Dr. George Ivan Wathke, DVM January 28, 1931- January 20, 2022
George Wathke, a farmer, fiddler, and veterinarian passed away January 20, 2022 in his 91st year. Born in 1931 to Sadie and Enoch Wathke, George was the third of six boys born on the family homestead in Sullivan township. His grandfather August, the son of German immigrants, moved from the Mildmay area to start a farm on Crown Land first building a small frame house and barn. He became a prosperous farmer, expanding the original 100 acres to 200 acres and built an impressive grand red brick house where George was born. Enoch, the only son, took over the farm after August’s death. It was not an outright inheritance, as August left his estate to his daughters as well and George remembered visits to his great uncle (also called George) who held a mortgage on the farm as Enoch had to borrow money to pay out his sisters. The family struggled during the Great Depression. They lived off the land. The family raised beef, had a large garden, cut firewood and collected sap to make maple syrup from the bush on the farm.
George’s eldest brother Harry died in infancy and the second eldest son Wallace was born with a congenital condition that caused him to be sickly and frail thus George as soon as he was able to carry a bucket became the son that his father relied on the most to help with the family farm. Younger brothers Stewart, Carl and Maurice joined him in doing farm chores as soon as they were old enough. Enoch had health issues which included crippling arthritis and endured constant pain. George quickly assumed the workload of a man while still a young boy.
Although all of George’s siblings were boys, he grew up alongside his cousins Clara and Emma. His Aunt Marie moved back to the family farm to live in the original homestead frame house when her marriage failed and she raised her daughters as a single mother. George later became godfather to Clara’s daughter Jean.
The farm work was done with horses. George’s favourite horse, Roy was a powerful hard working draught horse that paralleled George with strength and sturdiness. Unlike his younger brother Carl who grew up lean and tall, George had a build of compact teutonic toughness. George would hitch up Roy with the mare Dot and the team would plough the fields, pull the wagons, and heeded the commands of George who was but a young boy when he took the reins for the first time.
George was harvesting wood in the bush with an older hired hand when an accident happened. The man took the severely injured young George to the house and Sadie was inconsolable as she knew how close she had come to losing a second son. Sadie nursed her son back to health. He rested for a time until his broken ribs healed then once again resumed his heavy workload working six days a week, before and after attending S.S. No 8 Sullivan School on the weekdays and a full day of work on the farm on Saturdays. On Sunday the horses would be hitched to a surrey and Enoch would take the family to the Marmion Lutheran Church. The Wathke surrey is now in Grey Roots Museum. After church the family and the horses would enjoy a day of rest.
George made the most of his limited free time. His passion was music. He would put his father’s fiddle in a pillowcase and visit the next-door neighbour Isaac, a fiddler of Irish descent. The eccentric bachelor farmer enjoyed visits from all the Wathke boys, especially George whom he would encourage and the two would play tunes together.
When George attended Lutheran confirmation classes he would travel by horse to the Desboro Lutheran Church as did his friend Alf Leno. Alf was also a fiddler. Both he and George played at community events and later as adults both men recorded their own fiddle albums. As young men they had a friendly rivalry at local fiddle contests. Nearing the end of Alf’s life George learned that his friend was in a nursing home. He visited Alf and both men once again played fiddle together for the last time. Alf passed away soon after. George continued to learn new tunes well into his eighties. He had seen how his mother Sadie (who passed in 1983) struggled for many years before she died with dementia. He believed that by learning new tunes late in life he was exercising his brain and he avoided cognitive impairment until being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the end stage of his life.
George had many special lifelong friendships through the church. In addition to Alf, Renate Schotsch was in his confirmation class and decades later congratulated George on his 90th birthday as did Gloria Wegener whom George met through the church in his youth. In later years he had a cherished friendship with Jane Kramer who along with Ed and Ruth Becker founded the Southampton Lutheran Church with George which opened its doors in 1997.
George provided music during church services with his fiddle and was for a time the church organist. Christmas Eve service in 2020 was unusual because of restrictions due to the Covid pandemic. The congregation was not permitted to sing hymns so George was asked to provide music with his violin. Despite the Alzheimer’s, George competently played the hymns on his violin but momentarily forgot the restrictions, breaking into song and singing Silent Night. His voice ,still strong, filled the church for the last time.
