SHORT STORIES: Remarkable Friends! – By Geoff Burrowes

– By Geoff Burrowes

If you are fortunate you will meet someone who impacts your life for the better. If you are really blessed you will meet more than one!   Today, Saturday, 5th February I am going to introduce you to two of the remarkable people who have impacted my life in Canada without claiming any credit for doing so and who probably never even realized they were changing my life for the better!

Both of them are no longer with us, so this story can’t be regarded as sucking up to gain their favour! Anyone who knew either will instantly recognize them as the story goes on.

The first was a Swiss German immigrant who turned  his thick  Swiss German accent into a significant advantage and a characteristic that made him unique and instantly recognizable.           

The other things that truly set him apart were his boundless ambition and his generosity of spirit!

The second remarkable person was a blind lady who opened my eyes in ways I could not have imagined!

  Peter Urs Bender was my friend! He undoubtedly was a better friend to me than I was to him!

I met him when I joined Olivetti Business machines as a salesman! He was not particularly big, about my height, 5 foot 9.5 inches ( Canada still measured things in feet and inches at the time!) Peter had a  pleasant face, crinkly blonde hair, was quick to smile and  was always ready with a wisecrack to lighten the mood.

He was from a canton in Switzerland where banking was highly valued and in fact had been a banker. However it seemed that a free spirit was not that well valued and Peter, a genuinely free spirit, longed to set his spirit free! The result is that he emigrated to Canada, while still a young  man and, I believe, landed in British  Columbia, where the population was largely pro-British! He quickly enrolled in a language school to learn English and I believe that one of his instructors there recommended a Dale Carnegie public speaking course.  Peter quickly discovered that he had a gift for public speaking and that opened a number of  doors for him. Well educated and with his new gift of public speaking he moved East to the burgeoning capitol of English Canada, Toronto, where he secured a teaching position at Ryerson College and simultaneously started a motivational speaking business. Peter was not about to let the grass grow under his feet and started selling for Olivetti to finance his other ventures.

Selling Business equipment at the time in Toronto was a brutal, cutthroat business! Olivetti employed more salesmen than they needed and constantly reviewed their salesmen’s performances and those who hadn’t sold their quotas that period were fired, leaving the most successful to carry the flag until the next round of cuts. Peter did well at first as he was hard-nosed and hard working, but then he became a victim of the numbers crunch and was let go by the company. I was too busy trying to survive myself and didn’t pay much attention. Shame on me!

The following month it was my turn for the chopping block. I was devastated! This was the first time in my life I was fired for non-performance of my job, and it hurt me deeply!  In fact it destroyed my self-esteem! My self-worth!

My new friend Peter called me and invited me for  a drink. I was still winding up my affairs at Olivetti so I met him after work  and he patiently told me how things worked at a place like Olivetti and showed me that I was just caught up in a numbers crunch.  Peter took a lot of his precious time over a few good Canadian beers rebuilding my shattered self esteem. He then took me down to his tailor, on Spadina Avenue, just South of College St, up a long flight of rickety stairs, explaining as we climbed, that whenever he felt discouraged a new suit helped change his mood for the better.

The tailor was a tall elderly Jewish gentleman, with a shock of white hair surrounding a pink bald pate and an apparently inexhaustible supply of good humour, that made his dark brown eyes twinkle as he did his wizardry with a cloth tape and a note pad!  Not knowing where my next pay cheque was coming from I was reluctant to commit to a new suit. Peter assured me that that was not going to be a problem and I believed him. He seemed reassured that I was going to recover from the disaster of the firing and made arrangements to meet again for the trying on of the new suit. It was strange but Peter Urs Bender, my new friend, that afternoon, had with his quaint humour and penchant for asking pertinent questions and giving common sense answers, restored my belief in myself!

I felt I could now go home and reveal that I had lost my job without destroying the future hopes of my family in our new country! Thank you Peter Urs Bender!

Peter attended the fitting of the new suit and insisted on paying for it. He also told me that one of our Olivetti vice presidents, Karl, was in the process of starting up a new company, selling motivational programmes and was looking for good salespersons and asked me if I was interested! I very quickly said yes and Peter set up a meeting with Karl and soon I was part of their sales force! Together, under Peter’s direction, we set up a sales strategy and practiced presenting it to our prospective buyers. Peter was pleased with my flip charts, which often included cartoon characters that fit in particularly well with Peter’s humorous presentation style, while getting our sales points across graphically.

I worked with Peter happily for a number of years and when eventually our paths separated we remained friends. I got to know Peter’s family well, his elfin wife Francine and their two adult sons.

The truth was that Peter picked me up at a time when I could easily spiraled into depression and defeat and he rescued me!

I never forgot that and will always consider him one of my best friends. He passed away some years ago and I was out of the country and was unaware of it and was deeply saddened to come across his obituary years later. He was one remarkable person, who I was blessed to know and who had a major impact on my life and that of my family and I will always be grateful that our paths crossed and regretful that I let our friendship wither. Peter also led me into friendship with the other remarkable person I would like to introduce you to.

