Research teams studying why some people live unusually long and healthy lives may want to interview the oldest resident of Williamstown, Marcel Latreille, who turned 95 on Sunday, Sept. 23.
On the previous day, the perpetually cheerful and positive Mr. Latreille received 60 family members at his tidy white house on William Street for a family gathering and outdoor birthday party meal in a tent set up in the backyard.
Holding court was Mr. Latreille, who posed for pictures surrounded by his family -- eight surviving children who came from as far as Red Deer, Alberta for the fete.
It was a gathering that would impress the 30 or so villagers who came later to congratulate Marcel on his milestone and to meet up with the large Latreille clan.
Of course, the subject of Mr. Latreille’s secret of excellent health was raised again and again. Marcel attributes this to his good diet (he eats what he wants and cooks himself), his caring family and community, his high levels of activity, his sense of purpose and his faith. His parish, St. Mary’s, is a stone’s throw from his house.
Mr. Latreille reads without glasses after cataract surgery and says he still sees street signs at a distance. He gave up his car the day before his birthday, even though his licence remains valid for another year.
“I think when you’re 95 it’s time you should give up your right,” Mr. Latreille said.
The former gravedigger for St. Mary’s in Williamstown, St. Andrew’s United in the village, and St. Joseph’s in Lancaster, Mr. Latreille sold his backhoe a mere four years ago at the young age of 91 after close to five decades dig-
“He did full burials up until five years, and then just cremations after with the backhoe’s smaller scoop until four year’s ago,” said Susan McDonald, one of Marcel’s eight living children, all of whom were at the birthday celebration.
Grave digging was only one of Mr. Latreille’s many lines of parttime work over the years. He spent 37 years at the old Domtar paper mill in Cornwall where he worked the greater part of his career in the chlorine plant making chlorine and its co-product, caustic soda.
It was hazardous work that involved signing a “no breach of duty” contract in case of an explosion or other accident.
“You could put on a mask and go in to try to solve the problem, but if you refused to go back in and there was an explosion, the penalty was 30 days in jail,” explains Mr. Latreille who is still the great raconteur, his memory intact and his mind perfectly lucid. “Chlorine gas can kill you in one or two seconds.”
While he was never frightened, he describes having his back scalded in an an explosion after mixing caustic crystals.
“I turned the valve and there was an air pocket and it blew,” he says about the accident that caused the skin on his back to peel off. “I would have been blinded and more badly scalded, but I had a shield and helmet and it melted the shield right into the helmet.”
His daughters describe how, following the accident when he was home, neighbours in Williamstown mounted a response, bringing in rounds of ice packs.
“It’s a great village,” says daughter Ellen Proulx who lives in Cornwall.
Mr. Latreille’s steely nerves were likely made steelier still after four years serving as a private in the 5th Field Company, Canadian Engineers in WWII.
After unsuccessfully trying to join the war effort at age 17, he was refused a job at the munition dump in Valleyfield, Quebec because a year later, he would turn 18 and likely would join the Canadian forces.
He then went to the Cornwall recruitment office, signed up, but two weeks later it was discovered that he was underage.
“The sergeant said to me, Latreille go to Storage and turn in your rifle, you’re not old enough. Two months later I got my Moray rifle back,” he recalls.
“I liked the army, if they tell you something you do it. If somebody has stripes and gives you orders, you take them -- you do it,” says Mr. Latreille.
He ended up in the Pacific moving from one island to another assisting the American troops, and later, he was transferred to the Alaska Highway to work for five years. His unit ended up packing up after a month.
“We were working like dogs and the civilian contractors got more wages in a week than we did in a month and we're out there in 40-below filling holes,” says Mr. Latreille.
There are so many stories to tell, a book’s worth, and Mr. Latreille can recount them all.
While at Domtar, he also ran a 100-acre farm on Heron Road that had been his grandfather’s, now part of the Cornelissen farm, where he raised pigs, grew grapes and cut wood for pulpwood he brought to Domtar and to Hawkesbury.
He cut wood throughout Glengarry, anywhere they had a tree, says one of his daughters, and before he had a chainsaw, he cut everything by hand with a one-man crosscut saw. He also hand dug graves, sometimes with help from his boys or grandsons, until he was in his 80s.
Says Ellen Proulx, his daughter, “He taught us all to be hard workers, and our mother lived and breathed our family.”
Asked about his plans for the future, Mr. Latreille, who has abstained from alcohol and tobacco his entire life, said he was looking forward to the next five years and turning 100. He thanked The
Glengarry News for attending his birthday gathering and invited us back for his 100th.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Marcel Latreille poses with his children at his 95th birthday party. In the back row are James Latreille of Cornwall and Albert Latreille of Red Deer, Alberta. In the middle row, Ellen Proulx of Cornwall, Susan McDonald of Williamstown, Vickey Latreille of Cornwall, Rita Leblanc, and Rose Latreille of Williamstown. In front, Mr. Latreille holds a photo of his deceased son David Latreille and his late wife Eileen, and daughter Mary Major of Cornwall holds a photo of her brother Edward “Eddie” Latreille of Cornwall who passed away in 2007.