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Death of Pickering war veteran mourned
May 29, 2012 00:05:00
PICKERING -- The death of decorated war veteran and gifted speaker Jan de Vries is being mourned as a loss to the entire community.

The popular member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 258's Living History Speakers Bureau was renowned throughout the community for his volunteer efforts, which included speaking to area students, and anyone else who wanted to listen, about his wartime experiences.

Mr. de Vries died Sunday, May 27.

"Jan would talk to the students about how he parachuted into France before the sea landings in 1944," recalled Patrick Fellows, a friend and fellow member of the bureau.

"He's been very active and has done a lot of talking in the Pickering area. He was very hard-working, knowledgeable and invested in Canada and what he was doing here in the community."

Mr. Fellows was among several groups that submitted a recommendation for Mr. de Vries to the Order of Canada, and Mr. de Vries was appointed as a Member to the Order in 2007 in honour of his prolonged volunteer service.

Pickering Mayor David Ryan first met Mr. de Vries during fundraising efforts for the Juno Beach Centre in 2000 and remembers him as outgoing and dedicated to his community. Mayor Ryan later travelled to France with Mr. de Vries and several cadets to celebrate the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, and in 2005, Mr. de Vries acted as honorary chair for Mayor Ryan's first gala in Pickering.

"He did a fantastic job," Mayor Ryan said, recalling one event where organizers of the gala went to Oshawa to pose for some promotional shots with a military tank. While everyone was milling around trying to figure out where to stand, Mr. de Vries climbed right on top of the tank, despite being in his mid-70s.

"I looked up and there he was on top of it, I couldn't figure out how he got up there," Mayor Ryan recalls, laughing at the memory.

"That was just the kind of guy he was. He was very enthusiastic about everything he did. He spent a lot of time working with young people in our schools and was a very outgoing and gentle soul. He was one of those people who had a presence, when he was there you knew he was there. He will very much be missed and I think he will be long remembered in our community."

Elsie Hetherman, president of the Pickering Veterans Association, calls Mr. de Vries an "integral" part of the team.

"He always enjoyed talking to the kids and trying to raise awareness about the Second World War," she said.

"He was a kind, sweet man and very thoughtful. He was also quite an ambassador throughout the world for Canada, dedicating his time to sharing his experiences of the war. We are very saddened by this loss."

In addition to his volunteer work speaking to students, cadets and veterans, Mr. de Vries was president of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, was instrumental in the building of the Juno Beach Centre, supported the Tony Stacey Centre for Veterans Care and acted as a Pickering Olympic torchbearer in 2009. He has also been recognized with numerous awards for his wartime service and volunteer efforts, including France's Legion of Honour.

Mr. de Vries' wartime experiences are detailed in the book 'Living History Chronicles,' which collects the war stories of the members of the Living History Speakers Bureau and in 'Freedom 2,' by Ms. Hetherman.

Watch for information on the funeral arrangements and more reflections on the life of Mr. de Vries.

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