Every Remembrance Day, Vern Simonson honours the father and uncle he never knew.
Vern was just 22 months old when his dad — former Roughriders halfback Ernest (Si) Simonson — was killed in the Second World War on July 10, 1944.
That was the second war-related tragedy to befall the family. On Aug. 1, 1942, Vernon Simonson (after whom Vern was named) had been killed in action.
Until Vernon’s fatal air crash, the likelihood was that Ernest Simonson would remain in Canada as a flight instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
“But once my uncle was killed, my father felt he should go overseas,” Vern Simonson, 81, says from his home in Calgary.
“He didn’t have to go and fight,” adds Michael Simonson, Vern’s son. “He left a wife and child to go and fight for his country.”
Ernest Stanfield Simonson ended up serving in the RCAF’s No. 544 Squadron.
He was returning from a long operational flight over Norway — the country in which his father, Roy, had been born — when he encountered bad weather and crashed into a hillside in northeast Scotland.
Ernest, who was the pilot of a Mosquito bomber, and navigator William Reid (from London, England) were killed instantly. Ernest was buried four days later in Banff, Scotland.
“During the months he had been in the Squadron, Si had worked hard and conscientiously,” read a portion of a letter from the Squadron’s wing commander to Ernest’s wife, Muriel.
“He was keen and an excellent operational pilot and was greatly respected by all ranks of the Squadron.
“His loss is a severe one, both personally and for the Service generally, and I should like to assure you how much we all honour and admire the great sacrifice he has made in the cause of freedom so far from his home.”
Home, for Ernest, was initially a farm near the hamlet of Neidpath, in southwest Saskatchewan. He was born in Herbert, where the nearest hospital was located.
Ernest had just turned five when his mother, Hilda, passed away.
Raised primarily by Roy Simonson, Ernest attended Neidpath Public School from 1923 to 1928.
While living in Regina from 1928 to 1930, Ernest attended Connaught and Davin schools before moving back to southwestern Saskatchewan. From 1930 to 1935, he took high school classes at Swift Current Collegiate while starring in track and field, typically setting a torrid pace in the 100-yard dash.
Then it was back to Regina, where Ernest studied at the Reliance School of Commerce in 1935 and 1936.
Upon graduation, he worked in Weyburn for the provincial Department of Public Health for just over a year. He transferred back to Regina in November of 1937 after being hired as an accountant by the Department of Municipal Affairs.
A versatile and skilled athlete, Ernest joined the Regina Dales and excelled in junior football before joining the then-Regina Roughriders in 1939.
As a first-year Roughrider, he played in 12 regular-season games and one playoff contest. He then suited up for seven regular-season games in 1940.
With the war intensifying, Ernest enlisted on Jan. 3, 1941, only two days after he and Muriel were married.
In December of 1941, Ernest passed the RCAF’s flying instructor’s course in Trenton, Ont.
The expectation was that he would remain in Canada, training pilots, until the terrible news arrived about Vernon Simonson.
Back in Regina, Muriel Simonson was raising little Vern as a single mom.
“My mom was an amazing lady,” Vern marvels. “She really had no profession (at the time her husband was killed), but she took a secretarial course and ended up working with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.”
When Vern was only four, he travelled to Scotland with his mother and visited a grave that is marked “Flying Officer E.S. Simonson.”
Only then did Vern, at a very young age, begin to fully comprehend the loss of his father.
Vern lived with his mother and her parents (Clem and Violet Cowan) while growing up.
“I was very fortunate in a lot of ways because my grandfather filled a lot of voids for me,” Vern says. “I remember him driving me to hockey in the middle of snowstorms and driving me to Boy Scouts.
“He played a very important part. That’s why I try to go to as many of my grandchildren’s activities as I can, because he did.
“We played hockey outdoors, and I remember him standing in snowbanks while watching my games.
“It was tough not having my dad, but I had a very loving relationship with all my grandparents.”
By 1956, Muriel Simonson — who never remarried — had established a career and purchased her own home.
“Every year, when Remembrance Day came along, it was always a very difficult time,” says Vern,
who was born in Moose Jaw when his father was stationed there as a flight instructor.
Growing up in Regina, Vern emulated his father by immersing himself in athletics.
“Sports filled his void for me,” he says.
In Grade 9, Vern enrolled at Regina’s Sheldon-Williams Collegiate. After spending four years with the Sheldon-Williams Spartans, he joined the Regina Rams and excelled as a receiver and defensive back.
In 1962, he was named the most valuable player in the Manitoba-Saskatchewan Junior Football League in addition to being an all-star on offence and defence. As well, he was a co-winner of the league’s most-sportsmanlike-player award.
Leading up to the 1963 season, Vern was sought-after by university programs. Interest extended as far as the University of Tulsa, where a legendary Roughriders quarterback was the head coach.
“Glenn Dobbs called our house,” Vern says with a chuckle, “and it was like God had called.”
Vern opted for the University of Alberta and played for the Golden Bears from 1963 to 1965 while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in physical education.
He played in the first Vanier Cup, held on Nov. 20, 1965 in Toronto. After the first three quarters did not produce as much as a point, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues outscored Alberta 14-7 over the final 15 minutes.
The Roughriders, whose games Vern had reliably attended while growing up, took note of his pass-receiving prowess. Saskatchewan selected him in the first round (fourth overall) of the 1966 CFL Draft.
He signed with the Green and White on June 10, 1966 and ended up spending what would be the Roughriders’ first championship season on the practice squad, working out alongside luminaries such as Ron Lancaster, George Reed, Hugh Campbell and Ted Urness.
After the 1966 season, Vern decided to focus on family and a career.
He taught at Viscount Bennett High School in Calgary before marrying Donna Sunstrum on Aug. 25, 1967 at Knox-Metropolitan United Church in Regina.
After honeymooning in Vancouver, the Simonsons moved to the northwestern United States. Vern completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Oregon, based in Eugene, before he and his wife settled in Calgary.
Vern taught in Calgary for 30 more years before retiring in 1999, the same year in which his mother passed away at age 82.
The Simonsons raised three children — Michael, Tara and Todd, all of whom reside in Calgary.
“Everything worked out,” Vern reflects. “I have no complaints. I had a very good career, and we have three great children and six grandchildren.
“It has been a very good life.”