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Tom Harnett and his son John

Replies: 5

Re: Tom Harnett and his son John

Posted: 15 Jan 2013 6:49PM GMT
Classification: Query
Surnames: Harnett
Dear D. W. Roberts,

Pax Christi. My name is Br. Dunstan Robidoux OSB and I am a monk of St. Anselm's Abbey which is based in Washington, DC. Tom Harnett was my father's older brother and so he was my uncle. Where Tom was born in 1917, my father, Donald Russell Harnett Robidoux, was born in 1918 in Moncton, New Brunswick. My father was the youngest of three children: Margaret, Tom, and then my father. Because my father's mother died a year later of breast cancer, my father was adopted by a brother of his mother: Ferdinand J. Robidoux QC (d. 1962). My father grew up in a separate household although he always knew who his biological father was. He was brought up as an only child by a married couple who were too old to have children of their own.

I did not know that I had an uncle Tom until about 1965. I was born in 19 51, the oldest of four. I grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick in Canada. My father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WWII. I met uncle Tom in 1965 when he came for a brief visit to Fredericton. I only found out, in fact, that I had an aunt Margaret in 1966 when our family visited Tom and his family in Willowdale, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. Tom's wife was a Scot whom he had met in India toward the end of the War. I must have learned that I had an earlier aunt (Tom's first wife) in 1966 when I was visiting Tom and family at their home in Ontario. I was shown photographs of their honeymoon. Tom told me that they had gone on a motoring trip to Scotland. I can still see the black and white images. When I mentioned to my father that I had learned that Tom had been married previously, he asked me never to mention this matter to Tom since he would "go to pieces" if I were to do so. My Dad did not use this language but I try to convey the meaning and sense of his words. Sometime later, I do not know when, Dad spoke about Tom's first wife. He remembered her as a beautiful Welsh girl, full of love and life. Had lovely blond hair. When she lived in Canada, she lived not with Tom's father and his second wife but with F. J. Robidoux and his wife, Emily Annette, at their home in Shediac, NB. Dad remembered going into the house to meet Tom's wife for the first time and she was hiding behind a door laughing.

A few years later, I lost a beloved great uncle when my uncle Emery died (May 11, 1969). Tom and Dad went into the graveyard immediately behind St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Shediac; they wanted to see where Emery would be buried. There, Tom saw the gravestone marking the grave of this little son who had been killed in a car accident years before. I had been told that he was hit by a car. As soon as he saw this gravestone, he pointed it out to my father and lost his composure, crying uncontrollably like a child. After Tom calmed down, he told my father the whole story.

I speak from memory of my father's account. Tom spoke about the death of his first wife. I had not known that she came to Canada during the war since it has been my impression that she came to Canada just before the War. Dad seemed to speak of her coming before war broke out. In any case, while living with my grandparents in Shediac, she began to have headaches. F J Robidoux, my grandfather, took her to see Dr. Boudreau, a local physician and he concluded that he thought that there was something there. Brain tumor? Oddly enough, the name of my uncle Eric was not mentioned by my father. He was a physician also and would have known Rhiannon. Dr. Boudreau told my family that he could not be sure of his diagnosis. She needed to see a specialist. There were then two top physicians in the world who dealt with the brain: Dr. Wilder Pennfield in Montreal and an Englishman in London. Name unknown. My family pulled strings and she was immediately admitted to see Dr. Pennfield in Montreal. He examined her and claimed that there was nothing wrong. But, she continued to have headaches. My family decided that she must somehow be taken to England, but how to do this in time of war? The Navy could not guarantee safe passage. And so, Rhiannon's father was contacted in the UK. I was told that he had a country home south of London and that he was quite a wealthy man. He approached the British government and, as a result, a RAF flying boat was sent from the UK to Shediac with Tom on board. They pulled him out of active duty to go to Shediac to bring his wife back to the UK. In those days, Shediac functioned as a refueling stop for the flying boats that used to land there in those days. This RAF flying boat landed, picked up my aunt, refueled, and then flew back to the UK. My father never mentioned who in the British government had made this decision, this act of charity, to try and save his sister-in-law's life. Years later, I once asked Tom if he ever saw Sir Winston Churchill in the flesh and he said no. He was "ordered upstairs" when the PM came that day. But, he told me that he knew the men who flew Churchill. Described him as "arrogant." A few years ago, I chanced to find an article written about flying boats. The context was a mystery thriller which involved the flying boats that used to fly into Shediac from the UK. It was noted that the British government owned a small number of these flying boats. One was used by Churchill on his trips overseas....

