(For anyone interested, here is the eulogy I gave at my dad’s funeral. Lots of inside stuff, but it give you an idea of what the man was all about.)
What a life.
That’s the best way I could think of to wrap up our dad’s 93 lived-to-its-fullest years on this earth.
In his last years, when he was in a reflective mood — and in between his favorite complaint that women were taking over the world — he would often say that he had a good life.
And that was ONE thing you couldn’t argue about with him — Dad really DID lead a pretty terrific life, one that is truly worth celebrating.
The man who went by so many names — to us he was dad or grandpa, to others he was he Richard, or Rich, or Ritchie, or Dick or Dickie or to some loyal Jack and Jill employees, Mr. Tougas — was born in 1919, when Edmonton was a city of just 59,000.
He was one of five boys, a good Catholic lad who was baptized, and had his confirmation, first confession, and communion right here in this church. Dad was a good Catholic but a lousy alter boy; his career as an altar boy ended early when he tripped on his robes during a service. But that was just about the only non-athletic moment of his life.
A natural athlete, like all good Canadian boys he took to hockey, playing on frozen ponds for hours on end, using Eaton’s catalogues for shinpads, stopping only to warm his frozen toes. At St. Joseph’s high school, even today you can find a photo of him with his undefeated St. Joe’s hockey team.
Hockey wasn’t his only sport, of course. He was Edmonton’s junior tennis champion, and often said tennis, not hockey, was his favorite sport. In later years, he mastered golf — or at least as much as you can master golf. He even proved to be a surprisingly agile ping-pong player, or, as he sometimes called it, pingy-pongy. But it was hockey that provided his ticket to a defining chapter in his young life, one that would have far reaching implications for not just him, but for an awful lot of people in this church right now. It’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for hockey, we wouldn’t be here right now.
Dad was a star player for the junior Edmonton Athletic Club, becoming a well-known figure in Edmonton back in the pre-Oilers days. He told me that people would stop him on the street and ask him how the team was doing. He was good enough that he was granted a scholarship to play for the University of Southern California Trojans hockey team. So one day in 1938, a just barely 19-year-old Dickie Tougas found himself on a bus — yes, a bus — leaving Edmonton on his way to Los Angeles and a new life. Fortunately for dad, his old EAC teammate, Eric Beauchamp, was also on the USC squad — or, as the California papers called them, “pucksters”. It was on that team that Dad made a lifelong friends with Harry Black, Benny Novicki and many others. Dad was the type of person who made lasting friends easily.
You can only imagine the culture shock this hick from the sticks faced in Los Angeles. He often spoke of attending the Rose Bowl game, and realizing there were more people at the Rose Bowl than there were in the entire city of Edmonton at the time. Of course, his memory might have been a little clouded, since he also said he fell asleep at the Rose Bowl because he was so hung over from New Year’s celebrations the night before.
Dad was, by all accounts, quite a hockey player in his day. No. 9 on the Trojans, dad was described in the press book as being 5’ 10” — maybe in skates — and 150 pounds. (For the record, his air documents lists him as being 5 ft. 8 ½ inches, which is much more accurate.) According to the 1939 Trojan hockey press book, dad was “excellent at back checking and any phase of the game calling for clever stick work.” Speed was also one of dad’s strong points — or, as he put it, “pfft, pfft”.
One of the benefits of playing U.S. college hockey was that dad got to see the U.S.A. In his first season, for example, the team played in Toronto, Boston, Montreal, New York City, Chicago, Minneapolis, and even one memorable trip to the U.S. military academy at West Point. The Trojans, with an all-Canadian lineup, were a championship squad, and for the 1940-41 season, Dad was named captain of the team.
To make a few dollars while on campus, Dad famously became a star of the silver screen — and by ‘star’, I mean an invisible extra. He appeared — or claimed to appear, since no actual film evidence exists — in crowd scenes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and his opus, Gone With the Wind.
Whether dad actually appeared as a stiff in Gone with the Wind is open to debate. Dad has said that when he was supposed to be lying on the ground portraying a dead soldier, he was playing cards somewhere with some other extras.
