A 100-year birthday is always a major celebration for a community, but even more so for the community member. Such was the recent drive-by parade for long-time Virden resident Les Downing. He is also entitled to be called Sir Les Downing, as a few years ago he was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for his help in the liberation of France in the Second World War.
On June 6, 1944 Downing was among the Allied troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy to end the Nazi terror in Europe. He joined up in October 1942, leaving the family farm near Lenore. He trained in Shilo, Petawawa and England, with the 19th Battalion of the Royal Canadian Artillery. He still has memories of D-Day and the friends he lost there and in the months that followed.
One whom Downing remembers well was a man from Virden, who became a good friend. They would talk about their plans for after the war, when they got home. He still remembers the young man who did not make it home.
In June of 1946, Gunner Downing came home, and with the help of Veteran Affairs, he was able to buy a farm south of Virden.
A few years later, because of his fiddling skills, he was asked by a young school teacher if he would play at a local dance. Downing said yes, if she might go to a movie with him. She did and a few more dates would lead to marriage. Louise, his bride, would become a well loved teacher at Mary Montgomery School for many years.
June 1, on Sir Les's 100th birthday, his friends John Fefchak, Kelvon Smith and Amanda Hrynko hatched a plan to have something special that day that would work with the present COVID restrictions. They had to do it on the quiet, as Les did not want anything special for his 100th. The birthday event would be a drive-by parade in front of his home, with him agreeing to come outside and sit on the lawn.
The actual parade grew in numbers as word got around in print and social media. On a beautiful warm day as many as 75 vehicles, many with colorful decorations, did a drive through town with a shout out to some local schools as they passed by. The parade represented a wide cross-section of the community that had vehicles from the RCMP, the fire department, local businesses, local Royal Canadian Legion branches and many community vehicles with long-time friends.
Some special vehicles stood out. There were two LAV (armoured) vehicles from CFB Shilo and a Second World War period army jeep that represented the Elkhorn Legion branch. The jeep flew the Canadian red Ensign flag that our troops fought under during the war. Then along came a decorated and lively Fort la Bosse school bus, filled with school children singing Happy Birthday from the open windows.
After the last vehicle passed, presentations and best wishes were made to Mr. Downing by the Town of Virden, the local and area legion branches and MP Larry Maguire. Two soldiers from the First Royal Canadian Horse Artillery out of Shilo took time to talk to Downing, soldier to soldier, about his service to Canada during the war, sharing some of Downing’s wartime memories. It was a special moment - the bond between all soldiers. The soldiers, Captain James Lee and Warrant Officer Mike Jenkins, made a number of presentations including an engraved 105 artillery shell, the type that Les Downing and his gun crew fired during the war.
After the final presentations and car window visits, Sir Les and John Fefchak went to the Westman Nursing Home where Les’s wife Louise is a resident. Fefchak saw to it that Downing brought with him a bouquet of red roses for his wife. With help of a staff member, and modern technology a tablet and speaker were set up so that Les and Louise could to talk to their daughter, Donna Lynne Downing, and other family members. Family members were not able to attend the celebrations, because of the COVID restrictions.
In a quiet moment after the busy day for Sir Les, he said that after the war, he realized how lucky he was to make it home and he remembers many in his unit that did not return.
He also added how pleased he was with the turnout for the day and the many kind wishes and presentations he received. Well done soldier! The changes you have seen over the last hundred years must be amazing.