Scout’s honour: A priceless family portrait
“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.
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.