However, there is actual photographic evidence of Dad’s film career. In his most important film, the Duke of West Point from 1938, Dad can actually be seen stepping onto the ice in the film’s climactic ‘ice hockey’ finale. For those of you who haven’t seen The Duke of West Point, take my word for it that the highlight of the film is Dad’s less-than one second appearance. Still, Dad was well known enough in Edmonton that when the film played here, the newspaper ads said the film starred “the cream of Alberta hockey players … including Ritchie Tougas.”
Dad was a good enough student that he was a member of the All University Men’s Honor Society, ominously known as the Skull and Dagger society. But something far more important than hockey or his studies occurred on campus. On a blind date, dad met a young southern belle named Rebecca Pearl Hankins, a former Miss Charlotte who had been a contestant in the Miss American pageant. It was apparently not love at first sight, at least on dad’s part; mom often said dad didn’t recognize her the next day on campus. I asked dad just a few weeks ago if that was true, and he admitted it was. But, in his defence, he said he did have two or three beers that night, and couldn’t remember anything.
They got over that bump in the road, but more obstacles lay ahead. Mom’s father couldn’t afford to send her to USC, so she and dad conducted a long-distance courtship via something called ‘the mail’. Just before dad was to be inducted into the air force, he thought he should pay a visit to this girl Becky, who was living in St. Louis at the time. By the time dad left St. Louis, he was a married man, not once, but twice. After being married by a justice of the peace on Aug. 26, 1942, dad realized that a civil ceremony wouldn’t go over well with his very Catholic mother, so he convinced a local priest to conduct a proper Catholic ceremony the next day.
Dad was a part of the so-called Greatest Generation, the generation that fought and won the last great war. Dad did his part, joining the U.S. Air Force in 1943 at the age of 22.
Again, travel was in the cards, but instead of Chicago and New York, or Europe or the Pacific Rim, dad was sent to places like Monroe, Louisiana and Huntington, Texas, where he developed his lifelong animosity for all things Texan. He was in uniform for just under two years, rising to the rank of second lieutenant as a navigator. Thanks to his training, he could remember the names of the constellations often better than he could remember the names of his own children.
According to an Edmonton Journal or Bulletin story updating Edmontonians on what dad was up to, Dick Tougas was in the U.S. Air Force, training in Houston, waiting to, and I quote, “take a slap at the …” well, let’s just say it was a then-enemy that rhymed with ‘taps’. The story quoted dad as saying: “Hope to get back to Edmonton for a day or so before I head out over the blue Pacific… but I’m on my way… and definitely!”
The quote was obviously a work of fiction, but dad really WAS getting ready to head out over the blue Pacific. But he never did. Again according to family lore, just before he was about to be shipped across the Pacific, the war ended. Apparently, the threat of having Dickie Tougas coming at ya was too much for Japan. I supposed those nuclear bombs might have had something to do with it, but I like this story better.
Having done his part to scare Japan into surrendering, dad was relieved of his military duties, and relieved to be out of the military. By then he had two sons, so it was time to start thinking about a career. Dad and mom moved around a bit, as dad worked selling things like paint and men’s suits. Again, fate stepped in to lend a hand. Mom had severe asthma that seemed to lessen in Edmonton’s famously dry air, so the decision was made to move back to Edmonton. Dad was perfectly content to live in California, so if it hadn’t been for mom’s asthma, we might all have been born Californians. And on a February day in Edmonton, maybe that doesn’t sound so bad.
The move back home was good for mom’s health, and good for dad’s career. With the backing of his brother Maurice, whom dad often called ‘the best brother anyone could ever have’, dad went into the children’s clothing, shoe and toy business in 1948, under the name Jack and Jill, The Store for Little People.
Beginning with that first store at 10428 Jasper Avenue, with its famous carousel on the roof, Jack and Jill would over the years become a legendary Edmonton retail institution. J & J sold quality clothing for children, and actually trained its staff — complete with certificates — to fit children’s shoes.
