Most of us never live into our nineties, let alone learn how to make the most of our final, most experienced years.
For anti-poverty crusader Harry Leslie Smith — whose 95-year-old life is in peril in hospital in Belleville, Ont., with his sons at his side — life in some ways seemed to begin at 90, when the fledgling, self-published author caught fire with readers on both sides of the Atlantic, improbably ending up mattering most to a legion of followers less than a third his age.
How many millennials do you know who hang on a great-great-grandparent’s every word? Harry knows thousands — each moved by the power of his stark, eyewitness warning not to let life drift back toward the squalor, hunger and creeping authoritarianism he endured as a child in Britain during the Great Depression.
And they were out in force on Twitter, where Smith’s quarter-million followers unleashed a “wave of kindness” and encouragement after Harry’s son John took over his account at the hospital on Tuesday, issuing heartrending medical updates on the attempt to stabilize his father’s dangerously low blood pressure.
“Cardiologist says it might be another pneumonia or bladder infection causing low BP. But by his tone errs on the side of pessimism as to how this ends for Harry,” read one of son John’s messages during his around-the-clock bedside vigil.
“He sleeps deep, his legs jerking like he’s riding a bike,” read another. “And, I wonder if in his dreams, he’s 7 again and riding his uncle’s bike from his grandparents’ house to the moors, where he felt free from the sting of his poverty.”
Then, a short while later, “I get the feeling that in this hospital room, tonight, I am watching history die here: my own, Britain’s and even Canada’s.”
If this is not the end for Harry Leslie Smith, the outpouring of love nevertheless offered a rare, living glimpse of how deeply he has moved people since he turned 90 and came to prominence. The testimonials bear witness to his reinvention as a storyteller in his final years — and stand as irrefutable evidence that it is absolutely never too late, no matter what your age, to make a difference.
Born in Britain in 1923 and raised through abject poverty as the Great Depression took hold, Smith survived the deprivations that shattered his family and went on to serve with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It was in postwar Germany, while serving as part of the occupation force in Hamburg, that he met his future wife, Friede.
The couple attempted to resettle in his native Yorkshire, but lingering anti-German sentiment soon forced a change of plan. A move to Canada for a truly fresh start, far from the judgmental eyes of postwar Europe.
“They knew Canada in the 1950s was a place where you could start without the baggage of class,”John said recently in an interview with the Star. “So they came to Toronto and it gave them a foothold on a new world.”
A job in the oriental carpet division of Eaton’s flagship department store on Yonge St. paid the bills — and gave Harry a depth of knowledge he eventually took elsewhere, going on to sell high-value carpets to a range of notable clients, from Conrad Black to former Canadian prime minister John Turner, before retiring in the 1980s.
Smith never earned more than $55,000 annually during his working life, but that single income was enough to ensure the family a thriving middle-class existence: a house in Scarborough with a mortgage that over 25 years would vanish to nothing; vacations, food, a seemingly limitless future for three sons. All the things that seem all but unattainable to a young couple starting out in housing-scarce, cost-prohibitive 21st-century Toronto.
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites