Veteran, cadet leader, founder of Peacekeeper Park dies

FILE PHOTO Ret. Major Gene Smith showed his grandson an old flag bearing the names of the Petrolia men who served in World War One, which he found in March 2017, just before the anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

A Petrolia man who made sure veterans were honoured for their service and shared his love of the military with hundreds of young people has died.

Retired Major Gene Smith died at his home of natural causes Wednesday according to a post by the Petrolia Legion.

Smith – a veteran of the Canadian Forces himself – was passionate about the military and its members, finding ways to honour those who served the country.

One month before he turned 16, Smith enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery. It was the beginning of a 34-year military career where he was a driver/mechanic, a signaller, troop leader, and drove tanks like the Sherman, Chiefton and Centurion.

He left the military for 11 years, but when he returned, he was transferred to the Cadet system, where he commanded 132 Repulse Sea Cadets, the Sarnia Sail Centre, and 2563 Petrolia Army Cadets.  He was later posted to Cadet Headquarters in London where he assisted in implemented a province wide shooting program and then went on to become a Regional Cadet Advisor. 

An active Petrolia Legion Member, Smith heard the French Government was offering its highest honour to those who had served in France during the Second World War. He was instrumental in making sure Petrolia veterans Sid McLean and Ted Paisley received the honour.

Smith’s knowledge of military history was deep and he knew how important battles shaped the Canadian Forces.

In an interview with The Independent in 2017, Smith talked about the impact the Battle of Vimy Ridge had on the military and the nation.

“What occurred at Vimy changed the way we do battle… where every man knows what his job is and what is going on each day… the idea of dropping their packs to go into battle and leapfrogging over each other,” he told The Independent at the time.

“The standards we live by today were set by these guys.”

That’s was true for Smith, too who learned from the soldiers at Vimy that “I was scared but I had a job to do and I had to do it.”

The veteran added at the time the proudest moment of his life was being at Vimy Ridge in his uniform and watching a medal ceremony.

For many , Smith’s lasting legacy will be Peacekeeper Park near Aylmer. It is a living memorial for the 258 Canadians who lost their lives in the service of peace. It includes the Path of Honour, where white crosses mark a trail marking the Canadians who have died in the service of Peace. It includes storyboards with the information on many of the peacekeeping missions.

Smith wanted the place to come to the park and feel at home and talk to other veterans who had experienced mental trauma, hoping the environment would help the vets feel free to talk about their experiences and learn how to cope.

Smith’s vision was to combine a memorial for those lost with an adventure camp for youth groups. Over the years, he conducted summer camps there.

For most of his adult life, Smith worked for Dow Chemical Canada in Sarnia and was sent to New Mexico and Saudi Arabia to build and staff three chemical plants. He was also the leader of Dow’s hazardous materials response team.

Smith leaves behind his wife, Linda, and his son, Patrick, daughter-in-law, Tearza and three grandchildren, Hunter Taryn and Owen.

A “Celebration of Life” will be held for the retired major in the future.