As Donald Combe turns 90, it’s not surprising his one sadness is the number of friends who are gone from his life.
However, when he looks ahead to celebrating his milestone birthday Aug. 22, there is much for which he is grateful: the many people he feels fortunate to consider friends; the faithful and interesting four-legged companions he has had over the years; a rewarding career; and a wide range of activities he continues to enjoy.
As he reaches what is considered a big number, Combe says, “none of us feel any different. Whether we’re nine or 10, 15 or 50, we go on, day by day. There are some things I can’t do anymore, but there are lots that I can do.”
He attributes his good health in part to surrounding himself with good people, both family and friends.
“I have also surrounded myself with dogs. You can have endless conversations with them, and get some really good answers,” he says.
He always has a companion to walk with, an hour in the morning, about half an hour in the afternoon, and sometimes another in the evening, he adds.
Scotties have been his breed of choice for many years. Maggie, his current companion, “is an engaging animal. And Scotties are an iconic dog. Everybody knows the breed. My mother loved terriers, that’s where I got that from. There is always an edge to them. There’s a kind of challenge that comes with them. I say, ‘you’re going to do this,’ and they say, ‘no I’m not.’ I say, ‘yes you are,’ and they ask, ‘why’. Eventually we come to an agreement, but it’s never simple. They’re smart. Whenever a dog or a person is intelligent, they’re a lot more interesting. There is room for discussion, for interaction.”
Those who know Combe understand his deep devotion to his canine companions who have accompanied him on his walks — he’s had five he has loved and lost since he first moved to Niagara-
on-the-Lake, and now has Maggie.
Walking them, he says, leads to many interesting conversations not just with his Maggie, but with the humans they meet while they’re out.
“I would say we meet at least 10 people on a walk, some I know, but most I don’t.”
Some are just up for a quick hello, but many are happy to stop and chat, and that, he says, is rewarding.
He’s found that even more so during a pandemic — people are anxious to chat when they’re out, and having a dog with him often opens the door to pleasurable conversation.
“If I have a sadness, it’s that so many of the people in my life are dead. I still have a lot of friends though, and fortunately all of them are younger than I am.”
He’s also fortunate to have good genes, he adds — nobody in his family died from any prolonged illness, remaining healthy and active until the end of their lives.
Combe too continues to be healthy, in large part, he says, not only because he loves to walk, but keeps busy with activities he enjoys and chooses to do, and has an active brain.
“That’s a blessing, although I still struggle with names sometimes. Eventually they come to me, and if that’s my worst problem, I think I’m pretty well off.”
For 40 years, he went to the gym at the Prince of Wales three times a week, until it closed due to COVID. He worked out on some of the basic machines, and swam in the pool, although he hasn’t been back since it reopened.
He says he sometimes thinks he should have done more to keep fit, but adds, “something is better than nothing. At least I made some sort of effort.”
He has an extensive, beautiful garden around his Johnson Street home, which he still cares for himself, with the exception of pruning trees, he says. He considers his garden “a living entity, and taking care of it pays me back richly.”
He has always felt it important, whether working, tending to his garden or the many other activities he undertakes, “to like or love whatever I do. I don’t do things that don’t give me satisfaction. Everything I do, I enjoy.”
That includes volunteering at St. Mark’s Anglican Church for decades, and at the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, where he was one of the original committee members overseeing its transformation from a retired pumphouse to a community art gallery.
More recently, he has also been one of the regular contributors to The Local since its inception. He has written about the history behind many of the stones at St. Mark’s Cemetery and at other churches, and as a lover of theatre, began sharing his views of the movies he saw with readers of The Local. When the pandemic closed down theatres, his column became the View from the Couch, where he writes brief reviews of what he has watched on TV, such as Netflix or Prime series or movies.
“It never ceases to astonish me how many people will stop and tell me they love my reviews.”
He considers his ‘views’ as a pleasurable way of sharing and connecting with people, he says.
Virtually everything he has done in life, from his work life to volunteering, he’s been surrounded by good people, he says, and has made his choices of the tasks he would take on “principally because I liked them. That they were helpful to the community was a side benefit. I believe we shouldn’t do things that we don’t take pleasure in.”
