IN A HERO’S FOOT­STEPS

Mor­gan Modjeski ex­plains how descen­dants of a Saskatchewan sol­dier con­tinue to hon­our his legacy.

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Fam­ily mem­bers of Lt. Wil­liam Hayes say they have a better un­der­stand­ing of his life as a sol­dier after tour­ing some of the bat­tle­fields he fought on dur­ing the Great War. A wreath of pop­pies at his Tis­dale gravesite hon­ours Hayes, who died of can­cer in 1959.

Mar­garet Joan Looby has al­ways been able to keep her­self to­gether at Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies.

Through the speeches, the cer­e­mo­nial march and the mo­ment of si­lence, she’s able to fight back tears. It’s a sense of pride she in­her­ited from her fa­ther, she says. But when a lone bu­gle plays The Last Post, the 86-year-old starts to shake.

“That’s rough,” says Looby, her en­er­getic voice shrink­ing to a whis­per for a mo­ment be­fore perk­ing back up. “Be­cause I’m so close to tears and I don’t do that — I’m not one of those peo­ple that weeps at a mo­ment’s no­tice.”

She ex­pects this year’s cer­e­monies, which she’ll at­tend in Bjork­dale and Tis­dale, to be dif­fer­ent.

This year’s Re­mem­brance Day will be the first since Looby — known as Peggy — saw for her­self the places in Europe where her fa­ther, Wil­liam L. Hayes, served for four years as an in­fantry­man dur­ing the First World War.

On a Mon­day morn­ing in­side her home near Bjork­dale, mem­o­ries of her fa­ther, who climbed to the rank of lieu­tenant, are spread across a ta­ble in the form of old pho­tos, a let­ter from a dear friend and ar­ti­cles from the past.

Vis­i­tors to Looby’s home are likely to find her wait­ing out­side to greet them. Few would guess she’s push­ing 90. In­side, one of the first pho­tos vis­i­ble, on a wall straight ahead, shows Lt. Hayes in his uni­form. Next to it is a photo of his Ger­man wife, Hed­wig Johanna Marie Eisenkramer. Placed care­fully on vi­o­let-painted walls, it’s al­most as if they are watch­ing over the home.

Hayes set up his home­stead in Saskatchewan in 1908, two years after he ar­rived from Eng­land. Al­most 110 years later, his descen­dants — and his story — are still present.

Looby said she’s heard nu­mer­ous ac­counts about her fa­ther’s time at war from her mother, from the man him­self when she asked and from record­ings after his death. But it was not un­til the re­cent trip, when she and about 20 of his descen­dants toured sites where he fought, that she felt she had a full un­der­stand­ing of her fa­ther’s time at war, she said.

“It’s the one part that wasn’t quite com­pleted. Now I know the whole deal. Now I’ve gone over and walked in his shoes and I have been there.

“Now, it’s com­plete — not a dream, but a story.”

Hayes met his bride in a bil­let­ing house dur­ing the war and brought her home af­ter­wards. While Looby fondly re­mem­bers him as a lov­ing fa­ther, she was able to com­plete her own per­sonal ac­count of him as a sol­dier be­cause of the trip.

The gravity of her fa­ther’s ac­com­plish­ments was fully felt when her fam­ily went to the small French vil­lage of Iwuy, about 20 kilo­me­tres south of the Bel­gian bor­der. Dig­ni­taries and French cit­i­zens wel­comed them with open arms.

Peo­ple wanted to show their re­spect to the fam­ily of a man who fought to free the com­mu­nity from Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion about 99 years ago.

“We owe the great­est re­spect to the Lieut. Wil­liam Lu­cas Hayes fam­ily,” wrote Michel Les­pag­nol, pres­i­dent of the Iwuy’stoire, an as­so­ci­a­tion charged with main­tain­ing the his­tory of the Iwuy com­mu­nity, in an emailed in­ter­view.

“Com­ing from so far, he could have stayed qui­etly in … Saskatchewan, in­stead he pre­ferred as many other Cana­dian (s) com­ing to France to get rid of the in­vaders, fight­ing for a noble cause.”

Hayes was awarded the Mil­i­tary Cross. It’s said he lev­elled a ma­chine-gun nest, rush­ing the lo­ca­tion with a bomb that killed the sol­diers in­side and en­abled troops to ad­vance past the lo­ca­tion in 1918.

