Saturday, April 24, 2010

Love still blooms 60 years later

Originally published in Oakville Beaver July 29, 2006
Written by Wilma Blokhuis

Vi and John Simkins celebrate diamond wedding anniversary.  (Photo is of  John and Vi Simkins hold a photograph from their wedding that took place 60 years ago on July 27, 1946. Liesa Kortmann, Beaver photographer )

Vi Simkins dug her wedding dress out of the closet, tried it on for size, and posed for a photograph -- all for a laugh.

Some 60 years later, it still fits, much to the delight of her husband John Simkins, Oakville's well-known gardening writer and peony expert.

"It's been 60 happy years," says Vi, a slim, well-dressed 87-year-old.

"Very happy," adds her equally slender, 88-year-old husband who may still fit into his old army uniform.

It seems gardening has kept this couple physically fit, healthy and happy. They have more than 700 flowering plants - 75 of them peonies - at their home that backs onto Morrison Creek. About 600 feet of green space lies between their property and the creek. He starts plants from seeds in his basement and in a small greenhouse he has built at the back of the house. At one time, he kept bees.
The former Violet Daisy Jane Medway married John Simkins on July 27, 1946, a month after immigrating to Canada from England.

"I came here with nothing...I had no clothes. I bought that (wedding) dress at Eaton's for $5.95." Sixty years later, she still cherishes it - along with the happy memories.

The romance was whirlwind. They met at a private reception in England in November 1945 and by Christmas "we decided to get married," said Vi.

During the war, she was a fireguard, part of a five-member team who kept a night watch for bombs penetrating wooden rooftops and dousing fires using a pump, bucket and hose "because the fire brigade couldn't get to all of them. I was the one who crawled out face down with the hose to get at the fires."

She also volunteered as a farm worker, "weeding onion fields. We had nothing to eat...we were hungry, we were all hungry."

Everything - food and clothing - was rationed in wartime England. "I remember we would get one egg of a month, and maybe two ounces of cheese each per month."

Vi learned upon leaving that there was only enough food in the country for six weeks.

"You needed coupons to buy clothes - that's why I had no clothes when I came here," she continued. "I was a teenager when the war broke out. You can image how tough rationing was on teenagers.

"The war started in England in 1938 and we were at war for seven years by the time I left. There were nightly bombing raids towards the end of the war."

It was an eerie sound Vi will never forget.

"John went home to Canada in February aboard the ocean liner Aquitania, and we made sure that getting married was what we wanted to do. He had to get me a permit to leave but I had to arrange my own transit, and each time I called I was told, 'you can go tomorrow' and I would say, 'that's too soon, I'm not ready,' but I finally got booked. There were only last-minute seats available on planes that flew to Canada. I called on a Saturday and I was asked, 'Can you go tomorrow?' and I said 'yes.'" She arrived here on June 25, 1946.

"It was love at first sight," said John.

They were married in Hamilton.

Born in England, John came to Hamilton with his family when he was three months old. He was a soprano in his church choir.

"I was raised by my aunt after my mom died when I was young.

"My father moved to Oshawa and later went back to England after my mother died, taking with him my twin brother and my younger brother."

His father remarried.

"My aunt in Hamilton took me in. She was a wonderful woman. I became part of her family."

Attending Delta Collegiate in Hamilton during the 1930s, he excelled in high school football, water polo and basketball - and got involved with school theatrical productions as part of the stage crew.


He was at McMaster University studying chemistry and physics when the Second World War broke out. He joined the army in 1942 at the Toronto depot. He trained in Newmarket, was an officer-cadet at the Stanley Barracks in Toronto, was sent to Victoria, British Columbia for an officer's training course and became 2nd lieutenant before going to Brandon, Manitoba for artillery training and to Halifax, Nova Scotia for anti-aircraft training.

He went overseas to England aboard the Queen Mary and joined the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI), moving up through the ranks to Major.

Wounded in Germany in March 1945, he was flown back to England and was discharged from hospital before the war ended. "I was on leave when the war ended and taking a general course at a London university. To get in, you needed a year at a Canadian university. I was in third year at McMaster when the war broke out."

