The Remembrance Day ceremony on Bowen is a favorite gathering but in the past I have felt somewhat guilty about liking it so much. After all, the reasons we meet at the cenotaph each November 11 are grave and yet seeing so many friends and acquaintances gathered in one place, and doing so to honor others, is nothing short of enjoyable.
But in the end I shed my guilt and chose instead to look upon it as another reason to feel gratitude toward, and thank, our military veterans. They not only gave us their service – and in the two world wars alone for more than 100,000 Canadian men, and dozens of women, that meant giving up their lives – they have given us reason to come together as a community in quiet celebration.
This year marked the 82nd consecutive Remembrance Day ceremony to take place at our community’s cenotaph, one having taken place there every year since it was erected in 1936. During the ceremony of 2018, I thought of two Bowen Islanders who took part in the Second World War and who are now deceased. They are many others of course, but I thought of Jan Furst and Charlie MacNeill.
Both left us seven years ago and were kind-hearted, with engaging personalities and engaging stories to tell. Islanders who arrived on Bowen after these two veterans’ deaths have missed knowing wonderful people who contributed greatly to our community. Each lived into their 90s and took an active part in island life right up until their passing.
Jan Furst spent half his life in Canada, his early years here in Newfoundland. He and wife Nenna, who died in 2000, moved to Bowen in their late 70s. As many islanders will tell you, Jan routinely contributed to the lives of others and greatly enjoyed social occasions. He was among the first up to dance at the annual Dock Dance and his 2009 appearance as a troll in the Bowfest Parade, at 96, was highly amusing and his smile throughout the parade heartwarming.
A shipbuilder by trade, he was also a published author, both non-fiction and fiction. Among many other pursuits he was a fencer and while in his 90s, began a fencing club for youth and adults on Bowen. The connection to Remembrance Day? During the Second World War, Jan Furst was a member of the Norwegian resistance and of his native country’s merchant marine.
In addition to having stories to tell about the war, and about life in general, he loved to hear the stories of others. Islander Chris Corrigan once told me Jan asked people who were coming to his birthday parties not to bring a gift but instead to bring someone he’d never met, someone new he could learn about.
Jan Furst died on September 24, 2011 at the age of 98.
Charlie MacNeill attended every Remembrance Day service at our cenotaph after moving to Bowen right after he finished his service in the war, each November 11 for 65 years in a row. From Prince Edward Island, he was a member of the P.E.I. Highlanders – his company transferred over to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders during the war – and Cpl. MacNeill’s regiment took part in the Normandy Landing and fought in 12 other engagements.
He once told me that after returning to Canada from the war he decided he would never again go to Europe because he had left too many friends behind, soldiers who had been killed in battle and would not get a chance to see Canada again. “I lost a lot of friends over there,” he said. “And I don’t ever wanna go back.”
Charlie was a renowned storyteller who partook in Bowen life for all of those 65 years, working as a heavy machine operator, a trade that literally saw him help build this island. He was one of 16 veterans who pitched in to build the Legion, circa 1969.
The Walker family were Charlie MacNeill’s neighbours for some 25 years and Caroline Walker of the Bowen Island Flower Shop said that they benefitted greatly from his friendship. Her three children grew up thinking of Charlie as a grandfather and they loved his stories and cherished the time he gave to them throughout their childhoods and beyond.
Dozens of islanders felt grateful to have known him and after his passing many wrote on the Bowen forum about what a joy he was to have in their lives. Caroline Walker called Charlie generous, an island “legend” and “an inspiration to us all.” Charlie MacNeill died on April 10, 2011 at the age of 95.
The Bowen Island Museum and Archives has recorded interviews with Charlie MacNeill and other material on Charlie and Jan Furst, including articles, photos and letters. They also have historical material on the lives of many other islanders now passed, going back decades and available for islanders to view.
Archivist Cathy Bayly notes it is best to check their website for hours and to call ahead.