How likely is it that the funeral of a ninety-one year old man who died without family in a land to which he immigrated in his late sixties would be attended by two hundred people? The unlikeliness of this outcome shows the esteem to which Philip Gray was held in the community he had adopted as his own.
Gray was a Scot who served as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber in World War Two, flying sixteen missions with his entire crew emerging unscathed. He subsequently married and moved to New Zealand where he worked as a public servant. After the death of his wife and his retirement, he moved to Canada. Gray was a great story-teller and published a superb book about his wartime experiences in the RAF, titled Ghosts of Targets Past. (I discussed its “gritty realism” and thick description in my blog post of November 8, 2010.)
The Canadian Air and Space Museum, based in Toronto, inherited a dilapidated Lancaster that for decades had stood on a plinth at the Canadian National Exhibition. A group of devoted machinists were restoring the Lancaster. Gray came to the museum every weekend to sell his book and to serve as a link between the shell of a machine and the events decades ago in which it, and the men who operated it, played such an important role.
The point repeatedly made in the eulogies at Philip’s funeral yesterday was that service was an essential aspect of his life. Bearing witness at the Museum was an act of service. Volunteering at Traveller’s Aid at Pearson Airport was an act of service. Attending his church every Sunday and writing for the church newspaper were acts of service.
Philip had a great story to tell, and he told it. But he did so with precision and modesty. People were drawn to him. I met him when I began taking my young sons to the museum. He was the guest of honour when we had a birthday party there for Alexander, our older son.
The most moving speaker at the funeral was Wayne Short, another person who met Philip at the Air and Space Museum, and then invited him over for one Sunday dinner. Philip became a close friend of his family, and the Shorts ultimately became Philip’s surrogate family at the end of his life.
Thus, it was in recognition of his service and his friendship that so many of us came to Philip’s funeral. Occurring just before Remembrance Day, it reminded us that that, while Remembrance Day marks a collective national experience, that experience itself is the sum of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ stories. And Philip Gray’s was a truly inspiring one.