John Donald O’Henly
March 15, 1923 — January 20, 2023
As with so many of his generation, growing up during the difficult years of Great Depression instilled strength and resilience in John Donald O’Henly. He demonstrated this physical and mental toughness, by staying sharp to the end and living just 55 days shy of 100 years.
John was born in Toronto in 1923 to parents of Scottish heritage. His younger brother, David, will be 97 in a few weeks. John was an adoring husband to Hilary until she passed in 1975, a caring father to their sons, Michael (deceased) and Mark (Gwendolyn), and a proud and loving grandfather to Ryan (Mandy) and Brent.
John discovered his love and talent for drawing as a tot; one of his first memories was of drawing ducks he had seen at a park. He learned to skate as a boy and was skating with his grandchildren in his 70s. After graduating high school at Danforth Tech, John had miscellaneous jobs, including as an illustrator for Wow comic books. He signed up for military service in September 1942, at the age of 19.
Following basic training at Petawawa, John was offered training to be either an army surveyor or radar technician. He chose surveying because he assumed it would involve making maps for which he could make use of his drawing skills.
He soon learned that a team of army surveyors spots enemy muzzle flashes in the field, uses trigonometry to locate the enemy guns, then provides information to the artillery to aim their guns. John was weak in math, an essential skill for surveyors, and needed a few extra weeks of classes. He was expected to be studying each day after inspection. However, he found he had a washing machine and ironing board at his disposal, and while studying, he also operated a laundry service for spare cash.
His unit, the 2nd Survey Regiment in the Royal Canadian Artillery, sailed to England for further training. The unit joined the invasion, crossing into France in July 1944. The regiment continued through Belgium, Holland and Germany as the war progressed. John returned to Canada following VE Day and was awaiting Orders for transportation to the Pacific Theatre when the war suddenly ended. John spoke little of his experiences during the war until 1987, when he typed out a 50-page account on an electric typewriter.
While serving overseas, John made sketches of people and activity around him. He sent the initial batch of sketches home, but they were intercepted by censors, so he kept new sketches in his pack. Decades later the sketches were no longer considered contraband, and several were donated to the Canadian War Museum in 2006.
The highest French order of merit, both military and civil, is the Legion of Honour. The Government of France recently began awarding this honour to Canadian veterans who served during the liberation of France in 1944. John received the award just last summer. He was delighted with the official acknowledgment and thanks for his service.
John used government benefits for veterans to attend the Ontario College of Art. This was his first formal art training. He met and fell in love with a classmate, Hillary, an artist from British Columbia, who would be his future wife.
John built a cottage on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Park. He and Hilary lived in the cabin one cold winter. They had a circle of like-minded friends, at Smoke Lake, who were interested in art and nature and who joined them on canoe trips for weeks at a time throughout the park. After starting a family, the cottage was home during summers.
After attending Teachers’ College, John accepted a teaching position in 1952 at the art department at H. B. Beal Secondary School, London, Ontario. John was influential in establishing Beal Art as an acclaimed special place for encouraging and developing youth with artistic talent. Many professional artists had their start at Beal Art. John provided encouragement, inspiration, and guidance to hundreds of art students, many of whom contacted him years later to express their appreciation.
John received approval for a sabbatical for the 1964-65 school year to investigate and report on how art was taught in England, as well as to visit galleries and museums. He received a British Arts Council grant for the project. John and his family sailed to England in the fall of 1964. This year was an exciting and grand adventure for all the family.
While teaching, John also passionately pursued creating art, expressing himself through painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. His works were in numerous art shows throughout his career.
John retired from teaching in 1983 but continued to live an active life. He began exercise classes at the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging at Western University. This made him a test subject for gerontology students, and at the end of each year he had to complete a thorough battery of tests. He sent his sons a copy of his report cards each year as a form of accountability.
John became hooked on professional baseball and was an avid Blue Jays fan. Each Thursday he would meet five old friends for lunch and a beer at the Waltzing Weasel. In the late 1990s, John gave in to coaxing and traded in his electric typewriter for a home computer. He kept in touch with family and friends with email and virtually explored art galleries around the world. However, he never used his computer to store anything. When he gave up using a computer in 2021, the unread emails in his Inbox were the only documents stored on it.
In the early 1990s, John was inspired to walk the ancient Camino pilgrim route in Spain. He began training with long walks each day. When he was confident in his fitness, he told friends and family he would be walking the Camino in the summer of 1995.
He set out from Chartes, France, March 13, 1995, arriving in Santiago, Spain, on May 28, 1995. John walked approximately 1,500 Km in 78 days. He slept in pilgrim hostels called albergues. He no doubt took satisfaction in completing this physical challenge at the age of 72. However, this walk had a much deeper meaning for him and changed his priorities and his perspective on life.
On his return to London, John told friends about his adventure and inspired many of them to go on a Camino walk. He gave talks at a church. Through his initiative, an informal network of Camino pilgrims began to grow in London. John remained passionately engaged with this group, and up until the pandemic, attended weekly get-togethers.
The current leader of the local pilgrims group wrote, “Thousands of pilgrims will have walked due to John’s influence. His walk and forming the London group with his friend, Wanda, was the stone in the pond, that has rippled outwards over thirty years. For very many, this has created life-changing watershed moments.”
John moved into the Grand Wood Park retirement home in 2013. He met friends for lunch, sketched, and read the weekly New Yorker from cover to cover. As for many seniors, isolation during the pandemic slowed him down, but he remained sharp and interested in the world and others.
John was anticipating his upcoming centennial birthday party with excitement, but it was not to be. After getting up during the night, he fell critically hitting his head. John passed peacefully days later, while in care at Victoria Hospital.
Those who know John well will not be surprised to know he left instructions that there be no funeral, visitation, or memorial, and that he be cremated, and his ashes scattered at Smoke Lake. In lieu of flowers, the family requests those who wish to express sympathy to consider donating to their favorite charity.