George as a young boy had ambitions to not only be a farmer, but also a veterinarian. When he finished his grade 8 education in the one room schoolhouse, he was determined to go to high school so on his bicycle, the only vehicle available to him, he started grade nine at the Chatsworth high school an hour long commute each way. He continued until bad weather set in and he recognized the futility of the effort. This was at a time before government supported school transportation was available. Rural families who wanted their children to attend high school would usually arrange room and board with a family who lived in town. This was not an option for George as the family could not afford to do this, furthermore George was needed to work the farm.
His father Enoch was an engaging, loquacious man of high intelligence. He spoke with the principal of the Chesley high school to organize transportation for rural students. The family bought a model A Ford in 1949 and oldest brother Wallace drove his brothers and other rural students to school. This was the modest start of Wathke Bus Lines still operating today over 70 years later.
When George started high school he was a strapping, good looking 18-year-old who wore his hair in the pompadour style popular at the time and running Brylcreem through his locks was a daily ritual. He looked like a young Elvis Presley except more handsome. George started high school in a class of much younger students. Elizabeth McClure came home on the first day of school in September and excitedly told her mother “There is a MAN in my class!”. George and his brothers enjoyed their high school years. The school put on a production of The Pirates of Penzance and George, dressed as a constable, sang in the musical. His wardrobe malfunction of the splitting of the seat of his pants did not deter him from giving a memorable performance. His barrel chest allowed for the resonance of a powerful voice and he enjoyed singing all his life. In time, all the Wathke boys attained university educations with the exception of Stewart who instead accepted the responsibility to take over the family farm upon the death of his father Enoch in 1951 and built Wathke Bus Lines to a multi-vehicle fleet.
In 1959, George graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the Ontario Agricultural College and that same year married Elizabeth McClure. The couple moved to a home in Guelph where Elizabeth taught high school allowing George to enroll in the Ontario Veterinary College receiving his degree in Veterinary Medicine in 1964. His proud mother, Sadie as well as his wife and infant son Hugh, born the previous December, were at the graduation ceremony.
George was hired by Dr. Cooper to practice in the Forest Veterinary Clinic and the family welcomed two daughters Lisa, born in 1965 and Brenna in 1968 during that time.
George started his own practice in 1968 in Port Elgin, Ontario, building a clinic on Lake Range Road (now Bruce County road 33) in the Gobles Grove area of Saugeen Township. A year later he built a large house on the same property. With the birth of son Philip in 1972, he and Elizabeth raised four children in the home. Despite long hours at his practice he made time for his music and became a member of the Georgian Bay Symphony.
The Port Elgin Veterinary Clinic was a large and small animal practice. The large animal part was particularly rigorous work to which George was suited. A painful kick delivered by a cow damaged his hip and he walked with a limp until he received an artificial hip, the first of four hip replacement surgeries that George would endure. He had great empathy for his farmer clients and knew well the challenges and financial struggles of farming. He was well respected and trusted by the farming community. An elderly farmer named Jack Gillis drove his tractor to the clinic, as he did not own a car, to speak with George. He and his twin sister Annie lived in the same house built by their father, a Scottish immigrant. Jack had become too old to continue farming and wanted to sell the farm with the arrangement that he and his sister could live out their lives in the house in which they were born. George bought the farm which was his second farm as he had in his twenties purchased a 200-acre grass farm on the Sauble River near the Wathke homestead. Jack was quite a character and he and George had a great friendship. George raised sheep on the farm bringing a purebred Scottish Blackface ram from Scotland, introducing the breed to Ontario which he crossed with Ontario sheep. George named the ram Murdock. Murdock had huge, curled horns that gave him an intimidating look, but he was gentle and patient especially with George’s children who sometimes attempted to ride him.
Eventually the practice outgrew the small building and the Port Elgin Veterinary Clinic moved to a location on Highway 21. The original door of the old clinic was repurposed as a laundry room door in his house (as a child of the Depression he rarely threw things out) where it still hangs today. On the glass window of the door is the original hand painted script bearing his name and accreditations.