One quiet Wednesday afternoon Peter called and said “I hate to ask  but could you do me a favour. I am tied up in a meeting that I can’t get out of and I have  agreed to pick up my friend Marge. Could  you give  her a ride home? The directions he gave were to a building on Bayview Avenue just above Eglinton Avenue. He explained to me that she was blind, but was very independent and would not be any trouble at all. He also promised that my life would be enriched by meeting her.

Marge was late middle age, grey-haired, and pleasant. Not so pleasant that she didn’t chide me for being late!  She had a couple of supermarket bags which we loaded into the back of the car and she proceeded to direct me to her home, an apartment building on Lawrence Avenue, just West of Morningside Avenue. How did a blind person direct a sighted driver? I’m not sure but she did it flawlessly, all the while getting to know me and making sure I wasn’t an axe murderer. I kid, because she was confident that Peter would not put her in the wrong hands! I was not quite as sure as she was that I would look after her properly.

She was met at the front door of her building by an elderly gentleman who took her bags and guided her inside. I was mightily impressed by this lady Marge. By her independence and by her uncompromising attitude. As I got to know her better I learnt her story. She was a teenager coming back from an errand to the store when her sight suddenly disappeared. Visits to the doctors were fruitless and Marg had to reconcile herself to a future of blindness.

Fortunately for her she was enrolled in a class at the Blind Institute where she met a girl who was like her, recently blind and who was not prepared to let her blindness prevent her living a full life and who persuaded Marge that she should come along for the ride. It must have been very difficult for someone who had been sighted all her life, to accept this! But Marge did and her friend went on to graduate from high school and went on to get a masters degree, with the help of the Blind Institute. Marge also graduated from high school and developed the skills she needed to live on her own in her own apartment. I saw Marge operating in her apartment. She knew where everything was and could unhesitatingly go to where an object was, pick it up, use it unerringly and put it back where it belonged.

I felt that we needed to introduce her to our family and so we invited her to have tea with us one afternoon. Our two sons, Brian, the eldest and Ian the youngest begged off and Dave our second son was there to meet Marge. She freaked him out by lightly passing her hand over his head and face so she would recognize him next time they met. She explained as she was doing it and Dave accepted her explanation philosophically. She explained how table settings were important to the blind so that they always knew where every utensil was. I think Dave found the visit interesting as he has always had an enquiring mind!

Marge was not a trusting soul and it was many months before she trusted me in her apartment.

However after about 6 months of picking her up at The Blind Institute and dropping her home she finally asked me “Do you have the time to take my groceries up to my room?” I felt a little like authors or scientists or statesmen must feel when they’re invited to receive a Nobel Prize.

The experience was not an altogether enjoyable one as I found her apartment dark and oppressive until Marge belatedly remembered that I was sighted and turned on some lights. The effect was still gloomy as Marge couldn’t tell where the lights should be to make her apartment bright and homely. However she was right at home and quickly and efficiently made us a cup of tea each and produced a plateful of what we in Guyana called sweet biscuits while North Americans called them cookies – however by any name they were just as good!.

I’ve told you how Marge came to tea at our house. Her independence and her explanations of coping as a blind person impressed my son David tremendously and I don’t think Dave has ever taken his own impressive abilities for granted again – neither have I! As I said Marge opened my eyes to the disabilities other people faced cheerfully each day!

Coping with the demands of a selling life I lost touch with Marge until Peter called  me one day with the sad news that Marge had died and her church and the blind Institute were holding a memorial for her. It was a sad service although the speakers and the minister outlined how she had triumphed over her tragic disability to live a normal life as possible.! For me it was sad because I had dropped the ball in our relationship.

Similarly I had allowed my friendship with Peter to wither when I could probably been of most use to him!

My wonderful wife Norma often says “Regrets are hard to live with!” In my case I will always have regrets over losing touch with these two great friends who impacted my life so dearly!

Thank you Marge and thank you Peter!

My family and I have many to thank for the transition to life as  Canadians but looking back I would not have survived the early months without the help and encouragement of my friend Peter Bender! Similarly the encouragement, the cheerfulness and the inspiration of my friend Marge played a large part in my life in Toronto. I trust I will never forget these exceptional people!

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  • baileyff  On 02/20/2022 at 4:57 am

    Thank you for introducing me to two beautiful souls. You’ve managed to allow them to inspire me, albeit in death, through your writing. I researched your friend Peter Urs Bender and discovered 5 books he authored. I have ordered “Gut Feeling..Instinct and Spirituality@Work” which seems to be geared to every working person. I cannot wait to receive it.

  • Peggy  On 02/20/2022 at 11:37 am

    A most HEART-WARMING story. While posthumous, this is such a wonderful acknowledgement; I hope their descendents or anyone close to them who may still be around can read this article. The lesson for all of us is to nurture our friendships and relationships and never stop saying “thank you” when deserving. I love your article and I love how you adeptly use words, humor, and wit to touch hearts. Bravo.

  • Frank Ewing-Chow  On 02/23/2022 at 12:20 am

    Friends and friendships…a heart warming story of two friendships that meant a lot to the author but were deeply recessed within his soul. Thanks Geoff for sharing Peter and Marge with us. Great acknowledgment of the human being’s need for a friend and friendship and the satisfaction of giving of one’s self in return. It reminds me of many years ago on a sugar plantation in an old wooden building we called church singing….” what a friend we have in Jesus…..”…..

    Frank Ewing-Chow

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