In the basement of the downtown store, there was an actual x-ray machine where children could spend many happy hours exposing their feet to potentially lethal doses of radiation. Today, having an x-ray machine in a shoe store is unthinkable, probably illegal and certainly actionable, but those were simpler times.
For us kids, the clothing side of the store was the dull part. The fun was in the toy department. Dad would often to into work on Sundays, and we’d go with him to check out the new toys and games, but mostly to bomb around the store in toy cars, screaming around corners like we were real drivers. Over the years, all of us worked at Jack and Jill, ensuring that we never had to look for work during the summer months. Dad saw that as compensation for the fact that we often worked for less than minimum wage.
There is no question about it — dad had a great mind for business, and he wasn’t afraid to take risks. He took the radical step of opening a Jack and Jill in Westmount Shopping Centre, Edmonton’s first shopping mall, when everyone told him it would never fly because it was too far from downtown. He invested in land and real estate; he and Uncle Maurice were practically the land barons of St. Albert. Of course, he did have his miscalculations. As the story goes, a friend of dad’s, Sid Lovitt, was trying to convince him to invest in some crazy new food product that Sid was sure was going to be the next big thing. Dad tried it, and we can only assume said, “Bah, no good. It’ll never sell”, and walked away. That product was something called pizza, and as we all know, it was never heard from again.
While he might have missed the boat on pizza, he knew his retail. Dad used to walk to work most every day, from the house on 129th St. and 102 Ave., all the way to Jack and Jill downtown on 104th Street and Jasper. While he was walking at a pace that was impossible for younger legs to keep up with — many of us tried it once, and never again — he thought about ways to improve the store.
Other times, he did his own survey of which brand of cigarette was most popular by counting the empty packages on the ground. I believe the usual winner was Player’s.
Dad became a very successful businessman, but money never seemed to be his driving force. Dad didn’t spend a lot of money on himself. He wasn’t cheap, but perhaps because of his depression upbringing, he just didn’t see the need to buy a lot of frivolous things.
For example, he wore Woodward’s brand underwear — for years and years AFTER Woodward’s went out of business. His last pair of winter boots were held together with duct tape, because he figured there was no point in wasting money on a pair of boots since he was going to die soon anyway. That was probably about 10 years ago.
He did have two personal indulgences — one was golf, and the other was a mid-winter vacation in California so he could golf. And he was good. There is still a trophy at the Mayfair with dad’s name on it as the senior men’s champion, and even in his later years, when sons typically begin to overtake their father’s in athletic contests, the old man was a formidable opponent for any of the boys who took him on.
One of dad’s rare big-ticket purchases was a new-fangled stereo system, with speakers as big as a three-door filing cabinet. On Sunday’s, dad would dig into his collection of classical music or Broadway recordings — My Fair Lady, Camelot, Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, The King and I, you all know them — and CRANK UP the volume until the windows vibrated. If you didn’t like the music, you were out of luck, because you could still hear it on the third floor. Dad would often conduct the recorded orchestra and sing along, although all of the lyrics somehow came out “bum bum bum bum bum …”
As Jack and Jill grew, so did the family. Now, you’d think that the children of a children’s clothing store titan would be the best-dressed kids in school, but no. We — and by we, I mean the younger ones — still wore hand-me-downs. Even special occasions weren’t occasion enough to spend good money on clothing. For Todd’s first communion, dad took a child’s suit off the rack, and returned it to the store the next day. If all of Edmonton had dad’s attitude towards clothing, Jack and Jill would have gone broke in a week.
While dad might not have been a Jack and Jill shopper, plenty of other people were. The store developed a loyal clientele, and an equally loyal staff who stayed with J and J for years. Dad and the store remained a fond memory for Edmontonians years after he left the business. Just recently, while dad was waiting for one of his weekly blood tests, an old lady approached him to thank dad for extending credit to her so she could buy her child a pair of shoes. At the same time, dad didn’t have much time for annoying customers. I remember being the store one day after closing, while one customer dawdled. Dad sent her a message by turning out the lights.
