New Year’s Eve, 1952 at the Laurentian Lodge Club

It was New Year’s Eve, 1952, at the Laurentian Lodge Club in the foothills of the Laurentian mountains. The members, out of their snowy ski togs and dressed to the nines, were sipping their pre-dinner drinks in the comfortable lounge, beside the Christmas tree and the blazing fieldstone fireplace. There was an air of anticipation. Word had gone round that a special announcement, somehow related to the club, was presently to be made by Buckingham Palace.

The fieldstone fireplace

The fieldstone fireplace

A young man, sporting a McGill blazer, walked over to the floor-model Marconi radio and turned the dials, so high the little children of the Club members had to stretch to reach them. There was a crackle of static before the news came on. The members crowded close to hear. One of them was smoking his pipe, a tall man in a grey herringbone suit over a red vest, a Princeton pin in his lapel.

Then the announcer read the item from Buckingham Palace with the prominent names on the Queen’s Honours List for the New Year, 1953. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, had bestowed the Order of Merit, the highest civilian decoration in the British Empire, on Montreal’s renowned neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield.

There were cheers, toasts and congratulations all around. Only one Canadian, the country’s longest serving Prime Minister, the Right Honourable MacKenzie King, had ever received the O.M., which could be held by no more than twenty-four people at a single time.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, joined the Shawbridge Club in 1930.  (Penfield Archives, Osler Library, McGill University)

Dr. Wilder Penfield, founder of the Montreal Neurological Institute, joined the Shawbridge Club in 1930. (Penfield Archives, Osler Library, McGill University)

Dr. Penfield and his family had been members of the Shawbridge Club since 1930. Now he was sixty-one, a trim balding man with the square shoulders of the athlete he had been at Princeton University, just over six feet tall, with an expression and smile that resemble President Eisenhower’s. He was an imposing but not intimidating figure, at least not at the Club where he was sometimes referred to as “the gentle giant”.

A keen skier himself, Dr. Penfield was often among the first to hear the early morning call, “Who’s for skiing this morning? Get a move on. All out.” It was a man’s voice, “clear and high,” he remembered, “like the voice of a yodeller at the start of his yodel.” The voice belonged to the most famous skier of them all, Hermann “Jackrabbit” Johannsen, who had been a member of the Shawbridge Club since its beginning in 1923.

Many a morning, the “Jackrabbit” skied over to the Club from his little house nearby, rousted up a group, clomped to the front door in sight of the Big Hill, snapped on his skis and, at the head of his chattering retinue, thin and craggy as a pine tree, swooshed through the powdery snow towards the heart of the mountains.

"This strong, wiry man with the profile of an eagle, Johannsen, is the Pied Piper, one might say, of the the ski hills. He called in his clear, high voice and the young and the strong came flocking after him to discover the cold, white beauty of the North." Wilder Penfield (CPR collection)

“This strong, wiry man with the profile of an eagle, Johannsen, is the Pied Piper, one might say, of the the ski hills. He called in his clear, high voice and the young and the strong came flocking after him to discover the cold, white beauty of the North.” Wilder Penfield (CPR collection)

Extracted from Skiing Legends and the Laurentian Lodge Club, for more information on the title and where you can get a copy click here. To find out more about the Laurentian Lodge Club, click here.

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