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98-year-old B.C. woman shares letter from father she never met, killed in WW I

11/06/2014 05:10 EST | Updated 01/06/2015 05:59 EST
Meeting June Gillrie is like rewinding 100 years.

She's a spry, vigorous 98-year-old with a sharp mind and a vivid memory. A question about her long life elicits a rapid-fire, autobiographical account of how she owned retail stores in Vancouver, developed commercial buildings and pursued golfing and skiing with a passion.

And yet, for all the memories Gillrie can recall instantly, she says there's always been a very large part of her life that's been missing — she has no memory of her father, William Kineer Leslie.

They never met.  

A 31-year-old sergeant with the 102 Battalion Canadian Infantry, Leslie died on the battlefield in France in June 1917 without ever getting to see his newborn daughter.

'I never had a father'

"He was killed when I was almost a year old, so I never had a father,"  says Gillrie.

Now, with her own years winding down, Gillrie says she wants to share her most personal possession — a handwritten letter from her father which he wrote upon learning of her birth.

"I feel it's in honour of my father that I'm doing this."

Gillrie has donated the letter, as well as Leslie's war medals, to the HMCSAlberni Museum in Comox, B.C., where they are now part of a permanent exhibit.

The letter, penned by Leslie from the front lines of France, was written the day after a messenger brought word that his wife in British Columbia had just given birth to a baby girl.

"My darling wife," reads Gillrie, "I can't tell you how happy I am."

"You always wanted a girl, and now you got one."

It goes on to express his joy and hopes for the day he gets to meet his new little girl.

"I will sure worship the little thing."

Not long afterwards, Leslie survived the near massacre of his regiment, but his luck would run out on June 7, 1917.

Museum curator Lewis Barthlomew, who's researched Leslie's life, says Leslie was leading an attack on a German machine gun bunker near the French village of Villers-Au-Bois.

"He was struck by a sniper's bullet in the hip and almost immediately he was struck with machine gun fire in the
chest and died instantly."

But Gillrie says she doesn't believe death came immediately for her father.

"I often think when a person is dying and they're hurt like that .. you realize that you're dying and I think his mind would have gone to his mother and to his new wife with this new baby. Because I don't think you die instantly."

After Leslie's death, Gillrie's mother, Maud,  moved her and her two siblings to California and then back to Vancouver 
where the family settled and her mother eventually remarried.

Her father's letter, along with letters from other soldiers about her dad, ended up in a chest and were rarely taken out.

But over time she says, she realized she wanted others to hear about his story.

'So very proud of what he did'

"I feel proud, so very proud of what he did. It comes out more, not when you're young, but when you're older and you realize what's gone on."

Every year, Gillrie has taken out an ad in the local Courtney newspaper to coincide with Remembrance
Day. It shows Leslie on a horse in a Canadian military uniform, taken in Vancouver in 1915.

The caption reads: "Sadly but proudly I hold the medals of the father I never knew."

 Bartholomew says the title for the exhibit about Gillrie and Leslie came from the last words of his last letter, 
"How I Long to See You"

"I hope what (visitors) take away from this is a father's love and 100 years later, a daughter's love for that father. That even though the war was tragic, it wasn't enough to kill the love between these people."
 

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