Donald Frank Harlow, Biography

5th September 1918  -  20th November 2004
After the war, he returned to London and met Mary, the love of his life, on a blind date.  Mary was a war widow and on their second date, she told him about her 4-year-old son, Peter John.  Don’s first reaction was “You have a son, how wonderful!”  That’s maybe the moment she knew he was the one, and that reaction definitely epitomized the man we all knew.

The three of them became a family when Don and Mary wed on April 28, 1951.  In January of 1952, they welcomed their first daughter, Irene Grace, to the fold.  The family emmigrated by ship to Canada at midnight on July 31, 1953 where they rejoined Don’s parents who had returned to North Vancouver after the Second World War.  Daughter, Deborah Leslie, was born on October 28, 1955 in London.  Mary had made the difficult decision to return to England while pregnant as her mum was quite ill.  Don had to remain in Canada and met his second daughter for the first time at the airort, six weeks after her birth.

The family resided in North Vancouver until their nest emptied and in 1976 Mary and Don bought an apartment and moved to Richmond.  Don enjoyed his 30-year career with BC Tel as a PBX Installer, retiring in 1983 at the age of 65.  Throughout their marriage, Don and Mary enjoyed helping to raise their five grandchildren and one great grandson (here’s $2, buy yourself a slurpee), taking walks on the dyke, traveling abroad (to England, Italy, Spain, Venezuela, Hawaii…you get the idea), riding bikes, playing golf and consuming copious amounts of tea.
One event that I felt was a rather heroic act was the assistance he gave to several elderly French citizens, pulling them under cover or into roadside ditches to protect them from fighter planes that were flying up the streets of Bologne, with machine guns blazing.  On another occasion Don was in convoy when the enemy started firing on them. After taking cover under some trees, he and his buddy realized that one of the trucks was towing a trailer filled with ammunition and was still out in plain view. They made a run for it, unhitched the trailer and dragged it under cover and safely away from the rest of the convoy, even though bullets were flying all around them. 

A third act of heroism happened on the beaches of Dunkirk. Don had waded out into the water in order to board a fishing dory, one of the many little boats of Britain. He was the last one on and very happy to be there.  The other occupants of the boat quickly realized that the bow of the dory had become stuck on something and without hesitation, Don jumped out and began pushing and pulling, hoping someone else would jump in and help him - no one did.  Eventually he got her free but was too cold, wet and hungry (he hadn't eaten for a several days) to pull himself back into the boat.  Luckily, the other soldiers pulled his sodden weight on board and they set out to transfer to a converted mine sweeper, the H.M.S. Leda.  Once on board Don told me he was given a great gift - the best darned cup of tea and corned beef sandwich he'd ever tasted!  After his time in France, Don served in Iraq, Iran, India and Burma.  It was while serving in Burma that he single-handedly prevented British bombers from bombing their own troops, who had advanced more quickly than expected into enemy territory.  For this Don was mentioned in various dispatches and was awarded the Oak Leaf medal.

Most of our family members are hearing these war stories for the first time today, which is why I call Don our quiet hero. And like most true heroes he never spoke about these events nor did he see what he did as anything special.
During his working career Don had several highlights or out of the ordinary events occur.  In 1952 in London, he was given the honour and responsibility of wiring the microphone for Queen Elizabeth's use during the Coronation ceremony.  Although Don was skilled at his work the main reason the task fell to him, was that he was the only one who was either not claustrophobic or was skinny enough to crawl under the false floor with the wires!  On another job in Vancouver, Don was working in the Marine Building and had to get on top of one of the elevators while one of his work buddies stood guard to make sure no one used it.  Later his mate told him, "I only turned my head for a minute!" that minute - could have taken Don's life, because as he stood atop the elevator, someone had stepped in and started it moving. Don had to leap across the shaft onto the top of another elevator! Thank God for quick reflexes. 

Mary, was rightfully, the main recipient of Don's love and consideration. They were married on 28th April 1951 in Westminster, London.  Although Don wasn't an overtly romantic man, in that he didn't often bring her flowers or take her dancing, he was a quiet romantic.  He would often sing to her and on one recent occasion she awoke to Don's voice softly singing, "You Are My Sunshine".  The cards she received from Don for any special occasion were always filled with the depth of romantic feelings usually reserved for those who are newly in love.  Don's love for Mary began when, as he once told me, he fell in love at first sight on a blind date at a skating rink, in London, England.  And it endured, constant and strong, the 53 years of their marriage.  Mary has asked me to be sure to express her heartfelt sentiment, that Don was the most loving husband anyone could wish for.  As for his 3 children, 5 grandchildren and 1 great-grandson, what more could we have asked for?  I'm hard-pressed to come up with anything.  Each of us carry our own special memories of him and there will always be places, sounds and scents that will bring him close to us.
Don Harlow (3rd from right) and some of his extended family (1994)
Don Harlow (left) poses with his Uncle Alfred Austen (c1950)

