By trace and by tiller

Aaron Beswick
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A life of service to the Mission

You can feel the wind in your hair as you careen down into Cremaillier on New Year's Day.

You can feel the wind in your hair as you careen down into Cremaillier on New Year's Day.

Racing before your komatik are seven huskies and despite the rush of trees and wind sending your stomach into your throat, you feel safe - Walt Patey is standing behind you guiding the team.

"The huskies and Walt and I were beginning a glorious, exciting race down the slopes from the heights above Cremaillerie, never once slowing our pace until we reached the road by the harbour," young New Zealand medical student Hilton Wilcox wrote of volunteering with the Grenfell Mission during the 1920s. "Happy New Year!"

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell's legacy wasn't just medical care or his gentle and hearty Christian message, but also involved working with local residents. Encouraging education so they could take the reins, and using local wisdom on building and guiding, whether it be dog teams or schooners.

Walter Patey (1891-1958) stood behind both, traces and ship's wheel, through a lifetime of service to the Grenfell Mission.

"He was a hero to me," said his daughter, Shirley Sullivan, during a recent visit to St. Anthony. "He told stories of how it got so stormy that they couldn't go any farther and they'd take shelter for hours with the dogs huddled around them for warmth."

The youngest of Walter and Harriett Louise Patey's eight children, she came screaming into this world in 1931. Her earliest memories are of her father running out the door late at night to ready the dogs for Dr. Charles Curtis, who he guided through fog and driving snow, by boat and by dog for 15 years. Her trip home to the Northern Peninsula brought her past Corner Brook's Glynmill Inn, the Grenfell House and Grenfell Interpretation Centre, where she saw her father immortalized in pictures behind dog teams.

"In all of these displays the teams capture all of the interest and there is no mention of the driver," said Sullivan. "Without the driver, nothing could have been accomplished."

So she has taken it upon herself to right one of the world's small injustices, the forgetting of a good man. She wants her father's work remembered, in a public plaque or properly captioned photograph, for generations to come to see.

"He was a hero to me." Shirley Sullivan on her father, Walter Patey

Sullivan points to the words of Dr. Curtis read upon her father's passing.

"Walter Patey, who died in St. Anthony in February, had been a long and faithful worker with the Grenfell Mission at St. Anthony. For over 20 years he drove the Mission dog team and he was my driver for about 15 years. Oftentimes in bad weather, he walked for miles on snowshoes breaking a trail for the dogs and he was known in every village and hamlet from St. Anthony to Englee and from St. Anthony to Port Saunders and he was always a welcome visitor at the homes along the way.

"In summer Walt Patey often times helped with the Mission Hospital ships and worked on the dry-dock. He was a loyal, conscientious worker and a friend, and we shall miss him much."

A good man is more than a plaque or photo, whether he gets one or not, he's shelter from the storm for the beating hearts God's grace has surrounded him with. Walter Patey was shelter and inspiration for the young doctor to be, Hilton Wilcox.

With Patey he wondered at empty flour barrels, children who didn't cry when teeth were removed without anesthetic and delivered children's toys at Christmas to St. Carol's.

"All harrowing tales and they can't eat toys, but they were happy to receive them and to know that the Mission remembered them and their problems," Hilcox wrote in his memoir "Beneath a Wandering Star."

About a trip to Griquet to help an ailing woman, he wrote of life with "Walt" behind the wheel, "Walter Patey was skipper and Will Simms engineer and a young deck hand complemented the crew. Walt and Will were both splendid chaps, competent in their work, the most pleasant of travelling companions and both possessed of a keen sense of humour."

Organizations: Grenfell Interpretation Centre, Glynmill Inn, Grenfell House Mission Hospital

Geographic location: St. Anthony, New Zealand, Corner Brook Englee Port Saunders Griquet

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Recent comments

  • Helen Traverse
    July 22, 2010 - 10:33

    Hi, Shirley: Read your lovely commentary about your Dad, Walt Patey. The name is so familiar to me as I was a young patient at St. Anthony Hospital in the 50s. Your Dad's name came up so many times among the staff; he sure helped a lot of people and was the 'right hand' to the doctors at the hospital. Lovely picture of you and your sister in the Telegram. All the best. Helen