Against all odds: The ‘gentle’ gentleman

It has a red and white flaglike ribbon, fashioned out of fine metal with six silver star points and a crown above a golden Maple Leaf. Inscribed in Latin are the words: Desiderontes Meliorem Patriam, meaning: “They strive for a better country.”

Only a select few are privileged to wear the Order of Canada, and Steven Marshall Fletcher, 83, of Hamilton, is one of them, having received his award in Ottawa at Rideau Hall in 1984 at the same time Anne Murray received hers. And, to top it all, Fletcher – rewarded for his generous, caring nature – is blind.

A longtime resident of “Steel City” and presently living in a downtown apartment with his wife of 58 years, Dorothy, Fletcher has seen, done and experienced life to the fullest. And he’s a giver who clearly proves nice guys don’t have to finish last.

Born premature in 1915, Fletcher weighed in at a meagre three pounds. His parents – of British and Dutch descent – were the offspring of United Empire Loyalists who could trace their roots back to a period just 10 years after The Mayflower landed in North America. Despite his low birth weight, Fletcher grew up to be a strapping lad, one who excelled at both sports and sties. He showed his determination to succeed despite the odds early in his life – during a tremendous snow storm in the 1930s, he walked 10 miles along railway tracks just to be sure he didn’t miss a high school exam.

And at the tender age of 17, he and a friend were encouraged to enter a potentially prize winning potato into a contest in Guelph. They won hands down, qualifying for the Dominion Championship at the Toronto Royal Agricultural Fair.

“Low and behold we won that, too,” recalls Fletcher. “As a 17-year-old kid, being presented with the top prize by the Rt. Hon. R. B. Benett, Prime Minister of Canada, was a fantastic thrill. That moment has inspired me the rest of my life.”

Often teased for his shyness, Fletcher decided, once at university to attain his BA, to enrol in public speaking courses. It was a move that paid off. During a Boys’ conference in Ancaster, he saw a lovely girl – who he at first mistook for a maid – doing the ironing for the group. It took plenty of courage to overcome his natural shyness – but even after spending much of the weekend together, Fletcher couldn’t even bring himself to look her in the eye (he did, however, shake her hand to say goodbye). Regardless, the courtship with Dorothy was on. In June, 1940, they were married, and adopted a boy and a girl (a third followed 17 years later). Dorothy held down the homefront while Steve landed a job at the company he would stay with for 60 years – Canada Life Insurance.

Fletcher in fact got the job after a local manager saw a picture of him in his role as president of the graduating class at McMaster University. He was invited to an executive lunch at head office where he met the vice-president, himself a “farm boy.”

“He told me farm boys know how to work hard, and offered me $65 a month to be a trainee in every department. I jumped at the chance. This was big money in 1936,” explains Fletcher.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Fletcher enroled in the Royal Highland Light Infantry, but after grunting through countless seemingly pointless exercises and manoeuvres he made an about face – the Royal Canadian Air Force, it seemed, would be more his cup of tea. As a navigator, he was trained in familiar territory – mathematics and calculation.

But being slightly tone deaf, there were obstacles for Fletcher to overcome, particularly where signals, Morse code and aircraft recognition were concerned. But with perseverance and help from his wife Dorothy, he not only mastered the courses, but on graduation received the commander’s prize – a sterling silver cigarette case. For a man with few vices, however, it would never be used. Despite his training, Fletcher didn’t see action – the war was one adventure he was lucky to miss out on.

He returned to his former job, eventually becoming Hamilton’s branch manager. He also volunteered as a school trustee at age 34, and become chairman in 1958.

“This was very typical of Steve, being involved in so many things,” says long-time friend Norm Levitt. “He served without pay on the board of education because he wanted to be a good citizen. My opinion of Steve Fletcher couldn’t be higher.”

Decades passed and this “gentle gentleman” continued to volunteer his time for his community, serving many organizations including The Salvation Army, the Health Council and Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital (of which he became chair) – plus a spell as President of The Children’s Aid Society. A lifetime member of The Rotary Club, he never missed a meeting for 31 years. Awards and plaques in his apartment include Citizen of the Year and the Gallery of Distinction Award of 1988.

For over 20 years, the Fletchers have travelled the world, but this year there will be no excursion to foreign fields: Fletcher has become totally sightless, a term he prefers over blind. The condition resulted from an allergic reaction to a common relaxation medication when he was in hospital for a routine camera scope of his prostate six years ago. He had a cardiac arrest, and when he came to in intensive care he found himself surrounded by eight concerned doctors and nurses. Told what had happened, he promptly thanked them for saving his life.

Nowadays, Fletcher continues to overcome his sightlessness with his usual courage and acceptance. He misses playing bridge and solitaire, but a whole new world has opened up for him: He’s acquired a CNIB watch that talks, and an automatic voice activated phone with 25 programmed numbers of friends and family.

And above all else, his humour has never failed him. “I don’t have a seeing eye dog, but a seeing eye wife,” he says, chuckling.

His hobbies are listening to talk radio, and having once been a ballplayer and manager of a team, he loves the play-by-play of baseball coverage. He also looks forward to continuing to greet his many friends at the spacious downtown apartment he shares with his number one supporter, Dorothy.

The secret to his good life?

“A positive, winning attitude of honesty and integrity along with hard work and a strong faith,” says Fletcher. “I can sum up my life in one word: rewarding.”