With a gnarled hand, Dean Hadley fondly stroked the engine of the historic ship, St. Roch. Despite being 98, he said with certainty that could still remember how to take it apart and put it back together. Hadley arrived at the Vancouver Maritime Museum last October (2018) in a wheelchair that he quickly abandoned to prowl about the ship where he spent three summers and two long winters when the St. Roch was stuck frozen in the ice of the Northwest Passage. .Hadley insisted that museum staff get the key and unlock the engine room after he’d inspected every other part of the ship that’s open to the public.
|Dean Hadley was a young RCMP corporal when he became radio operator on the famed St. Roch.|
He was a 20-year-old RCMP corporal when he joined the ship’s crew. A Prairie boy, he’d never been on a ship before, which is why he’d signed on. Hadley didn’t know a thing about engines, but he knew everything about radios and radio transmission. It was an invaluable skill on the 31.6- metre schooner that 28 months later would become the first ship to transit the Northwest Passage from west to east.
“When you have nothing to do, it's a terrible burden,” he said. If you’re a person who likes to do things, that’s another kind of a burden. And, if you’re a person like myself, who thinks about making new things … then there’s no place (in the Arctic) where you can go to get the stuff to make it with.” It’s how he ended up spending so many hours below deck with the engine crew watching and learning.
The sole remaining member of the St. Roch’s crew, Hadley was inducted into the museum’s Northwest Passage Hall of Fame last year. It’s why I had a chance to walk around the storied ship with him. It was the first time he’d been on it since the St. Roch arrived in Halifax in 1942 having completed its Arctic voyage. It was also his last.
Eugene Dean Hadley died peacefully in his sleep on July 13. He was 98. Born in Weyburn, Sask., Hadley knew how lonely and bleak winters could be. It’s where he learned from his father how to repair watches before he started fiddling about with radios, building and designing ones that were far more advanced than the ancient one that had been installed on the St. Roch. He had no formal training. He grew up during the Depression and took a short course at a college where he learned how to type and take shorthand, which is how he landed a job in the RCMP crime lab.
His first days on the St. Roch were spent learning the art of adjusting the radio’s clips and coil that expanded and contracted as the temperature rose and fell. But it wasn’t just the radio that was primitive. The only navigation device that the skipper, then-sergeant Henry Larsen, had was a sextant. As we walked the foredeck, Hadley told how on rough days, crewmen had to make a treacherous dash from the bunks in the forward cabin down to breakfast in the aft cabin where Hadley’s bunk was next to the radio room.“ The guys would wait until the boat would come up so they could open the door without drowning. They’d run like hell to get over the well deck before the next wave.”
Hadley pointed to the spot below deck where ‘French’ Chartrand had a heart attack, collapsed and died during the crew’s first winter stuck in the ice at Paisley Bay and talked about how Larsen and crewman Pat Hunt made a 600-kilometre trip by dog team to fetch a priest. But he also talked about being afraid and about the bad plumbing. Of course, in a life that spanned nearly a century, two years were only a brief moment in the long and prodigious life of an endlessly curious man.
Hadley resigned from the RCMP when the St. Roch landed in Halifax in 1942 and immediately enlisted because the Second World War had begun during their trip. But he didn’t join the navy; Hadley signed up with the Royal Canadian Air Force. After the war, he went to the University of Toronto where he studied engineering, but never graduated. It was his lifelong regret, said his daughter, who is a geophysicist. But it’s why he urged others to get an education.
Hadley returned to the RCMP as a civilian, working on modernizing its communications in the North before working for a uranium exploration company. He returned south for the chance to work on some of this country’s earliest computers at Computing Devices of Canada. In 1952, the peripatetic Hadley moved to Garden Grove, Calif. where he and his wife, Edith, raised their three daughters, Linda, Elaine and Barbara.
Hadley worked for an electronics firm, then for aerospace giants including Lockheed and Northrup and has several patents. Lacking an engineering degree, Linda said, Hadley was often passed over and eventually he left to sell real estate. “He was a wonderful person. He didn’t get angry. He always seemed cheerful and optimistic. Later in life, I wondered how he kept such a sunny outlook. “I recognize a lot of things about him in myself. I don’t finish things,” she added with a laugh. She added that she and her sisters are also all “pretty handy. … Growing up, we never called a repairman. We always fixed everything ourselves.”
Hadley never lost his fascination with the sea. After their daughters left home, he and Edith sold their house and lived on a boat. Hadley only returned to shore after his wife died in 1995. A private funeral is planned for later and Hadley’s ashes will be scattered close to where Edith’s were scattered off the California coast.
Hadley is survived by his daughters, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and his companion of nearly 20 years, Marguerite Josenhans.
Back to St. Roch