While dad certainly could be intimidating, he made friends easily. Theo Gagnon, Oscar Gibeau, Jack Carney, Johnny and Harry Black, and Frank Fitzgerald — whose friendship began in elementary school and lasted for about 70 or 80 years — the list goes on. His old California buddies used to visit every few years, and mom and dad would have to play the hosts, which meant several nights of dinners and ‘refreshments’ that would leave mom and dad exhausted. It was always fun to listen to their increasingly exaggerated stories about the old days, how they could see Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra at the Copacabana with a steak dinner for four bits. Tell that to kids today, and they won’t believe ya.
I once saw dad at his most businesslike, intimidating best, a lesson that has stayed with me for my entire life. Years ago, Dad had a new fence built in the back yard of the house on 102nd Ave., which was about the only way to keep our neighbour kid Matt Parkins out of the yard. Anyway, when the fence was finished, there was a spot where the fence abruptly rose up about six inches. It didn’t look good, and dad was not pleased. I was listening to dad talk to the fencebuilder, who smugly tried to snow dad under with a bunch of reasons why the fence looked that way. When the guy was finished, dad asked the fencebuilder a question. “Tell me this… would you like me to tell people that you built that fence?” The fencebuilder paused for a moment, lowered his head a bit, and said “no.” That little incident told me that dad wouldn’t be intimidated, wouldn’t accept second best, and that he expected people to do their best work.
Mind you, when he wanted to, dad could charm the birds out of the trees. He had the rare ability to say the most outrageous things to people, particularly women, and still make them laugh. Even when he was at his worst, in the last six weeks of his life in the University Hospital, he became a favorite with the nurses.
And he used to make us laugh, too, at some of the things he said, which have become Tougas family legends. For example, the Charlie’s Angles star Farrah Fawcett Majors became Farley Major Wallace, an Egg McMuffin morphed into an Egg McDuff, and to this day I can’t talk about the movie The Shawshank Redemption without calling it — say it with me, now — The Shushwap Rebellion. In his last days, he came up with one final gem: a request for his favorite wine, Two Oceans, became a request for his favorite wine, Thousand Islands. Jesus turned water into wine, but only dad could turn wine into salad dressing.
Mangled words aside, dad had a very keen mind right up until the end. He knew what was happening in the world and read the papers daily for his entire life. I often got calls from him, asking if I had read a particular story in the paper, particularly if it was badly written. If it was a story I missed, he’d always ask “Didn’t you read the paper today?”
A lot of men while building a successful business would neglect their family life, but not dad. He was home every night for dinner — usually the famous “little steak” we all craved, particularly after our dinner of liver and onions. He attended hockey games and practices at awful hours, built a backyard hockey rink with lights and regulation-sized goals, and generally supported his kids in all of their endeavors. Christmas was an extravagant affair, with gifts filling the den to overflowing. Even after we were all grown and on our own, he was always worried about how we were doing. He took a tremendous interest in what his grandchildren were doing as well, and even though he could hardly remember what he had for breakfast that day (Bran Buds, probably) he remembered what was happening in their lives. He was extraordinarily generous with his money, preferring to see his children enjoy his money while he was alive rather after he was gone.
Well, I have the feeling that I’ve gone on for too long, and dad wouldn’t like this. He did NOT have a lot of patience for long-winded church sermons.
Right now, I can feel dad, looking down on me from heaven. He’s sitting next to mom, and Gary, and Uncle Maurice. Mom and Gary are smoking even in heaven, and Uncle Maurice is eating his daily McDonald’s cheeseburger. And I just know that for the past few minutes, dad has been looking at his watch, drumming his fingers, reading the heaven bulletin over and over, and letting out audible sighs. I imagine he leaned over to mom and whispered in a voice loud enough to be heard three rows back, “Will this guy ever shut up?”
Yes, dad, I will. But not until I say one last thing: you might have been only 5 ft. 8 ½ inches tall, but you were still a giant. You were a great friend to your friends, a great husband to your wife, a great father to your children, and a really cool grandpa. We love you, dad, and even though you were ready to go after 93 years, we still wish you were with us.
What a guy. What a life.