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Donald Frank Harlow (Don) was born two months before the end of World War I on 5 Sep 1918 in Faversham, Kent, UK.  He was the only child of Frank Harlow and Elizabeth Grace Austen.  When Don was only 2 years old, the family emmigrated to Canada (1920) and settled in High River, Alberta.  Two years later, the family moved to North Vancouver where they lived until Don was 16.  That time was one of the happiest in his life.  It was filled with friends and sports where he played baseball, soccer and, his favourite, cricket.  However, when the Depression hit, the family moved back to England to look for work and Don, at just 16, became the main breadwinner for the family.

In 1939 Don was called up for military training, which he was quite looking forward to.  He shouldn’t have been accepted into the service because of his poor eyesight, but he cheated on the test by peeking through his fingers.  He entered the service on July 15, 1939 at the age of 20 and left the service on February 2, 1946 after serving 7 years.  He was a Corporal in the British Royal Corps of Signals and served time in France, India, Iraq, Iran and Burma.
Don  was a devoted son, husband and father. He was Grandpa to some, Poppa to others and Great Poppa to one. He was our in-house comedian, an avid sports fan, our rock and in his own quiet way, he was our everything.

The war years were monumental in Don's life and had a profound and lifelong affect on him, and understandably so as he spent the better part of his 20's (age 20-27) in the service.  I think he experienced enough adventure to last him a lifetime during W.W.II and perhaps that's why, for the rest of his life, he always said, "All I need in life is
my family, I don't need anything else."

During a taped interview with Don in July 2000 we heard some of his adventures and realized that he was a quiet and unsung hero of W.W. II.  Although he served in many countries his experiences in France were the ones that stood out the most to me.  When Don first arrived in France, he was stationed in a hotel and couldn't understand why the other guys were sleeping in the basement, when there was a perfectly lovely top floor room available with a great view of the harbour.  One night he watched as a plane flew in over the harbour and when the allied tracer bullets started filling the air he realized, too late, that it was an enemy bomber, coming straight at him. Just as the plane passed over and out of view, there was a tremendous explosion the force of which blew him clear across the room. After that he slept in the basement with the other guys.  Twice Don faced fighter planes firing their guns at him.  Once as he ran down a French street and again as he foolishly ran across a large open field.  He was able to jump behind an old log and out of harms way, just in the nick of time.
His love of sports, which began as a boy and included a desire to one day become a professional cricket player or boxer, expanded over his lifetime to include pretty well any sport you can think of.  Don's enthusiasm was the same, whether watching the Olympics, Saturday Night Hockey or running down the sidelines at one of our football, soccer or baseball games.  I remember one summer when he built me my very own backyard high jump, a memory I will always hold special.  He taught all of us important life skills, like doing a job to the best of one's ability and persevering with it until it is finished.  He taught us the importance of taking care of your finances and how to build things with quality and pride.  Even more importantly he showed us how one lives life as a truly good and decent person.  I don't think any of us ever heard him say anything unkind or nasty about anyone ...except maybe once during our interview, when he mentioned a certain few sergeants he'd suffered under during the war!  Don's love of family may have shown itself the most strongly, in the way he fought his way back to us, time after time, from the health problems that plagued him for most of his adult life.  His will to survive and bounce back was amazing to all of us. 

Don was the family ham and he definitely had a mischievous side.  With a humour that was sometimes corny or silly, and occasionally involved the use of props.  At other times his humour was quick, clever and dry, he never failed to amuse and delight; often reducing family gatherings into fits of hysterical, tear-producing, side-splitting hilarity.  The loss of his humour will truly leave a gap in our lives that no one else will ever fill.

I realized as I struggled to write this tribute to Don, that it is impossible to give a full and true portrayal of someone's life in less than 10 minutes.  But now I'm sure that you can see, that a person is much more than the facts of their life.  And now this man, Donald Frank Harlow, a man of simple appetites and mostly quiet ways has left us.  Never because he wanted to - only because it was time, and we take great comfort in knowing that his pain and suffering are over.  Don's memory and the legacy of decency, honesty, integrity, kindness, humour and love that he leaves will be etched in the hearts and minds of those who loved him most.

Don........your 86 plus years counted for so much more than you'll ever know and we will all remember what you taught us, by the fine example you were, of everything that matters most in this world. Your family thanks you and loves you - always.

                          adapted from a eulogy written by Don's daughter, Irene, and grand-daughter, Kelly, 2004