By Jim Withers
Straight guys, in my experience, rarely say “I love you” to each other. It certainly isn’t a habit of mine.
I made an exception on May 2 of this year, however, when I phoned my friend John Yardley-Jones to wish him a happy 93rd birthday.
While we hadn’t lived in the same city since I left Edmonton for Montreal 39 years ago, our friendship lived on, mainly through hand-written letters, cards and lengthy phone calls.
“I love you,” he said. “I love you, too, Yardley,” I replied. (Like a lot of people I called him Yardley instead of John, his given name.) We’d never said those words to each other before and, sadly, we’ll never get to do it again because it turned out to be our final conversation.
Yardley died in his sleep on Dec. 6.
The beloved editorial cartoonist, watercolourist, endurance athlete, husband, father of six, grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather of one, plus friend to many, was the personification of joie de vivre. In addition to the abiding image of Yardley’s ever-present mischievous smile, jaunty cap or headband, wire-rim glasses and goatee, a slew of his favourite expressions will long echo in the memory of those who were fortunate enough to know him – “Go for it!,” “Have a good one,” “Absolutely delightful!,” “Isn’t it amazing?” and “Well done!” All of which were invariably delivered with gusto and which would accurately describe Yardley’s life.
I became familiar with these and other Yardleyisms while employed as a copy editor at the Edmonton Sun in the early 1980s when he and I discovered that we shared an interest in long-distance running. I’d just taken up running in an effort to survive a brutally cold Alberta winter, and was keen on participating in upcoming 10K races. Yardley, the Sun’s editorial cartoonist, was already in his 50s but still a remarkable physical specimen because he’d been running virtually every day for decades. He hadn’t thought of racing, though. Running for him was a solitary activity, part of his morning regimen along with an hour of meditation. Yardley explained that he’d been a boxer in Wales, winning most of his 150 or so pro fights, and it was through pugilism that he became addicted to running. “I always loved the road work,” he said.
And so each shift I tried to find time to pop into Yardley’s office so we could talk running while he worked away on the day’s political cartoon. This being Alberta and the Sun always listing to the right politically, Yardley’s cartoons regularly depicted Prime Minister Trudeau – Pierre, not Justin – as the devil incarnate. His distinct creations often had a wisecracking black cat hidden somewhere, plus maybe a grinning buxom blonde in a tight-fitting top and/or some reference to the fictitious New Sarepta Tire and Girdle Company. (The community eventually named a local park in Yardley’s honour to thank him for putting New Serepta – pop. 400 – on the map.)
Watching Yardley work, I couldn’t help but notice that he had what looked like stubs for fingers on his drawing hand. And while he never showed the slightest hint of being self-conscious about them, it was years later that he explained what had happened.
Born in Liverpool, Yardley grew up in rural Wales after he and thousands of other kids were relocated from the English port city during a massive Luffwaffe bombing campaign in 1940.
“Homes everywhere were on fire,” he recalled.
Yardley was billeted on an elderly couple’s farm and shared a bed with three other relocated lads. Missing their parents and crying a lot, Yardley did his best to comfort them.
While in school, Yardley came up with the idea of building a bomb to halt a Nazi invasion. After finding some stored explosive materials, he inadvertently set off a blast in the classroom and severely burned his left hand. Doctors wanted to amputate his fingers but his female teacher insisted that they save what they could. For the rest of his life, Yardley’s stubby fingers would be a reminder of his misguided contribution to the war effort.
When his best friend Ronnie joined the military, Yardley thought he’d do the same.
“I got kicked out of army after two months because of my fingers. ‘Look at his fucking fingers,’ they said. I was very angry, so I got into boxing.”
Yardley trained as a draftsman, apprenticed as a house painter and, at 14, sold his first cartoon to a Liverpool newspaper.
At a New Year’s Eve dance he met Mary Kelly, a teacher who was one of the few women of her time to go to university. She told him upfront about her ambition to have a half dozen kids, while Yardley said his was to emigrate to Australia. Mary got her wish, but the young couple ended up in Canada, not Australia, after crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary in 1957.
Yardley became the Edmonton Journal’s first editorial cartoonist five years later after working as a house painter while selling freelance cartoons. He, Mary and their growing family then hopscotched around the country, with Yardley cartooning for the Toronto Telegram and Montreal Star – winning a National Newspaper Award in 1971 – and returning to Edmonton in the 1980s, first with the Sun and then the Journal.
It was during his time at the Sun that I got to know Yardley and his family through running, with Mary and several of their kids turning up as a cheering section.
