Milton Shaffer - A Life Lived
When Royalty came to town, when sports figures and Hollywood stars needed to look their best at an Ottawa “do”, Shaffer’s Department store was once the only elegant place to shop. Milton Shaffer headed the men’s department and was widely known as the most dapper of gentlemen. On July 28th of this year, he passed away. Milton was 98 years and 10 months young. A proud Ottawan, his alma mater was Lisgar Collegiate and his avocation sailing from the Britannia Yacht Club. His favourite charities were Watercan and TVO for constantly providing him with new things to learn. Despite failing eyesight and hearing in his later years, his mind was sharper than a chef’s knife. He would excitedly discuss politics, geography, nature and history with great alacrity and wisdom.
I am sure I am not the only one who remembers Milton Shaffer this way. Remembering is often a matter of collectively focusing on shared memories. But at times, there are segments of lives lived which are known to only a few. And at one point, it is important to reveal such hidden features in order that we all piece together the whole wondrous puzzle that was a loved one’s specialness.
With that intent in mind, I submit the following :
In 1961, a boy in his mid teens, to not be a further burden on his family, leaves his Windsor Ontario home. Ottawa being a familiar place, he retrieves his savings from the bank and boards a train for the long ride east. Once there, he looks for a rooming house and a job. That’s when Milton Shaffer, of Shaffer’s on Rideau Street, hires him as a stock clerk. Mondays were slow days at the store and the boss was often away. Milton would go sailing at the Britannia Yacht Club. It wasn’t long before the new "boy", having learned how to sail as a Sea Cadet, began accompanying the boss on those Monday getaways.
Nonetheless, every other work day the young stock clerk was endearingly referred to as the twit, the schmuck or the putz. (Milton needed to make sure other staffers did not see this young punk getting off easy just because he sailed with the boss on Mondays.)
No one had to worry, though. Milton Shaffer soon fired the boy.
On that momentous day, the young man was called into his boss’ office. He was summarily informed that he was not to be a stock clerk all his life - and that he was no longer welcome at the store unless he registered himself in a school - any school. The young man was furious at being treated as a child. Nonetheless, he did as he was told; becoming a student at Ottawa University’s Bilingual Teacher’s College.
Despite the initial upset at being dismissed, the relationship between the two remained strong. A budding visual artist, the teaching-student once painted for Milton a portrait of the boat they had sailed together. Over the years, they stayed in contact. Milton continued to receive regular art exhibition invitations and copies of articles the young man writes for magazines and professional journals. Milton is proud of everything - the teaching position, the special education certificates, the painter’s increasing reputation and his writings. For the next many decades, Milton Shaffer continues to be there for his old stock clerk. - never intrusive but always concerned. When the now 33 year old marries, Milton and and his wife Sarah participate. Over the years, the 2 couples often dine together - always at the Britannia Yacht Club. Milton is the first to hold one of their daughters when she is born in 1978 and is there again to celebrate when she in turn weds in 2009, eventually holding in his great-grand-fatherly arms the new baby daughter born in 2011.
At 98 Milton continued to mentor, befriend and father. He was still the encourager, the motivator, the prodder; nudging me forward. . . Yes. I was that boy 54 years ago. And to the very end, Milton never admitted to being the catalyst or the influence that he actually was and continued to be. As far as he was concerned I had done everything on my own. He had done nothing. In my estimation, this is the only thing about which he was ever wrong. I don’t think I could have achieved much of what I have without he having been there.
Not long ago, while visiting him at the retirement residence, Milton asked that I help him clear out a few things. At the end of the day, he pointed to a last bureau drawer; saying it was time for me to take the contents of it home. Curious, I pulled it open. The drawer was filled to the brim with every letter I had written, every invitation I had sent, every book I had authored, and every news clipping that had ever appeared about my life and work - 54 years of memories carefully cradled and archived.
Milton wasn’t one to say I love you. But everything he did said it loud and clear. Just thinking of him makes me smile. He gave me the best that he was and for that I will be eternally grateful. Nonetheless, I miss him greatly.
I have been blessed so much so that I wish everyone a Milton Shaffer in their lives - someone who spends decades just being there - never interfering - just watching over and caring - being a special mentor and more - and all of it unbeknownst to the rest of the world.
Thank you Milton. Just had to divulge it all. Everyone now knows how wonderful you were. Much love, Bernard A. Poulin
I am a painter and writer who's whole life has been influenced by one precept : "thinking each our own thoughts makes us relevant and relevance makes us powerful."