Remembering Don Crowe
By Sue Tiffin
Published Sept. 28, 2017
Almost 80 years ago, not long after he was born, Don Crowe’s mom wrapped him in blankets, put him in a laundry basket, and took him with her as she delivered milk throughout the Bobcaygeon area.
He was born into the dairy business started in 1937 by his parents, Kawartha Dairy founders Jack and Ila Crowe, and alongside family and friends he met along the way, he made it his life. On Sept. 6 at the age of 77, the man known for his humble, generous nature died of complications of a stroke, leaving his legacy to his sons to carry on.
The remaining Crowe family has been “overwhelmed but not surprised” with the outpouring of support and condolences from the community after Don’s sudden passing, according to his youngest son, Craig.
“He did so much for everybody,” he said. “And he knew everybody, everywhere.”
Born in Bobcaygeon, Don cottaged in the Minden area before boarding in the downtown area in the late 1950s. He began delivering milk transported from Bobcaygeon to cottagers alongside Don Kellett, travelling to the county for deliveries even after he was newly married and living in Bobcaygeon in 1959.
In 1960, Jack bought the lot on Highway 35 where Kawartha Dairy is now. Don and his new wife, Opal, moved into the house next to the dairy in 1961, renting it until he turned 21 and was able to purchase it. Jack and Don built the iconic dairy that summer and opened it that same year, creating first or summer jobs for so many locals, a reputation for high quality, beloved ice cream and milk products and memories for kids – and then the kids of those kids – who remember summers filled with cones. Don saved letters sent to him over the years by customers who reached out in appreciation for the nostalgic tradition he had brought to their lives.
But it wasn’t just the ice cream that made an impact on the community. Don’s quiet devotion to helping others resulted in a legendary reputation for service and unselfish regard for others.
“Whether it was mentoring local business people or contributing to charitable causes, Don was always ready to help his neighbours,” said Laurie Scott, MPP, in a tribute presented in the Legislature on Sept. 21. “Many business owners will tell stories about Don helping them when they were just starting out, by giving them a fridge or a freezer and telling them to pay it back when they could.”
“Don spent his entire life building a family and a business and because of this he is responsible for helping to build a community,” said close family friend Doug Shaw in a eulogy at Don’s funeral service on Sept. 23.
Together with Opal and his family, Shaw said Don contributed time, money and materials to numerous town events, teams and causes including the Santa Claus Parade, minor hockey and baseball, and Don championed physician recruitment and health care through the Haliburton Highlands Health Services Foundation. He was active as a Kinsmen member, alongside Opal as a Kinette, and was awarded a lifetime membership by the service club for his efforts. Don was Minden Rotary Club’s first Citizen of the Year, and together he and Opal shared a Governor General’s Caring Canadians Award, awarded to them in 1998.
“Whether donating funds to furnish a room at a senior citizens’ complex, supplying a truck to help residents evacuate from a senior citizens’ home, holding a benefit dance for a person injured in an accident, or donating emergency freezer space, the Crowes continually demonstrate their concern for their community and their willingness to help out their neighbours in need,” reads the award dedication on the Governor General of Canada’s website. Acknowledging that Don wasn’t one to brag about accolades, Craig laughs when thinking about his humble nature.
“Stuff like that didn’t bother him, it was just another day,” he said. “He would say, ‘you’re lucky to have it, just continue on. It’s just another day. If they want to recognize me, fine, I’ll go to the dinner.’ We’re not ones to stand for a photo. If people say thank you, that’s fine. And if not, that’s just the way some people are. You just put one foot in front of another and keep going.”
Don’s family is left to keep going now, well-versed in the operations of the dairy, but still trying to accept the loss of their patriarch. Opal died in 2011, after the pair had been married for 51 years. Together they had five sons – Steve, Terry, Darryl, Rob and Craig - 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. The family jokes about Don and Opal’s relationship; how they were complete opposites.
“What a team they were,” said Shaw. “Don was always quiet and reserved and Opal told it like it was.”
The night of Don’s passing, his family left the hospital to drive home in a thunder and lightning storm.
“[Craig] looked at Steph and said, ‘poor guy’s only been up there an hour and Mom’s letting him have it already,’” said Shaw.
“The funny thing is,” Craig told the Times, “we all drove home in separate cars, and it turned out the other brothers, they were all thinking the same thing.”
Echoing the sentiments of community members, Scott referred to Don as being “a true giant, a gentle giant,” and his family spoke to his calm demeanour as well.
“My mother and father were two totally different people,” said Craig. “She was the enforcer. If he raised his voice, or got mad at one of us kids, that was very unusual. It was very seldom he’d ever get mad, unless someone had done something big time, big time wrong. Or unless it was work. That was his heart and soul.”
Remembering some of his earlier days at the dairy, Craig said Don would still discipline poor behaviour.
“He’d have a way of giving you his trouble in a nice way. He’d get his point across. Sometimes we’d be late for work. If you were there at 8:30, he’d just walk by and say, ‘we usually start work at 8 o’clock around here.’”
After his death, family also shared memories of his love for country music, camping and hunting, snowmobiling, classic cars, visits with family and friends and road trips.
“He never went to and from some place the same way,” said Craig. “He knew every shortcut. His time meant nothing.”
Don’s love for adventure and curious nature left him knowledgable about side roads, and Craig said Don didn’t hesitate to take an untravelled path, believing that, “if it’s a hard top road, it’s obviously going somewhere.”
Many of his road trips were to automobile, antique and collectable shows. Don had amassed an incredible collection of dairy memoribilia – from signs and bottles to vehicles and even a milking machine that you work by hand. Fellow collectors he met along the way expressed their condolences on the Gordon A. Monk funeral home website, writing he was a “seasoned veteran with a massive amount of knowledge, which he graciously shared.”
Don was understandably proud of his collection, but collected it for himself, rather than to show it off, according to Craig. The family made the decision to honour Don’s commitment to his space being included in Minden’s Doors Open event the weekend after he died, knowing Don would have wanted to keep his word. Shaw ended his eulogy by noting that Don’s loss would leave a great void in the community, and within his family.
“Several years ago when Don and I spoke about him leaving the day-to-day operations at the dairy and letting his boys have more responsibility, I suggested that he reconsider as I did not think taking 50 years of knowledge and wisdom away were a good idea,” he said. “Don said to me, ‘picture putting your hand in a bucket of water and now take your hand out. That is the void you leave behind,’ I paused for some time, looked at Don and said, ‘I see your point, but I noticed that the level of water just went down’. Don said, ‘well, I guess we’re both right’.”
“His life stopped, ours can’t,” said Craig. “You have to keep going. It’s just another hurdle. You jump over it, and you keep going.”
Imparting wisdom that feels familiar to what Don has taught him and his brothers, Craig returns to work, carrying on his dad’s legacy.