Nine Decades of Giving Back
At the age of 90, Arnold (Robbie) Roberts continues to give back to the community. He and Audrey, his wife of 67 years, reside at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre. After devoting his career to public service, Robbie now volunteers with the Veterans’ Council at Perley Rideau and recently made a significant donation to fund the construction of a gazebo overlooking the Perley’s duck pond.
“Like many of the residents, Audrey and I enjoy spending time there,” he says simply. “I appreciate the quality of care we receive here and I’m proud to support it.”
Born on the family farm near Brighton Ontario in 1927, Robbie Roberts got his first job at the age of 15 as a timekeeper in a nearby factory. He was so good with numbers that an uncle who owned a trucking firm hired him to track mileage.
The Second World War influenced the course of Robbie’s life, as it did for so many of his generation. The family farm was not far from a base originally built by the Royal Canadian Air Force and known today as Canadian Forces Base Trenton. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Allies recognized that gaining control of the skies would be essential to victory. To achieve this goal, however, would require quickly training and deploying hundreds of thousands of pilots, navigators and support staff. In December 1939, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan came into being and CFB Trenton soon became the world’s largest aviation-training centre.
“We would be working in the fields when planes on training runs would sometimes fly low over our heads and spook the horses,” recalls Robbie. Older brother Norris enlisted and served in Europe as a parachutist. One of their nephews was shot down and killed somewhere over Holland at the age of 19.
Although too young to enlist, Robbie got a job stocking the canteen on the base and eventually moved into handling logistics. The war ended before his 18th birthday, but Robbie enlisted anyway and was assigned a job in finance at CFB Trenton. He would serve in the Canadian Forces for the next 29 years. While posted to Winnipeg, he met Geraldine Audrey Forbes, a typist who was the same age as Robbie, and the two hit it off. They married before the year was out and began an odyssey of postings to bases across the country and around the world.
“We managed to get transfers to the same base and were together for all but six months,” says Robbie. While in Germany in 1954, Audrey gave birth to David, their only child. During the Cold War, the family spent five years at Canadian Forces Station Gypsumville, about 240 kilometres north of Winnipeg. The Station was part of the Pinetree Line: a series of radar installations designed to track potential incursions of Soviet aircraft and missiles.
“It was a tough posting for David, because there weren’t many other children around,” says Robbie. “We did a lot of fishing, hunting and camping, and played games together as a family.”
As an expert in logistics and auditing, Robbie’s principal work involved tracking public assets and inspecting operations. He travelled extensively and reckons that he flew in nearly every model of plane operated by the Canadian Forces during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, including Fairchilds (known as flying boxcars), Bristols, Beechcraft, North Stars, de Haviland Buffalo and Canadair Sabres. Audrey and David often flew on military aircraft to visit her family in Winnipeg. The experience likely contributed to David’s decision to start a hot-air balloon company in his late 20s.
Along with regular relocations and frequent travel, volunteerism is another constant in Robbie’s life. Wherever the family was posted, he would volunteer for a local organization: the Lion’s Club, Masonic Lodge, Shriners, and church groups. When David was young, Robbie coached minor hockey and led Boy Scout troops.
In 1973, Robbie retired from the Canadian Forces and began a second career with the City of Ottawa as a budget officer and later budget director. After David left home, he and Audrey bought a cottage near Cobden, Ontario. By the time Robbie retired, Audrey had begun to suffer from a progressive form of dementia. To obtain the support they needed, the couple embarked on a new odyssey of medical specialists and care facilities. When Robbie could no longer care for her on his own, Audrey moved into a long-term care home. It broke Robbie’s heart and he longed for them to be together again. In 2017, the opportunity finally came: Robbie qualified to move into the Perley Rideau, which made Audrey eligible for a bed in a secure unit there. Robbie spends time with Audrey every day.
“Here, she’s finally getting the care she needs,” says Robbie. “I’m proud to do whatever I can to support other residents here.” Robbie sketched a design for a shelter next to the duck pond and christened it the Gazing Gazebo. He generously offered to pay for the gazebo through a donation to the Perley Rideau Foundation – yet another indication of the man’s determination to give back to his community and his country.