Les­pag­nol is now said to oc­cupy the same house Hayes bombed. He said he has “deep re­spect” for Hayes and his fam­ily, not­ing it was an emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence for him when some of the adult grand­chil­dren ar­rived at the hall in Iwuy where the cel­e­bra­tion was held and broke down in tears.

He said a “com­mu­nion” be­tween the peo­ple of Iwuy and the Hayes fam­ily was formed that day. The com­mu­nity will al­ways be thankful for the con­tri­bu­tion of Cana­dian sol­diers, he said.

More than 200 Cana­di­ans who per­ished in bat­tle are buried in Iwuy. The fact Hayes was even able to re­turn to Canada fol­low­ing the war is a miracle, says Looby, re­call­ing mo­ments when her fa­ther would tell her the story of how he got a scar on his neck.

An en­emy sol­dier, hid­den in a fox­hole, shot him al­most square in the throat. The in­jury — one of two he sus­tained in bat­tle — was not fa­tal, but it in­di­rectly al­lowed him to re­turn home and raise a fam­ily.

Looby’s daugh­ter An­drea, the youngest of six, said the trip to Europe in­stilled in her a deeper sense of pride in her fam­ily and this as­pect of her Cana­dian iden­tity. In a phone in­ter­view from Ed­mon­ton, she said her grand­fa­ther was just one of many or­di­nary Cana­di­ans who did some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary in a time of chaos and con­flict, “Not be­cause they’re go­ing to gain any­thing from it, but be­cause it’s the right thing to do.”

Cana­dian sol­diers like her fa­ther were fight­ing for some of the most ba­sic hu­man val­ues — peace and free­dom, she said.

The fact she’s a de­scen­dant of some­one so “epic” has had a last­ing im­pact on her. After the trip, she wrote an email to her mother say­ing the fam­ily is “blessed to be here” given some of the close calls and cir­cum­stances her grand­fa­ther faced on the bat­tle­field.

“It re­minds me that I have to do my best to hon­our my grandpa’s sac­ri­fice by be­ing the best per­son I can be ev­ery day,” she said.

“In re­al­ity, those are big shoes to fill and I prob­a­bly will never be able to do some­thing like he did. But I can make the best of the fact that I’m here and I have the free­dom here to make a dif­fer­ence.”

Mar­garet Leepart, an­other of Peggy’s daugh­ters, said de­spite the fact her grand­fa­ther’s Great War legacy was formed more than 6,600 kilo­me­tres away on the bat­tle­fields of Europe, it’s been em­braced by his fam­ily.

She never got to meet him, but reg­u­larly speaks with her sons about the type of man he was and the ac­tions he took dur­ing the war. They hold their great-grand­fa­ther in “high re­gard,” she said, even 58 years after he died from pan­cre­atic can­cer at a Tis­dale hospi­tal in 1959 at the age of 70.

She hopes the sto­ries will help main­tain his mem­ory and con­trib­ute to the larger mes­sage that peace must be pre­served.

“If you don’t keep learn­ing, keep re­mem­ber­ing and think of these things over and over ... then his­tory is bound to re­peat it­self,” she said.

The sto­ries, passed down by chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, may keep fu­ture branches of the Hayes fam­ily stop­ping by a grave in the Tis­dale ceme­tery to place a poppy on the small tomb­stone of a man whose con­tri­bu­tions — in war and in life — were so great.

MOR­GAN MODJESKI

PHO­TOS: MOR­GAN MODJESKI

Mar­garet Joan Looby, right, spends some time with her daugh­ter, Mar­garet Leepart, ex­am­in­ing pho­tos and me­mora­bilia of Looby’s fa­ther, Lt. Wil­liam Hayes. About 20 of Hayes’ rel­a­tives re­cently toured the bat­tle­field sites where he fought dur­ing the Great War. Looby says the ex­pe­ri­ence helped her to better un­der­stand her fa­ther as a sol­dier.

Lt. Wil­liam Hayes’ descen­dants have been able to com­pile an as­sort­ment of pho­to­graphs and ar­ti­facts de­tail­ing his life and mil­i­tary ser­vice.

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