Scout’s hon­our: A price­less fam­ily por­trait

The Glengarry News - - News - BY RICHARD MAHONEY News Staff

“Lo­cal woman re­dis­cov­ers fam­ily photo -- and it’s a Karsh!” For­mer jour­nal­ist Diane Coombs jokes that she al­ready had a head­line in mind when she de­cided to re­port her ex­clu­sive to The Glen­garry News.

Her re­porter’s in­stincts kicked in when she learned that her grand­fa­ther, the late F.E.L. Coombs, had once sat for a ses­sion with world fa­mous pho­tog­ra­pher Yousuf Karsh.

Ms. Coombs, who re­cently re­tired af­ter serv­ing 25 years as an ed­u­ca­tor with the T. R. Leger Cen­tre, de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate a story that some­where there was a Karsh photo of her grand­fa­ther.

“I was amazed,” the Breadal­bane woman says when she tracked down 15 neg­a­tives of her grand­fa­ther’s por­trait through an on­line search of the Na­tional Li­brary and Archives col­lec­tion.

Ob­vi­ously, Frank Edward Lewellyn Coombs was a prom­i­nent cit­i­zen if his like­ness was cap­tured by Karsh, who is still hailed as be­ing the great­est pho­tog­ra­pher of the 20th cen­tury. His client list was a who’s who of in­ter­na­tional fig­ures, in­clud­ing Al­bert Ein­stein, Martin Luther King, Win­ston Churchill, John F. Kennedy.

In­deed, Mr. Coombs was a larger-than-life char­ac­ter, hav­ing served in the Boer War, along­side the founder of the Boy Scout move­ment; as an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter he filed stores on The

Ti­tanic dis­as­ter; he later be­came re- spon­si­ble for Boy Scouts Canada pub­li­ca­tions.

The Karsh photo was taken in 1936 when Mr. Coombs was work­ing in Ot­tawa as ed­i­tor of Scouts Canada pub­li­ca­tions.

An an­thro­pol­o­gist and lin­guist, Ms. Coombs notes that the dis­cov­ery has en­cour­aged her to re-ac­quaint her­self with her grand­fa­ther, who passed in 1968 when she was 17.

Met Baden-Pow­ell

A Sim­coe, On­tario na­tive, Mr. Coombs was at the age of 17, a press te­leg­ra­pher for Cana­dian Press.

He en­listed as a “Sol­dier of the Queen” in the South African War of 1900-1902, serv­ing as a gun­ner with the Cana­dian Field Ar­tillery.

It was dur­ing the Boer War that he en­coun­tered Lord Robert Baden-Pow­ell, who would later found the Boy Scouts.

He was stirred by the in­tegrity rep­re­sented by Scouts pledge: “I prom­ise on my hon­our...”

When he re­turned from war, Mr. Coombs stud­ied jour­nal­ism and worked for the As­so­ci­ated Press in New York for 18 years. Dur­ing this time, he de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for his books for boys.

Mr. Coombs was a mem­ber of the first New York area group of am­a­teur ra­dio op­er­a­tors.

When The Ti­tanic sunk, he brought in a par­tial list of sur­vivors broad­cast by the res­cue ship The Carpathia.

A World War I vet­eran, in 1921, he joined the ex­ec­u­tive staff of the Boy Scouts As­so­ci­a­tion as ed­i­tor of Pub­li­ca­tions at Do­min­ion head­quar­ters. He was ed­i­tor of the first Cana­dian Boy mag­a­zine in 1921 and founded The Scout Leader, where he served for 25 years.

“Few men have made a greater con­tri­bu­tion to Cana­dian Scout­ing than Frank E.L. Coombs,” read an obit­u­ary.


He re­tired in 1946. His sec­ond wife was Sally Nor­ris Tay­lor, of New Jer­sey, a niece of Su­san Contesse, one of the first fe­male news­pa­per columnists.

Ms. Coombs’ fa­ther, H. Tay­lor Coombs, and his brothers car­ried on the mil­i­tary tra­di­tion.

Harold stud­ied bio­chem­istry at the On­tario Agri­cul­tural Col­lege in Guelph and later be­came a spe­cial­ist in chem­i­cal war­fare.

The gym at Char-Lan Dis­trict High School is named af­ter him.

CLAS­SIC IM­AGE: Diane Coombs with a 1936 Karsh photo of her grand­fa­ther, F.E.L. Coombs, and some of the books he wrote for the Boy Scout move­ment. He was one of the “peo­ple of con­se­quence” who sat for the fa­mous pho­tog­ra­pher.

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