John Skubel, the “gentle giant with a huge heart,” will be most remembered by the public for his many years of presiding over the Christmas tree sales for the Niagara Lions Club.
To those who knew him best, he will be remembered as a good, loving, man who would do anything for his friends and family.
At the age of 67, John died suddenly Saturday, Aug. 8, leaving his wife Victoria, his 14-year-old son Luke, a large extended family, and a circle of dear friends to mourn a pillar of the community.
A life-long resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, he began working at Niagara Fruit and Vegetable on Four Mile Creek Road when he was 14 years old, and after it was sold, moved to Niagara Orchards & Vineyard on Niagara Stone Road, which he loved, although he was only there for a short time. During his career, John became well-known to the agricultural community, and took his responsibilities toward his customers, the local farmers, very seriously, says his wife Victoria.
He loved to hunt, was active in sports earlier in life, and most enjoyed sitting on the porch of their Concession 6 home with a morning cup of coffee in the good weather, or relaxing around a bonfire with family and friends in the evening, she says.
And he was the go-to guy when anyone needed help with just about anything, she adds.
If his death was a shock to the community, it was as much so to his family.
Victoria says John had been battling cellulitis, a common but bacterial skin infection, for years, several times ending up in the Niagara Falls hospital, but he would be given antibiotics and recover.
Several of the symptoms, including a fever and chills, are similar to COVID-19, so although he was sure he was suffering a flare-up of the recurring infection, he had driven himself to an assessment centre, and they were all relieved when he received a negative response, says Victoria.
Then, last Wednesday, he became sick enough to be taken to the hospital, where he was tested again for COVID, again with a negative result.
“It was his big toe,” says Victoria. He believed a sliver was causing the infection, she says. “It was that simple, a routine thing.”
That was what she was told by his family doctor, who had seen him through these infections many times.
But in the hospital, he had been laid flat in his bed, leaving his body unable to drain the build-up of fluids, she says, and died of congestive heart failure.
During the few days he was there, she was unable to see him, and only spoke to him twice, once in a conversation with Luke as well, and then a second time when he called to say he wasn’t happy in the hospital.
“He asked me to come and get him and take him home,” she says.
The next phone call was from the hospital Saturday morning. Victoria says she had been out for a walk with their dog, returned home, sat down with a cup of coffee, realized she had missed the call, and dialled the hospital, expecting good news. She thought they were going to tell her to come and pick him up. She and Luke had bought a 55-inch TV for John, so he could watch the Stanley Cup playoffs, and they were excited for him to get home to watch the game that evening.
Instead, when she identified herself, “they said, ‘he’s not with us. He’s gone.’ I said, ‘Gone where?’ I had no idea he was that ill. He wasn’t that ill. It was such a shock, I still sometimes feel like it’s not real. Sometimes I just wait for him to call, or to show up late for dinner.”
They had been together 22 years, she says, having brought two families together when they married. Her grandparents had arrived from Poland in the early 1900s, she relates. Her grandfather worked for the Thorold paper mill, and once he had saved enough money, they purchased the Concession 6 property, and it became a tradition that family members would come from Poland to stay with them while they established themselves in Canada and NOTL.
John’s grandfather had also made his start in NOTL, staying with her grandparents, she says.
Decades later, Victoria and John married, purchased the property from family, and it became “John’s little paradise. He loved it here.”
Although her siblings, the Bators, and his, knew each other when they were kids, John was at St. Michael Catholic School with her older siblings. “He didn’t know I existed,” she jokes.
After going to Niagara District Secondary School, John went off to study marketing in Toronto, and when he returned, went right back to work for Niagara Fruit and Vegetable.
John Wiens was one of John’s closest friends in those days, having played lacrosse and hockey with him. John was quite an athlete, he says.
“We played minor hockey together, and we were also on the same team in Junior B lacrosse. We went to the Canada Games in Burnaby, BC, together,” says Wiens.
“John was the goalie, and he was amazing, in both hockey and lacrosse. He was an all-star, award-winning goalie,” he says, “a great athlete in his day, and an important member of the Junior B team.”
They roomed together in Toronto while they attended Ryerson, then known as a polytechnic institute, says Wiens, who was studying hospitality. They had NOTL friends stop by often, and although their good times were “low-key,” they had a lot of fun together, having their “eyes opened wide” at life in the big city, while they lived the life of students, existing on Kraft Dinner and hot dogs.
Because of John’s love of sport, he was committed to supporting minor sports through the Niagara Lions Club, says long-time club member Terry Flynn, who had taken over the organization of the Christmas tree sales, last year moving it, with John’s help, to the Cornerstone Church Virgil property. He considered John a friend and a mentor, and looked forward to the time they spent talking during the quiet evenings of the sale.
Everyone would come in looking for John, says Flynn — he was so liked and respected by the regulars.
Once Flynn took it over, “there wasn’t a day gone by that John didn’t stop in, he cared so much about it. He’d stop by every night, and sometimes two or three times a day.”
John knew what the locals wanted, and he would take orders from some and deliver trees in his truck. He also continued to take two weekend shifts, his days off from work.
Flynn says he was shocked to hear of John’s death, although he knew he had been battling medical problems for years. “He was always a fighter,” he says. “I didn’t expect him to lose this one. I’ve lost a friend who mentored me. I’m heartbroken to have lost such a great man.”
What he will miss most, he says, “is John’s laugh. I loved getting him going just to hear him laugh.”
Catharine Wickabrod, secretary of the Lions, also will remember his work during the annual Christmas tree sale, and delivering the trees all over town. “John was a loyal Lion, and he had his priorities in order. Family first, work next and then volunteering, always helping those in need,” she says.
“John represented the Lions at many events over the years. He was a familiar figure when you entered the Virgil Volunteer Firefighters annual turkey roll. As well he was our guardian sitting at the door for the Niagara Lions monthly youth dances. While he was known as a gentle giant, he could also be fierce as a ‘Lion’ when required, and the kids jumped when he roared,” says Wickabrod.
“He provided me with great guidance in my years as a Lion. He was the true epitaph of what a Lion stands for: integrity and honour.”
Victoria says John was also a lot of fun to be around, and always willing to go along with her when she wanted to do something adventurous.
When they began dating, she says, everywhere they went, they would run into some of his large circle of friends, who would sit down to chat. “We would go out for dinner, and it could be in Fort Erie or Burlington, and there would still be friends who would show up. The night we got engaged, the same thing happened. He was going to propose during dinner, and we ended up getting engaged in his truck later.”
Once married, they wanted a family. That didn’t happen until Victoria had to spend some time in a maternity ward with her ill sister — that was the only place there was a bed available. Listening to the babies crying, the sadness she felt was overwhelming, and when she got home she told John they had to give up.
Shortly after, she says, “I got pregnant. Isn’t that always the way?”
Luke was the light of John’s life, Victoria says, and she realizes life will have to change for her and her son. “There is going to be a huge void, but we have to carry on,” she says. “I think with our large families, and our friends, we’ll be okay for the future. I guess we take it one day at a time. I don’t really know what to expect.”
Because of all those who knew John and would want to honour him, friends and family were welcomed at an outdoor celebration of his life at the family home on Concession 6 Wednesday, with lawn chairs and masks.