Author: Perry Lefko
Funerals are supposed to be a time to mourn and reflect, particular if the person passed unexpectedly or because of causes that cut short their life. But during the course of Neil Harrison’s funeral and more so in the reception afterward, I found myself feeling uplifted – smiling, in fact – because of what I learned about the man affectionately known as Harry.
I had followed Neil’s curling career since I began writing about the sport for the Toronto Sun in 1986, beginning with the World Championships. I hadn’t been on the “beat” when Neil played lead for Ed Werenich’s team that won the Canadian and World’s in 1983 with Paul Savage and John Kawaja rounding out the Fab Four that was known as The Dream Team.
Ironically, the first time I saw Neil curl happened in the Battle of the Sexes match the night before the ’86 World’s, featuring The Wrench’s ’83 team against the newly-crowned women’s world champions, skipped by Marilyn Darte. If I needed a baptism into the zany and crazy world of curling – at least back then – this was it. Eddie’s team was preceded on to the ice by a well-endowed stripper, while Marilyn did a cartwheel. The men easily defeated the women, but the score was incidental. This was curling camp. There had been nothing like it since, and nothing has come close to matching it.
Neil always made me laugh – and many others – with his jokes. Neil’s high-pitched laugh, compared to Eddie’s cackle, was part of his charm and personality. Occasionally, he made me laugh at myself. It was all in good spirit, in particular when he videotaped with his “Harry Cam”. Neil also wrote curling columns, and I appreciated his prose.
But it was his funeral which allowed me to see Neil in a different way – a composite way – particularly as it applied to his career as a fireman, something he did for 30 years before retiring as a captain. Tried as I did during my years covering Eddie and Neil, who was the fifth for Eddie on many occasions, I didn’t picture them as being anything but curlers. I never envisioned them driving trucks at high speeds to tend to a fire or climbing a ladder to get to the second story of a house or a high-rise building. Neil looked far more athletic than Eddie. Then again, everybody did. I’ll never forget the fuss The Wrench and Paul had to go through one year to prove their fitness levels to the Canadian Curling Association for purposes of competing in the Trials for the Olympics before it was an actual full-medal sport. This was what I called the famous/infamous Fitness vs. Fatness debate. Long before curlers were made of muscle and sinew, they had big bellies and exercised by pounding a corn broom. The game was so different then – and in some ways better. It certainly was more fun and entertaining.
But listening to the chaplain at Neil’s funeral and watching how ceremonial it was, I gained a full appreciation for Neil Harrison the firefighter, not Neil Harrison the curler. He received full department honours for losing his life as a result of an illness incurred in the line of duty. Even though it had been a few years since his retirement, it was proven that the cancerous brain tumour that caused Neil’s death was directly related to his work. This allowed him to have his casket draped in a Canadian flag, which was rolled up and presented to his wife, Jane, and receive the highest medal of honour. His cap rested above the coffin. The service included bagpipers, which reminded me of the many curling events I have seen, and drums. During the rendition of Amazing Grace, I found myself close to tears. The service also included the ringing of the bell for the fallen firefighters and the firefighter’s prayer.
These are things you see dramatized in movies or in a real-life televised funeral of a firefighter or policeman. Now I had come to see Neil in his “real” job away from curling; of being a husband and father of two, one of whom, his daughter, Amber, I found out was married at Neil’s bedside knowing he did not have much time to live.
Neil loved the song American Pie by Don McLean and a portion of it was played during the service. I saw some people moving their heads to the sounds of the music and thought I heard some singing. And as I listened to the chorus, the words took on a different meaning. The song was written as a tribute to singer Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash, but some of the words applied to Neil – indeed the Chevy had been driven to the levee and the levee was dry because this was the day the music of a world champion curler had died.
And much too soon at that.
Eddie and Paul were among the six honourary pallbearers, along with Neil’s brother, Ross, son Sean, son-in-law Andrew Chard and nephew Steven Yourt.
Many in attendance for the jam-packed service were firefighters, and towards the end of it they were instructed to leave and take their coats. I didn’t see what happened afterward because I was among the last to leave the church, but six carried the coffin and placed it on an antique pumper, while the rest followed behind in a procession towards the nearby reception hall where family, friends and colleagues joined together to remember Neil.
I saw Eddie, wearing his signature pin, holding a beer in one hand and wearing the spats that he and his teammates that won the 1990 Canadian and World Championships dressed in to celebrate their win. They looked like mob gangsters from the ‘20s, but they styled and profiled. And seeing Eddie and Paul and many others brought back a flood of great memories.
Paul told a story at the reception of his memories of Neil, who called him Saul. Some of the stories loosely touched the surface of some of the wild antics that made Eddie, Paul, John and Neil renowned in the curling world for their tremendous skill and penchant for partying. They were world-class players in both categories.
Following his speech, Paul encouraged others to walk up to the microphone and share their stories of Neil, but no one did. How could you possibly follow that?
A video of the 1983 World’s played and I finally had a chance to see Harry in action. It’s been 31 years, can you believe it?
I hadn’t seen Neil in years and had no idea of his illness until I read of his recent passing at the age of 65 – which is far too young.
I knew I had to be at the funeral. I knew I wanted to say good-bye.
I saw many from the curling community, some who had battled against Neil, others who were friends.
The chaplain spoke of the legacy we leave behind when we die. He spoke of how it didn’t matter if you were a world champion curler, but rather what you did to enrich the lives of others. While he said this was a time to mourn and to feel the hurt and loss, it was also a time to think about how Neil had touched us, and that even though he is physically gone he is still alive in our hearts and minds.
Neil Harrison made an impact on my writing career and my life – and more than anything he made me laugh.