In 1988, George Wathke was elected by his peers to be the President of the Ontario Veterinary Association. The little farm boy who had dreams to become a veterinarian became the head of the organization that governed all of the DVMs in Ontario. He stopped practicing large and small veterinary medicine and took a job with the Ontario government as senior veterinary inspector with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
He was looking forward to a less strenuous work life to enjoy more time with Elizabeth. Alas, sadly she passed away in 1990 after an eight-month battle with cancer. Once again, he turned to his music for consolation. His fingers were unusually thick which was the result of a high bone density due to lifting heavy buckets as a child. People were amazed how he could play his violin so well with sausage fingers. While farming, he touched a hydraulic line on a tractor that failed and his left index finger was injected with hydraulic fluid. He was transferred to London hospital where the doctors advised the best option was to amputate the finger. This would have been disastrous. If it were his right hand (his bowing hand), he would probably have had the finger amputated. He implored the doctors to save his finger. If he lost it he would no longer be able to play the violin. The doctors were able to save the finger but it healed with a permanent crook, the top tip missing. George would bandage the finger for many years when playing to lessen the nerve pain.
In 1991, George’s oldest brother Wallace passed away. In 1994, his brother Stewart who was closest in age to George and cut from the same cloth passed suddenly of an aneurism. Stewart was George’s best man, and his son Marvin is George’s godson. Later that year, his eldest son Hugh, an avid outdoorsman died in a boating accident. George leaned on his Lutheran Faith for solace.
George lived alone as a widower in his large house with his two cats Amos and Andy. His wife Elizabeth had preferred dogs as pets and the family had a succession of Sheltie dogs. Despite being pedigreed Shetland Sheepdogs they were clueless around sheep. In contrast Jack’s farm dogs, descended from the border collies brought to Canada by Scottish immigrants, were working dogs and herded with innate skill. The Shelties were house pets. George, however, had an affinity for cats as pets of the barn cat variety. He brought home two tiny, long haired kittens given to him by a farmer and they grew. And grew. When full grown, they were twice the size of typical domestic cats no doubt being of a Maine Coon bloodline and just like their master had a gentle disposition. George would play fiddle to his feline audience, and they would curl up in the fiddle case in the void of the foam that protected the violin. The cats would sometimes claw at the foam. When he would open his case to take his fiddle out at community events, curious observers would see the damaged clawed foam. George didn’t care. The damaged interior of the case represented the presence of his most loyal audience at a time of great loneliness for George, who now lived alone in an empty house once full of the activity and laughter of his family. Sometimes he would play his pipe organ for the cats. He had installed a huge pipe organ in his house salvaged from a Methodist Church. Because the tall pipes could not be accommodated on the main floor, he placed the pipes in the basement horizontally and the console on the main level. Holes were cut in the floor to allow the music of the pipes to fill the house. George had become quite a character. He had a full head of thick hair all his life. His once neat pompadour became an unruly mane.
George worked for OMAF until the mandatory retirement age. His retirement at 65 was celebrated with a fiddle party attended by local musicians and Graham and Eleanor Townsend. But it didn’t last long. The fiddle party continued until the wee hours of the morning, it was his retirement that didn’t last long. When Dr. Ken Bridge approached George to join Huron Shores Veterinary Services and open a branch in Port Elgin, he happily agreed. Dr. Bridge started his career as an employee of George soon after graduating from the OVC. Now the roles were reversed. Mary Underwood worked in George’s first clinic when she was a teenager. George sought out Mary to once again work as a receptionist and assistant. He would bring his two giant cats to the clinic and they would lounge majestically in the sunlight by the window. George enjoyed the visits from the children of the nearby elementary school who would come to pet the cats. George continued practicing veterinary medicine well into his seventies until he finally retired to focus on his farming operations which had grown to over five hundred acres. He had returned to the beef farming of his youth. His son, Philip was expected to continue the Wathke farming tradition and take over the 200-acre farm with a river running through it that George had bought in the Dunblane hills. It was a cruel blow when Philip died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2002. George was bereft and the loss of both sons left him broken. He kept on, for the sake of his daughters.