Mary was always the quieter half of the couple. In addition to mothering six, she was a teacher, bank employee and Girl Guide leader. She taught Edmontonians Welsh and did translation work, such as on a century-old book whose purpose was to entice Welshmen to emigrate to Canada. When Yardley retired from newspaper cartooning and took up painting with watercolours, the ever-supportive Mary sold them from a stall in the local farmers’ market.
Once Yardley had run his first race, there was no holding him back. We ran the 1983 Seattle Marathon, with me writing in the Sun about our weeks of preparation and Yardley providing the illustrations. The race went reasonably well despite the cold, rainy weather, with Yardley blowing kisses to the crowd as usual, until a hamstring injury caused him to nearly collapse at the finish line. I found him later, beaming while being served soup and covered in blankets by two attractive young race volunteers in the recovery tent.
This wouldn’t be the last time that pretty damsels would come to Yardley’s rescue. After enduring stomach pains throughout the 1985 New York Marathon – “I puked in all five boroughs” – he again found himself being cared for by young women at the finish line.
Then there was the time we were cross-country skiing at Elk Island Park – Yardley taught me the joys of cross-country skiing – when we arrived back at the parking lot cold and tired, and discovered that I’d left my keys locked inside my 1977 Pontiac LeMans. There was no one around, so Yardley skied off to look for help. Twenty minutes later he was back with a couple of – you guessed it – attractive young female park employees who had a device that allowed us to get into my car.
“You’re a babe magnet,” I told him on the ride home.
Indeed, Yardley was forever hugging women and kissing their hands, and they all seemed to appreciate his chivalrous attention.
In 1984, I moved to Montreal and Yardley returned to the Journal, where his newspaper career had started. There, he and city columnist Nick Lees teamed up to take part in an endless series of “scams” – travelling to, and running in marathons in, places like Greece, Wales and New York – while raising thousands of dollars for charities, and getting lots of ink in the Journal. Yardley always wanted his racing efforts to benefit less fortunate people.
We only got together a handful of times after I moved to Montreal, including on a couple of occasions when I visited him in Edmonton. Whenever he was in Montreal seeing his son Steve, we managed to squeeze in runs up and around Mount Royal. On one such outing we laughed about being passed by a two-year-old – albeit one who happened to be in a stroller being pushed by a very fit young man. “The indignity!” Yardley exclaimed.
I was also with Yardley, Nick and friend Rollie Martin for their New York Marathon “scam” in 1985, although not as a runner. We ended up spending a week together, catching Broadway shows, concerts and getting a King Kong’s-eye view of the city from atop the ill-fated World Trade Center. Once after dessert, Yardley charmed our restaurant waitress by getting out his sketch pad and doing a caricature of her.
(This was the same year that Yardley made local headlines for talking a man out of committing suicide. The real-life drama, which lasted more than two hours, occurred when Yardley was out on a training run and came upon the distraught man on a bridge.)
But marathons weren’t enough for Yardley, and he began doing ultras, like the 53-miler from London to Brighton, and a 100-klick Midnight Sun marathon on Baffin Island in his early 60s – a year after suffering his first stroke.
Fitness doesn’t always guarantee good health, and over the years Yardley would suffer several strokes, need knee-replacement surgery – “too many marathons and ultra-marathons, but no regrets, no negatives” – and end up spending his final years in a dementia-care facility. But the worst blows were the deaths of Mary in 2009, and daughter Allison last year.
“Mary gave me a wonderful gift – six great children,” he told me many times.
Still, no matter what life threw at him, Yardley’s unshakable positive spirit shone through. When he couldn’t run, he went for brisk walks while wielding hiking poles or he cycled on a stationary bike. And he never stopped making art. There was always a new show to work on, such as the one called Strokes of Genius.
While the strokes and dementia robbed Yardley of his ability to come up with words he was looking for, our conversations always started in the same cheerful way with him answering the phone in his singsongy “Yaaaardley Jones ... .”
Once I’d identified myself, he’d break into “Jaaaaames!” with a hearty laugh. “It’s so good to hear your voice.”
“Ninety-three,” I said during our last conversation, in a tone that emphasized what a remarkable age that was.
“Jesus, how the hell did that happen?” Yardley replied. “Isn’t it amazing?”
He said he was “doing extraordinarily well” – one of his many favourite expressions – and that the sun was still shining in Edmonton and it was a beautiful day. He told me about visits he’d had from daughters Fiona (with her two sons), Audrey and Hilary, and son Spyder, plus phone calls from son Steve in Montreal and an old friend in Wales.
Before we hung up he told me twice that he loved me.
“I love you, too, Yardley.”