In London, the attending physician found that Rhiannon had a brain tumor. She was operated on in an effort to try to remove the tumor. But, she needed more blood. Tom and she had the same blood type. They went out to get Tom and they hooked him up beside his wife so that his blood could be received by her. She died on the operating table. And so, we had been asked never to mention to Tom any memory of his first wife.

Tom met his second wife in India, Terry, who hailed from the Hebrides. Terry died a few years ago in her 80s. Tom divorced dear Terry shortly after my father's death which occurred in 1977. As long as he lived, Dad kept Tom and Terry together. Tom married Terry since he needed a mother for his surviving son. I was told about this son in Toronto in 1966. Mrs. Harnett, David Harnett's second wife, was still living. I forget her name now. She spoke about this son who lived with them in Moncton and who was hit by a car outside their home. He had the "cutest mannerisms."

Tom and Terry had 2 children of their own, both born, I think, in Holland. Tish, a daughter, and Paul, a son. Both still live. Tom talked KLM into starting commercial flights to the Far East after the War. He resigned his RCAF commission not long after the War ended. He had a high rank and I was told by Paul that he was pressured, tricked into resigning. Antagonism toward high ranking RAF personnel in the RCAF....

Dad told me that after Tom married Terry, the parents of his first wife asked that Terry come and stay with them for a while and she did this. I was told that, in a way, she was adopted by them. She stayed with them for a month. When Tom returned to Canada, he decided to break all contacts with your family, not keeping in touch with his first wife's parents. I had not known that Tom's first wife had any siblings. It seemed that Tom could not cope with the memories, the associations... This was what I was led to believe.

May I conclude by communicating an apology? As much as we loved Tom while he was alive, there were times too when we wanted to kill him. :-) In our hearts, we never accepted his divorce of Terry. There are certain things that I cannot say in an email.... Dad worried about the fact that Tom no longer went to Mass. And so, we prayed that Tom would, in the end, receive a priest and, in fact, before he died in Vancouver, he received a priest and so received the last rites of the Church. We wanted him to be with God... He died in a nursing home of some kind as a consequence of heart or circulatory failure. He had had a stroke earlier when out buying groceries at a supermarket. He had a number of close calls, health wise, toward the end of his life. He married a third time, an old girl friend in Montreal. I met her once. Her husband had died some years earlier. Between these last two marriages, Tom had lived in the Bahamas with the estranged wife of a Russian baron. Barb and Tom were together maybe about ten years before their relation deteriorated. Tom lived part of the time on his yacht in the harbor in Nassau. This ship was later sunk in a storm.

I retain fond memories of uncle Tom amid the hurts that we all experienced and knew. Tom, toward the end of his life, was financially broke and we tried to help him out... I think especially of my sister, Annette. They were close. Whenever in Toronto, he would stay with her. She knew that Tom had no money...

If you would like to get in touch with me, I can easily be reached at St. Anselm's Abbey; 4501 S. Dakota Ave NE; Washington, DC; 20017-2753; office phone: 202-269-6650. Email: djr@lonergan.org. I have a Facebook account which a friend of mine created; I put no entries of my own into it. The photograph of me that is there was taken on a train a few years ago when I was going from London to Bath. I go to London every September to attend an annual Trust meeting. I am a Trustee of the Phyllis Wallbank Educational Trust. I would be honored to meet you and any members of your family who would like to meet me. I had never thought that I would ever know any members of Tom's first wife's family.

with every best wish,

God bless you and all,

Br. Dunstan
SubjectAuthorDate Posted
DWROBERTS127 5 Sep 2010 3:51PM GMT 
2_Guitard 6 Sep 2010 9:03PM GMT 
bestabro 15 Sep 2010 3:59PM GMT 
DWROBERTS127 15 Sep 2010 5:50PM GMT 
djr439 15 Jan 2013 10:31PM GMT 
djr439 16 Jan 2013 1:49AM GMT 
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