Honoured by Vivian Payne
George Ambrose Payne was born in Kingston, Ontario in 1932, where he grew up at 597 Johnson Street. He was surrounded by his extensive family, many of whom lived in their own houses in the neighbourhood. He jokes that he couldn’t have been an unruly youth if he tried because there was an auntie or a second cousin on every corner who would see what he was up to and report on him.
He has many happy memories of summers with his cousins on Wolfe Island, including riding Bessie (an old draft horse) to visit his first girlfriend on a farm on the other side of the island. The horse was so old and slow that by the time he got to the girl’s house, it was time for him to turn back and head for home. He remembers learning to drive at age 12 when his aunt gave him the car keys and told him to take his Uncle his lunch. He protested that he didn’t know how to drive, but his Aunt just said, “You’ll learn”, and he did, bouncing in an old stick shift truck across the fields.
His father, Llewellyn, was an independent contractor and built many homes in downtown Kingston, most of which are still being enjoyed by families today. George often worked side-by-side with his father and so came into his later interest in engineering quite naturally. The Great Depression was tough on George’s family but he remembers they always had food on the table. George remembers many out of work men coming to their back door looking for work in exchange for a meal , and that his mother Clara always found something for them to do before giving them a hearty meal. He asked her once why she just didn’t give them food and send them on their way. She told him that these men needed their pride as much as they needed food. Perhaps this was the source of George’s strong social ethic.
After the Depression came World War II. George was just a child, but he remembers the tension in the house, sitting at the radio with his parents, listening to news reports, and worrying about his older brother Bill who was a pilot with the RCAF. He remembers one very happy night in the middle of the war. The family hadn’t known where Bill was for weeks due to security black-outs on information. They were very worried, especially during one very intense battle period and listened to the radio anxiously before going to bed exhausted. One night, there was a noise downstairs. They thought it was a break-in. It wasn’t. It was Bill, home on leave, crawling in clumsily through a window. Bill was George’s childhood hero, and you could say that Bill remained a hero to George for his whole life.
Looking back to George’s early life, it is not so surprising that he became the man he became, the man that his family is honouring in this memorial project.
George graduated from Queen’s University in 1956, with a degree in Engineering. Long fascinated
by trains, he broke the family tradition of staying in the Kingston area and moved to Toronto
to work for the Toronto Terminal Railways. Possibly his only unmet objective in his long career was one of his first tasks with the TTR which was to try to find a way to keep pigeons from nesting over the doors at Union Station. George tried, and so have hundreds of others over the years, but still the pigeons roost. With the Ontario Northland Railway, he waged a similar sort of battle
with beavers throughout his career.
George went from Toronto to Sudbury to work with the CPR. By now, he had started his family and had two daughters, Lori and Teri, and he passed on his love of trains to them by taking them to work with him when he could. His third daughter, Cyndi, was born in North Bay, shortly after George started to work for the ONR in 1962 as Engineer Maintenance of Way. Life was good in the
house at 780 Copeland Street, but George seemed destined to live through complex times. He remembers vividly the night President Kennedy was in the nuclear stand-off with Kruschev, aka the Cuban Missile crisis. Neighbors and friends gathered at his house to watch the TV and to worry together about their possible imminent fate. Remember, North Bay was a NORAD missile site, and would have been a target in a nuclear attack. Throughout the long night of tears and fears, George consoled and reassured. It has always been his way to stay calm in a crisis, to think about others, and to help find a solution to whatever problem. One can only imagine his sense of helplessness on that bleak night, and the helplessness felt by millions of North Americans.
In 1969, after having risen to the position of Staff Engineer, George left the ONR to work for a private company, Penvidic Contracting, a Burlington, Ontario company that builds railroad
sections all over the province. With Penvidic, George made many new friends all over the transportation system in North America and gained a varied experience. However, the pull of the north was strong, and in 1973, George returned to North Bay and the ONR as Director of Systems and Planning. In this position, he supervised the building of the new Chief Commanda and the Chi Chi Maun in Owen Sound, pioneered container shipping for Northern Ontario, contributed to the establishment of NorOntAir, and initiated the passenger rail service now known as “The
In 1996, George retired from the ONR but it cannot be said that he stopped working. He started his own engineering consulting business and he put more time into the many volunteer activities he had already been involved in. He organized Shrine Circuses and Golf Tournaments which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Shrine Hospitals for Children. He served on the Social Planning Council and helped streamline food bank operations so that all food banks in North Bay
have equality of access to donations. He sat on the Planning Council to help ensure that planning decisions made sense for the individuals applying and the neighborhoods they lived in. He was a Director of the Chamber of Commerce. He was involved in the moving of the CPR railroad tracks at the waterfront, which is allowing the development of the waterfront that is going on now. He helped design the track for the Heritage Railway. He did the engineering specs for the
walkway that now connects North Bay’s downtown to the shore of Lake Nipissing.
When you are standing on the waterfront, admiring what it has become, or thinking about what it might become, think of George Payne and the many other volunteers who are working hard to make our waterfront all it can be.