As a newlywed, John returned to McMaster, graduating in 1948. He and Vi lived with his aunt in Hamilton until he started working. (They looked after her garden until about 10 years ago.)

"The army paid for my education," said John. "It was part of my discharge. I had a choice between a farm or going back to university."

Upon graduation, he landed a job with Shell Oil and stayed with the militia until recently as a commissioner.

"The employers were lined up at the door waiting to hire graduates," said John. "A friend told me that Shell Oil was a good company to work for, so I went with them." He never looked back.

John stayed with Shell for 34 years, accepting 'the golden handshake' three months before Shell's Oakville refinery shut down in 1983. After retiring, he worked part-time at Sheridan Nurseries for a while as a garden advisor.

The Simkins moved to Oakville permanently in 1961 - they still live in the same house they purchased 45 years ago.

"When I first started with Shell Oil, we moved back and forth between Montreal and Oakville," said John.

"Three months after John retired the refinery shut down," said Vi.

"I retired instead of transferring to Calgary," said John. "When they closed the Oakville refinery things worked out perfectly for us - I had accepted a golden handshake. It was a great place to work. We had a lot of fun."

She was a stay-at-home mom raising three children, Janice, Jennifer and Jon, and today grandmother of three. She worked in the garden, sewed her own and her children's clothes and volunteered at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital - she worked on a quilt that raised $50,000 for OTMH. She received her 35-year pin this year. "I still volunteer one day a week."

John also volunteered at the hospital providing horticulture therapy to senior patients and helped create a rooftop garden as a member of the Oakville Horticultural Society.

John's passion for gardening literally grew out of a package of 'mystery seeds' he received as a gift. They didn't grow but others did. Once settled in Oakville, he decided to create a garden around his home, and took courses at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) and became a qualified judge of horticulture.


Advised by the RBG's Dr. Leslie Laking after whom its Laking Garden is named, John decided to specialize in propagating and hybridizing tree peonies. He joined the American Peony Society and a few years later became its president - and the garden filled with peonies. John also joined the Oakville Horticultural Society about 45 years ago, served as president twice and also as a district director of the Ontario Horticultural Association in charge of 23 societies between Oakville and Port Dover.

About a decade ago, he received the association's Silver Medal in recognition of his contributions to horticulture and his Master Gardener's 20-year pin. He took Master Gardening courses at the University of Guelph.

"At the time my oldest daughter Janice wanted some extra pocket money and got a part-time job writing the local high school news for the former Oakville Journal Record (OJR) detailing events at Oakville's three high schools earning $3 a week," said John, who was at the time rapidly becoming known for his gardening expertise.

"After a couple of weeks she told the editor that, 'Your paper needs a gardening column. My father will write one for you.'"

Thus began John's more than 40 years of writing a weekly column, In Your Garden, that continued in The Oakville Beaver after the OJR closed during the early 1980s. He retired from writing earlier this year.

John also wrote for gardening magazines, joined the American Garden Writers Association, and lectured annually on 10 different topics - mostly about peonies - to various gardening organizations.

The Simkins' garden became a local showcase, and he sold seedlings planted in plastic cups for $1 as a means to encourage others to take up gardening.

About 10 years ago he and two others formed the Canadian Peony Society. He's taken peony plants everywhere from Alaska to New Zealand to test their growth in different climate conditions, and seeds have been sent to botanical gardens around the world including China, Japan and England. The seeds became known as the 'Simkins' strain.'

"Now he's retired from everything," said Vi. "Everything we joined John ended up being a director or president. He had a lot of things going."

Having settled in Oakville, the couple joined St. Jude's Anglican Church. He taught Sunday School for 34 years, served as a People's Warden, was a lay reader and fundraiser, was instrumental in the designing and planting of its memorial garden - he helped form its garden guild - and was also a bellringer.

He and Vi were instrumental in bringing Dan Tregunno, one of Canada's top bellringers, to St. Jude's and reviving interest in traditional bellringing at the church.

Their 60th wedding anniversary will be celebrated at the home of their daughter Jennifer in Burlington on Aug. 6.

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