Au revoir to the grand-père of Vimy

Adrienne Arsenault on the man who brought a little extra respect to Canada's war dead.

There are thousands of Canadians, young Canadians, who instantly know the moniker "The Grand-Père of Vimy." Those same young Canadians are a little bereft today.

Georges Devloo has died, at 85, and that means a tradition of respect and generosity and stunning hospitality has gone, too.

Georges Devloo, the 'welcome man' at Canada's Vimy Ridge National Memorial in France. ((Veterans Affairs))

Vimy, that crucial French village so soaked in Canadian history and blood, is a place of pilgrimage. Anyone who opts to take a train there knows, though, that actually getting to the memorial is tough. It's nowhere near the station, and the station has no taxis. It has no phone. It has no employees. But, for the past 13 years, it had Monsieur Devloo.

He was the elderly man in the trench coat, beret and broad smile who virtually every day stood on the platform to wait for wayward Canadians and offered to take them to the memorial. He asked for absolutely nothing in return.

The best guess is that he shepherded roughly 1,300 Canadians through Vimy. But he did much more. Always a gregarious soul, he quickly got to know the young Canadian guides who worked at the memorial. When they were sick, he took them soup. He stored their bicycles in his house over the winters. He taught them how to drive standard. He teased them about their French, and he was always there with a kind word for the lonely and homesick.

I met him in the spring of 2007 while doing a story for the CBC's coverage of the 90th anniversary of the battle for Vimy Ridge. That story was called, "Welcome Man."

Walking into his dining room left me slack jawed. It was filled with postcards and little Canadian flags and Maple Leaf emblems and pictures, everywhere, of a smiling Devloo with Canadians. He couldn't wait to open up his albums. He seemed to know all their names, all their faces, all their stories.

His devotion to them was returned with equal enthusiasm. Three times he was invited to Canada by the young guides, and on each visit, he was treated like a king. Last November, the Department of Veterans Affairs honoured him with a certificate of appreciation. He deserved that and more.

Why did he do it? He told us it was a mixture of things. When his wife died, he was terribly lonely and had a lot to give still. But there was also something that struck him about Canada. He said he knew how much Canada gave, said he knew, too, that Canada was one of the few countries that gave without asking for anything in return. It wasn't just about war. It was about rebuilding after the war. His deeds, he said, were simply acts of solidarity.

What now, I wonder. How on earth does this vacancy get filled? No doubt thousands of Canadians are asking that, too. There is a Facebook page dedicated to Mr. Devloo. On it, there are suggestions that some of the former guides will go to his funeral this week. Others wonder whether they should form an honour guard at his service. These are generous thoughts, and may they keep coming.

More crucially, may there somewhere out there be someone else with a heart that big and a dedication that real. Remembrance needs respect and more Monsieur Devloo.