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Last Seen at Centre Stairs: G. B. Okill Stuart, BCS’37

Doug Patriquin, BCS’64, Chair of the Association Board from 2000-2004, remembers “a most affable and persuasive gentleman.” *
G. B. Okill Stuart, BCS’37
1921-2019       
 
A letter from his father Douglas Stuart, BCS 1899, to Crawford Grier, the newly-appointed Headmaster of BCS, applying for entry to BCS in September 1931, described Okill at age 10 and a half:  
 
He is very fond of the open and loves tramping in the woods with me and making a fire. He is an open air boy, full of life, and generous to a fault.
 
These qualities lasted throughout Okill's long life, which ended at 98 only last August.
 
Okill experienced much and created a fascinating life that led from BCS to Gordonstoun School in Scotland. He joined the Canadian army and participated in the massive D-Day attack in 1944 that ultimately brought the Second World War to an end, after another year of vicious fighting.
 
Okill survived the war and went on to raise two children (Colin, BCS’72, and Heather) and several generations of beagle hounds, working and living in St. Lambert, south of Montreal. He built a career in real estate and plunged into community activities. Over his life, he served in, founded, or was honoured by more than 50 organizations that promote and preserve the heritage and military values he held dear. A few of them: 
  • Okill was a proud descendant of United Empire Loyalists and served as Dominion President of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada.
  • He was an organizer and Honorary Fellow of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada, which gave BCS its Coat of Arms.
  • Okill helped found the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy and received a commendation from the Minister of Veterans Affairs for his sustained efforts in support of veterans.
  • He served as Officer Commanding and Honorary Lt. Colonel of the Fort St. Helen Garrison of the 78th Fraser Highlanders in Montreal. 
How did he do all these things? What kept him going, what drove him? What made him the unique character he was?
 
One early influence was BCS, which he enjoyed thoroughly and never forgot. [Photo 2 Okill as a student]
 
BCS in the 1930s was a very different place from what it is today, although it was located where the school is now. There were of course no computers, no cell phones…and no girls. The boys wore starched collars for Sunday morning and evening chapel, held at St. Mark’s Chapel, across the St. Francis River at Bishop’s University.
 
Together with schoolwork and athletics, Moulton Hill provided lots of opportunities for its young students to enjoy the outdoors. The woods were a wonderful place to build huts, some quite elaborate with bookshelves and silverware borrowed from the dining room for meals. Okill’s letters reflect his enthusiasm, mischievous nature, and even the gentle self-deprecating humour that stayed with him:
 
[You] don’t know how much fun we have up at the woods making huts and chopping down trees and playing around and climbing trees.
 
I am so sorry I did not write sooner, but I was away for a walk with Howe right after dinner until chapel, we walked to Ascot and had a great time.
The Sunday before we went to the Salmon River, and we intend to go out next Sunday.
 
Today before letter writing I went down there with MacLean and brought a few skunk cabbages back and put a few in Mr. Gray’s bed and he is asleep and when he gets up he will find a big smell.
 
MacLean and I are going swimming today for the first time this year. I should gather that we will find the water slightly cold.
 
As Okill grew older he was allowed to go riding in North Hatley, where he also met girls, as well as at twice-yearly King’s Hall, Compton dances.
 
I had a girl named Caroline Kate out for the dance. She is good looking, and also a good dancer. She comes from North Hatley, they have a farm there, with swell riding horses.
 
Through most of his six and a half years at school Okill generally ranked academically at the bottom of his form, much to the distress of his father and school masters. Boys mature at different rates and Okill was probably a late bloomer, except in the area of athletics, where he excelled from the beginning.
 
Here’s a selection of the trophies he won at Sports Day, held at the end of each year in June: 
  • Junior Sports, 1932
  • 1/4 Mile, Prep, 1933
  • High Jump, Prep, 1934
  • 100 Yard Hurdles, Prep, 1934
  • Richardson Trophy, 1934
Okill also boxed, skied, played cricket, tennis, golf, and football, and was a member of the school’s first bantam level Q.A.H.A. hockey championship team in 1934-35.
 
But the achievement he was most proud of was winning the Richardson Trophy. This was the All-Round sports trophy in the Prep school. His chief competitor was Jack Goodson, BCS’38, who according to Okill had flat feet. Fortunately for Okill he was able to outdo Jack in the last event, the broad jump, and won the trophy.
 
Five years ago or so, Okill was amazed to discover that the broad jump pit remains in exactly the same place it was when he made his fateful jump, just under the trees below Centre Field.
 
And he retained his ability to move on his feet. A few years before that, I was amazed when walking from the Head’s House to the Cadet Review to see Okill jump up the three- or four-foot bank between the lower and upper lawns beside Williams House, without pausing.
 
Okill was descended from a storied family with many achievements, beginning with an exceptional clergyman, the Reverend John Stuart, UE, a teacher of Joseph Brant, the famous Mohawk chieftain. John came to Canada as a Loyalist and built the first St. George’s church (later a cathedral) in Kingston, Ontario in 1792.
 
Generations of lawyers, judges, mayors, and soldiers followed. His father Douglas was Head Prefect at BCS in 1898-1899, and his uncle, Sir Campbell Stuart, raised an Irish-Canadian regiment in World War I, and was a highly influential managing director and board member of the Times of London for many years in the ’20s and ’30s.
 
Okill inherited a daunting family legacy of leadership and community service to live up to.
 
In the fall of 1936, when he was 15, Okill apparently began to take his studies more seriously, and he ranked 6th in the Christmas exams. He was chosen to be one of the first boys in Williams House when it opened that year.
 
Okill returned to BCS in September 1937. Early in 1938, Sir Campbell took him off to England and sent both Okill and his older brother Campbell, BCS’35, to Gordonstoun School in Scotland, the famous Round Square school started by Kurt Hahn, which began the international movement of which BCS and other schools are now a part.
 
It was here he met Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who was exactly three months younger, and maintained a lifelong friendship with him. The boys absorbed Kurt Hahn’s philosophy of building character. As Campbell described it:
 
…the ability to decide on the right moral course of action and the strength of will to follow it, to stretch oneself to the limit and then to transcend that limit; to develop pride in oneself and not in one’s status.
 
World War II quickly overtook the lives of those who were at school in the ’30s and sent them into conflict. Okill enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1940 and volunteered for active service overseas. He was offered a commission as an officer but on the advice of his father and uncle turned it down; they considered he was too young for the responsibilities.
 
After three years of training in the UK, he found himself in the first wave D-Day landing on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944. He was a Bombardier in the Royal Canadian Artillery, making practical use of the geometry and trigonometry he learned at school.
 
Many of Okill’s contemporaries at BCS joined the Black Watch regiment in Montreal. Okill’s brother Campbell did, and lost a leg at the battle of Verrières Ridge. This horrendous battle, and the roles that numerous BCS grads played in it, are described vividly by David O'Keefe in his book, Seven Days in Hell, published in 2019.
 
Okill and his confreres fought their way inland and up the coast, through France, Belgium and into Holland, liberating occupied towns and bringing the European war to an end on May 8, 1945. He was decorated many times for his service, by Canada, England, France, and Holland. His medals will be given to BCS by his son Colin.
 
Okill’s experiences in World War II strengthened his determination to pursue the things he valued and enjoyed. As some others put it: 
 
Okill was a true soldier in every way, always ready to give before take, and he was always ready to step up to a challenge.
 
In spite of, or perhaps because of the horror he experienced in war, Stuart has filled his own life and the lives of others with a zest for living and learning.
 
Throughout his life he never forgot BCS—not just the memories, but also the value the school provides to new generations of students.
 
Okill was a great friend and supporter of BCS, and especially of its No. 2 Cadet Corps. He attended the Annual Cadet Reviews frequently. He was the guest of honour at a BCS mess dinner in 2008, and received a BCS Tankard for his service and support of the cadet program.
 
In 2018 it was proposed that BCS award Cadet Service Medals to alumni. I asked Okill tentatively if he would consider accepting one, as he had made it clear that the decorations he wore were all official and well-earned. He was delighted to do so and joined 35 other men and women receiving medals from former Governor-General, The Right Honourable David Johnston, establishing a new BCS tradition.
 
In 1989, on the 150th anniversary of the school, Okill invited Prince Philip to come to a United Empire Loyalist meeting in Lennoxville and to inspect the Annual Cadet Review and read the lesson in chapel at BCS.
 
To make it happen, Okill had to resolve a squabble over whether the Prince would fly out in a federal or provincial helicopter. At one point he excused himself from the contentious meeting, made a call and returned to announce: ‘Problem solved; Bell Helicopters will provide two brand new helicopters, and because no one else knows how to fly them, the pilots will be Bell, too.’
 
It was a unique and wonderfully successful visit.
 
Throughout this whole effort I heard it asked many a time, how does Okill do it? wrote Brad Mitchell, BCS’53, who was Director of Development at BCS at the time.
 
The answers to this question may be found in some appreciative observations by those who knew him.
 
He is (or has been) involved in numerous other community groups, all of whom report the same thing: Okill never just joins – he always works.
 
His drive, his energy, his organizational skills… his decisive leadership. Basically saying, let's do it. If we're wrong, we're wrong, but let's get it done.
 
But perhaps his greatest talent has been his ability to get on with people, his wonderful sense of humour and his reputation as a ‘character.’
 
Here’s how it works: you get a telephone call from this enthusiastic and gravelly voice, inviting you gently to do something to celebrate and support one of the excellent causes he supports. And you tend to say ‘yes,’ as so many have.
 
He’s on the ‘blower’ all day long,
From morn till late at night,
Preparing plans and making deals
And setting problems right.
 
The reason why he’s in demand
Is not just ’cause he’s fun.
It is that when he gives his word,
He gets the darn job done!
 
And these serious efforts, working on the things he cared about, were always balanced with a positive attitude:
 
He was a man of caring, and a man of daring. He was a man who had the ability to look at the silver lining behind every cloud.
 
He was a team player, a good friend to many, he also made people smile and brought laughter in their lives.
 
I’ll always remember his swagger, that twinkle in his eye, and his sharp wit.
 
That ability to lead, laugh, and inspire until the end is what friends say they will remember about him most.
 
Or, in Okill’s own words:
 
There are times in life when good God-fearing people have to stand up and be counted for the moral principles which guide their lives.
 
We did our duty. God knows what would have happened if we hadn’t done it.
 
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
 
If I’ve remained young, it’s because I’ve continued to be active. I’m not some who sits around and doesn’t do anything…I feel like I need to have something to do.
 
It’s got to be fun!
 
Toward the end of his life, with Sylvia, his wife, confined to a nursing bed, Okill continued to be his engaging and affable self. He was still encouraging the residents of their retirement home to attend church services, and organizing and hosting a long, chatty lunch for his visitors, at age 98.
 

 
*This remembrance is based on letters Okill wrote to his parents from BCS, kindly loaned by his son Colin, BCS’72; stories from a recorded visit with him in April 2019; and on numerous published reminiscences and articles, including a 2017 Global News interview by Amanda Jelowicki, BCS’93.An audio version of Okill’s comments on these points and others may be found below:



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Bishop's College School is an independent English-language boarding and day school for grades 7 to 12 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.