He had great friendships in the music community and the farming community. Maxine Ribey and her husband Ken raised cattle and horses and George was their vet. After Ken’s passing, George often invited Maxine to accompany him on the piano and the two soon had a busy schedule volunteering and playing their music. Life later brought medical challenges. He lost a kidney to cancer and lived with one kidney for a few years until it too became cancerous. Surgery to remove the cancer resulted in complications and in late 2013 he suffered renal failure. He was hospitalized for over a month and relied on dialysis and his body started to fail. The nurses asked if it was his wish to have a do-not-resuscitate order in place if he went into cardiac arrest. He adamantly said no. He wanted to live. He was a fighter. By his bedside, throughout the ordeal, was Maxine.
The surgeons operated on George in one last attempt and the surgery worked. He recovered and for the remaining eight years of his life he lived with only one half of one kidney which functioned well enough for George to be able to stop dialysis. When released from the hospital George was unable to return to his home alone and instead stayed on Maxine’s sofa bed as Maxine nursed him back to health. They enjoyed watching television together and a favourite show was Golden Girls, a sitcom of four retirees sharing a home. Recognizing it was practical, Maxine moved into one of the empty bedrooms of George’s home. She continued to help organize George’s life ensuring he took his medications and arranged his medical and dental appointments. The move effectively ended the wild hair/don’t care era of George’s life as Maxine made sure to schedule barber appointments for George at regular intervals. George continued to farm his acreages with the help of Greg Elliott and Eldon Thede. He finally retired from farming at age 90 but the tradition continues as his grandnephew Clayton Wathke and Clayton’s father Alex Wathke (the son of Stewart) now raise their beef cattle on George’s farms.
Maxine and George led a busy life playing music at the nursing homes and retirement lodges. They would mark special occasions by dressing in costumes. George dressed as Santa and Maxine as Mrs. Claus when they performed Christmas music. They dressed in Scottish tartan for Robbie Burns Day and wore outfits of green on St. Patrick’s Day. Often they were joined by Lisa who followed her father in his fiddling footsteps. George dressed as an Admiral with Maxine dressed as his first mate for the 2019 cardboard boat races in Southampton. They witnessed the Wathke fleet of two vessels hilariously capsize soon after launch because of instability. The Wathkes , after all, were farmers not marine engineers.
George was preparing for a 2020 St. Patrick’s Day performance when it was abruptly cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. George recalled how his father Enoch grieved the loss of his sister Clara his entire life, the aunt George would never meet. She died at 17 in the 1918 flu pandemic. George and Maxine stayed home to stay safe and were cautious but did attend church on Sundays once restrictions were lifted. When George could no longer walk up the steps of the church he watched Lutheran services online. In April, when the pandemic reached the peak of another wave George was admitted to hospital due to an infection. Seven days later he was released but George’s health had declined dramatically and it was recommended that full-time care in a nursing home was needed. His family did not want him to be in a nursing home in the midst of a pandemic so they brought George back to his home. His son-in-law Charles Butchart built a wheelchair ramp and installed mobility aids. Lisa moved back into her childhood home to help Maxine and Brenna travelled from Calgary every few weeks to help out and assumed fiduciary duties. Once he was in the familiar surroundings of his home, George rallied. He lived a comfortable existence and still would play music with Maxine and Lisa. Mary Underwood, whom George would employ every couple of decades once again was hired. She helped with George’s care staying overnight periodically throughout the week. He lived at home another nine months.
George’s brother Carl passed in July of 2021.
Two weeks before what would have been his 91st birthday, George was admitted to hospital and while there he received his final communion. With his devoted partner in life and music Maxine at his side, George passed on to be with his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
In addition to his daughters, he is survived by his youngest brother Maurice and many relatives of the extended Wathke and McClure families.
“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through Music.” -Martin Luther
Visitation will take place at the T.A. Brown Funeral Home, 510 Mill Street, Port Elgin on Thursday, January 27th starting at 2 p.m. Vaccination passports and an appointment time will be required. Please call the funeral Home to book at time at 519-832-2222.
A private funeral service will be held, and a recording will be posted on-line following the service.
In lieu of flowers memorial donations to the Southampton Lutheran Church would be appreciated by the family.
Southampton Lutheran Church
247 High Street, Southampton ON N0H2L0