He has also been part of a recent large restoration of cemetery stones at St. Mark’s, and says he’s astounded at some of the unknown history he has discovered, finding out about people who are buried there by trying to trace some of their history.
As an example, he says, one woman was referred to on her marker not by name, but as the wife of first one man, and then another, and through a little digging into research, Combe was able to find out who she was.
“Each stone we’ve done extensive work on, we’ve found things we didn’t know, a part of our history we didn’t know about.”
Searching for further knowledge of the history of the town also led Combe to write 20 books, co-authored by Fred Habermehl. “They are chiefly St. Mark’s-oriented, but others have been genealogies and histories.”
History, says Combe, is gossip, “and my gossip may not be your gossip. But what ever the story, some element is true.”
As a boy, he heard stories from his grandmother, who spoke of her grandfather. He had fought in the War of 1812.
grandfather was baptized by Robert Addison, first rector of St. Mark’s, 1799, and Combe remembers walking with his grandmother and learning about their ancestors, but also the history of the town.
He used to come to NOTL as a young boy on day trips from Niagara Falls with his family, and also to visit with relatives who had a summer home here, he says. He considered himself very fortunate to be able to move to his Johnson Street home in 1977.
His grandmother’s stories got him interested in history, and in what he could learn from the historic cemetery of St. Mark’s, where many people of significance to Canadian history are buried.
His latest book with Habermehl is Streets of Niagara on the Lake (The name without hyphens is the original, Combe says). Reading street signs provides an overview of the town’s history and who each generation has considered important – unlike many towns, where streets are numbered, he explains.
Habermehl is no longer living in the area, so Combe won’t be collaborating with him as author, but he’s currently writing a book of his own family history, “working back from my great-grandfather, Robert Combe. The Combes were all farm servants in East Lothian Scotland, so there are no deeds or wills. My father had 50 first cousins, so I have lots of material. I am amazed that although my great-grandparents were farm servants, most of their grandchildren owned farms and had farm servants. I am further astonished that my father was the first of the Combe family to have attended university. I try to find photos of the places they would have known … locations of baptisms, weddings and funerals. I am always after ‘stories’ in all aspects of life. My work in the cemetery has provided lots of stories for the scores of cemetery tours I have conducted at St. Mark’s.”
Combe says his father was always taking pictures. “I was given a Baby Brownie as a birthday gift when I was six, so I have been taking pictures for a long time. I feel that taking a picture helps me focus, and concentrate on what I want to remember. One trip I made to Europe, I took a great camera, but no film. I spent a lot of time looking through the view finder of the camera, and came home with great memories and images in my mind, but no actual photos. That taught me a lot.”
On his walks, Combe takes photos, mostly of historic homes, and posts them on Facebook for others to enjoy, some trying to guess the location, others sharing memories of the houses and the people who lived in them.
“With my postings on Facebook I want people to really see, and not just casually look. I am amazed at the number of inquiries as to the subject of the photos, when they are all of places and buildings within a 20-minute walk. I just photograph that which catches my interest. I am not permitted long study, as Maggie is constantly urging me forward, so they are all pretty candid shots.”
Combe, who was first an English teacher, then a teacher of English as a second language, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in the 1950s.
“I feel highly privileged to have been able to graduate from that august institution,” a BBC production he was part of in 1955, he says. “What I learned there certainly helped with my teaching.”
He still keeps in touch with some of his students from 1966, his early days teaching English to immigrants, which he found richly rewarding. He still considers them friends.
The people in his life now, he says, are “in it for the long haul,” people he’s known for 20 years or more. “Friendship to me is an investment, and it’s paid off big time.”
He will only be able to have a small group to celebrate with him Sunday, and adds, “I’m sad I can’t have 450 people. I might be able to in the future, but not now.”
If Combe has a message that has helped him, especially through the time of COVID, is to “be joyful. Be thankful.”
These are tenets he has lived by, and found helpful.
And Combe is the first to admit he has much to be joyful for.