Lost letters from Second World War era returned to man's son

Tara Bradbury
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Papers had been found inside the pages of a vintage book

Frank Picco (left) and Patrick Dion met at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier earlier this week, where Dion handed over old letters found inside books that were purchased at a fundraising event.

Frank Picco of Ottawa has learned about a facet of his late father's life - one that may have been lost to history altogether, if not for the integrity of a stranger and a story in The Telegram.

Early last month, The Telegram published a story about Patrick Dion, a government relations professional and vice-chairman of the board of directors of the Mental Health Commission, also of Ottawa. A couple of years ago, Dion's business partner bought him an eight-volume set of hardcover historical books at a book sale fundraiser, and he later discovered two yellowed letters placed between the pages of one of the volumes.

Both letters were written in the fall of 1944 and referenced then-St. John's resident James Joseph Picco. One was a certificate of conduct from the Newfoundland Constabulary; the other, folded and refolded so many times it had ripped and been taped back together, was from the Newfoundland Department of Defence. "This is to certify that the bearer James Joseph Picco of St. John's volunteered for enlistment in the Royal Air Force but was rejected owing to defective vision," the letter read.

Dion, whose wife is from Newfoundland, wanted to return the letters to the Picco family, but didn't know where to start. Some rough research he undertook in Ottawa turned up nothing, and a preliminary search by The Telegram at the provincial archives at The Rooms was unsuccessful, as well.

Once the story was published, more than a dozen tips were emailed to The Telegram, with ideas about the identity of James Joseph Picco and his family.

One came from Frank and his wife, Susan, who had heard about the article from family members in Vancouver, who had been contacted by the wife of a late friend of Picco in St. John's. At the same time, a cousin from Montreal who had been visiting Newfoundland at the time the article was published mentioned the possible connection.

Once Frank saw scanned copies of the letters in an email, he knew they belonged to his father, who died in 1989. The dates and circumstances match up, he said.

"When my father passed away, all the books he owned stayed in the house with my mother. When she passed away about 4 1/2 years ago, my sisters came up for the funeral and started to clean out her belongings," Frank explained.

"They gave the books to the church bazaar, but didn't really check through them."

Not long after Picco would have received the letters, he moved from his Carter's Hill home to Ottawa, for work, and later married Helen Lucas from Quebec's Pontiac County. The couple raised their family in Ottawa, and Picco worked as a pipefitter. He was something of a history buff and loved reading.

Frank had no idea his dad had ever applied for the air force, though he knew about his vision problems.

"I knew he had a bad eye, and he wore glasses," Frank said. "His father had the same bad eye, and my brother has also inherited it."

Earlier this week, Frank and Dion met at Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, where they chatted and Dion handed over the historical documents.

"The look on Frank's face as I handed over the letters was one of anticipation, but I think there was a sense of relief there as well," Dion said. "It was a real privilege to be able to provide that to his family, and I felt like my mission was complete. It makes me feel good - I know, if I were in the family's situation, the reverence I would place on those documents."

Frank says he plans to take great care with the letters, framing them alongside his father's birth certificate.

tbradbury@thetelegram.com Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: The Telegram, Mental Health Commission, Newfoundland Department of Defence Royal Air Force

Geographic location: Ottawa, St. John's, Newfoundland Vancouver Montreal Quebec Pontiac

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