids being disappointed with not being able to play the game.”
Aside from sports and hunting, Mr. McDermid was noted for his skill at leathercraft, something he first picked up to keep himself occupied during the long days of recovery from his accident. He later taught leather craft for several years and his handcrafted purses (and wallets) were gifts cherished by family, friends and business associates.
His handwriting was a school teacher’s dream, meticulous and precise, with a cursive text bordering on art. “His handwriting was amazing,” said Mr. Dewar, whose sad duty it was to burn the truckloads of records and files contained in the McDermid’s Hardware vaults following the sale of the business—file deletion ‘old school.’
Mayor Stephens noted that Mr. McDermid was the “unofficial mayor” of Providence Bay and a person that he would consult regularly, and whose advice he invariably took to heart on matters pertaining to that town’s wellbeing. “He must have sat on just about every board and committee,” added Mayor Stephens. “Whatever committee has been set up to look at ways to benefit the community, Murray was always on it.”
Mr. McDermid received the Citizen of the Year Award from Providence Bay Agricultural Society last year; was honoured with a Lions Club Melvin Jones Award (that organization’s highest accolade for humanitarian service) and a Providence Bay/Spring Bay Lions Club Lifetime Achievement Award. His accomplishments have included being the driving force behind the building of the Providence Bay Interpretive Centre (now called the Discovery Centre) at the famed Providence Bay beach, the boardwalk that has augmented the landmark beach’s sands and his imprint can be found on nearly every positive development in that community for several decades.
“He knew so many stories,” said Mr. Dewar. Mr. McDermid enjoyed telling those stories and he had plenty of opportunity in the hundreds of History Walks he guided through the community over the years. Over the course of three hours, the amateur historian would share his love of his community during those tours. “There isn’t anyone left with that depth of knowledge,” continued Mr. Dewar. “If I needed to know something, I could just go to him.”
Mr. McDermid’s compendious memory was also a font from which members of the community could draw forth the names of the images that were captured within old family photographs. “He always seemed to know how to sort out who was who.”
For decades, Mr. McDermid served on the Providence Bay Cemetary Board, joining Mr. Dewar in pacing out the plots purchased for the interment of people whose histories were etched within his mind. His role as the premier merchant in the community brought him into contact with just about everyone many times in conversations during the more than half a century he worked at and ran the store, formerly known as J.F. McDermid and Sons.
Mr. Dewar recalled in conversation with Now and Then author Petra Wall that, as a boy growing up on a farm near Providence Bay, “everything revolved around the store. I remember when I was a boy, we would come to town, usually Saturday nights. My dad would go to the store (McDermid’s or McDougall’s) along with all of the other dads and us kids would go to see a movie in the old hall, right here.” Mr. Dewar continued that, “this store (McDermid’s) has been important to our family. When my dad retired from the farm, Murray told him, ‘Reg, you’re too young to retire’ and so he went to work in McDermid’s lumber yard. My dad really enjoyed it and I think it added many years to his life. My son Darren also worked for McDermid’s for I don’t know how many years and I worked there too.” He recalled that, “my mother and father, and others in the area, were very loyal to the local stores.”
Mr. McDermid was an active member of his calling and was possessed of a definite dignity. “When he was asked one time what he did for a living, he said he was a merchant,” recalled Mr. Dewar, “not a store owner or something like that, he was a merchant—not many people would put it that way.”
Mr. McDermid was an active member of the Home Hardware organization, serving on the company board of directors for nearly 30 years. He was recognized with a Golden Hammer for 50 years of service to the hardware trade during the Home Hardware 50th anniversary celebrations. Later, he was elevated to the prestigious Home Hardware Builders’ Circle and, as part of that honour, Mr. McDermid received a specially handcrafted pin and his name was engraved on the Builders’ Circle granite monument located in the Tribute Garden at the Walter J. Hachborn Complex at the company’s head office in St. Jacob’s. The Builders’ Circle recognizes retired executives and directors of Home Hardware “who have supported its dealer-owners in an extraordinary way.”
In business, Mr. McDermid followed in the footsteps of his father, the late Jim F. McDermid in providing a base for the infrastructure of Providence Bay’s business community. “The business wouldn’t be here except for McDermid’s,” said Providence Bay businessman Stu Cuthbertson, who noted that building his own business was aided critically by supplies put forward on account. “I remember Murray’s father showing me a ledger with a huge amount of money owing on the accounts.” Many of those outstanding accounts were owed by the people now occupying the cemetery; in the days before there was a social safety net, there were merchants like Murray McDermid and his father.
Although the mercantile trade defined much of Mr. McDermid’s life, there was so much more that captured his attention. There was travel to the homeland of his ancestors, Scotland, where he explored the family’s roots. “He was very proud of his heritage,” said Mrs. McDermid, who noted that Mr. McMurray would be taking his kilts with him on his final journey.
The couple explored the capitals of Europe while on vacation or following their retirement but their favourite retreat from winter’s biting winds were the warm climes of the Barbados to which the couple sojourned for 30 years.
Throughout most of his life, Mr. McDermid attended the United Church, and through good times and bad, it was to his faith that he looked to for strength. “He read his bible nearly every day,” recalled his son Jamie.
Mr. McDermid cherished his children Sally and Jamie, his grandchildren Jessie and Morgan and his great grandchildren Hunter and Mya and throughout his life he was supportive of his brothers, the predeceased Irving and Blair, as well as many other members of his extended family.
A special graveside memorial service for Mr. McDermid will be held at the Providence Bay Cemetary at 1 pm on October 21.