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The Harvard Man of Alberta - John Bootsma

 The Harvard Man

Drayton Valley, the town where John Bootsma brought up his family, lies atop a high plateau between the South Saskatchewan and Pembina Rivers about half way between oil rich Edmonton and the iconic Rocky Mountain resort of Jasper. Everywhere you look in Drayton Valley, there is sky - big, big sky. And silhouetted against that cold blue dome are hundreds of oil derricks and black eternally nodding pumps. Drayton Valley was an agricultural town of 75 souls before it rose up and rode that first wave of Alberta oil into boomtown. Within 10 years of the discovery of that first Pembina gusher, Drayton Valley boasted 4,000 residents. It is a happy town of self-made men and women in a province famed for people of individual spirit.

John Bootsma was born in the small town of Barrhead, northwest of Edmonton on the first day of 1935. He and his twin brother were a New Year's good omen at a time when each new year brought desperate hope that the economic holocaust of the Great Depression would be finally extinguished. These tiny boys were indeed the squalling harbingers of an upturn in the fortunes of Alberta.

During his childhood, Alberta was home to more than 20 bases dedicated to the training of pilots and other aircrew destined for the aerial battles of global conflict. As a young boy, John grew up under that icy northern sky filled with the constant drone of victory - the engine sounds of yellow-painted Harvards, Tiger Moths, Cornells, Finches, Oxfords, Cranes and Ansons of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. There is no doubt that sometime between 1940 and 1945 he would have watched the yellow form of a passing Harvard on a cross-country flight and said to himself - someday I will be able to do that.

When Bootsma was old enough, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Cadets - probably in 1948 at his earliest eligibility. Air Cadets provided him his ultimate prize - an affordable way to learn how to fly.

Another love was his wife Natalie, the daughter of a Bloomsbury rancher. While courting Natalie, he drove east to Westlock to rent a small airplane to try and seal the deal. He flew it to her father's farm and made several low passes over the house to impress her. It worked like a charm and he and Natalie were soon married. Their early life together took them to Fernie, British Columbia, then on to Estevan, Saskatchewan and even to the Arctic where John worked for six months as a radio operator. He would eventually become a reserve RCAF officer and he worked with air cadets, helping to start a squadron and then to be a supply officer.

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John Bootsma cleans oil from the propeller of Harvard 294 (CF-RUQ) back in October of 1977. Photo: Western Review via Janet Sissons

John was a dreamer, pure and simple. In these early days he moved around trying to find exactly what he was meant to do. The two constants in his life were Natalie and his family and his love of flying. John had many businesses throughout his life, both successful and not so successful. John was an idea man. The kind of guy for who aviation was meant. The kind of guy who was always trying to get off the ground. He could do many things and his children shared a common emotion for him - respect. John did not wallow in safe waters, but ventured out away from land in any enterprise he started. And though the family would move around, they came to understand the great lesson John imparted to them - to be yourself, to follow your dreams and not to dwell on the past.

John Bootsma started many businesses, large and small, but decades in the oilfields made him an experienced oilman, though he is best known in his community for his Ford dealership. However, it is what John did away from business that his family and the people of Drayton Valley will remember him for.

Throughout his life, John owned a series of classic aircraft including a de Havilland Canada Chipmunk, an Aeronca Citabria and a series of Cessna aircraft which he constantly traded up. Along with a friend who was an RCAF veteran of the war, he acquired a surplus Canadian Car and Foundry Harvard 4 in 1965 from a lot of 65 trainers offered for sale at RCAF Station Penhold. It was to be his pride and joy for nearly 20 years and it became part of his bigger-than-life identity.

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John, second from top, flies a different Harvard in this 1970s formation of seven aircraft from the Western Warbirds Association with the Canadian Rockies offering a striking backdrop.

John built considerable flying hours on the Harvard, practicing aerobatics, offering rides to his air cadets, joyriding with dignitaries and formation flying with a group of like-minded Harvard flyers of the Western Warbird Association. Each Remembrance Day, John would fly his airplane in formation with other Harvards in a memorial flypast of the Drayton Valley war memorial, thundering low across town on a cold and windy November day to pay tribute to those heroes he saw as a child in the skies of Alberta.

His daughter Janet remembers these cold November days with pride as all eyes in this Alberta community looked to the sky... to her father. Moments of great pride for her, but it was another flypast during the sunnier, warmer days of summer that brings her the greatest joy. One summer, there was a sour well blow-out near the town of Drayton Valley - a dangerous affair that threatened the entire town with gas poisoning. The great Red Adair (a real life character who was played by John Wayne in a movie about his exploits called Hellfighters) was brought in to cap the runaway well head, which he did successfully. In celebration of their deliverance from this potential disaster, Drayton Valley held a one-time festival and parade called The Great Canadian Blow-Out Days. For his part in this celebration John climbed into the sky in a Cessna and headed towards town where he made several passes down 50th Street over the marching bands and homemade floats and banners. From the passenger seat, a friend tossed out handfuls of peanuts in the shell. Imagine the sheer joy of the Drayton Valley children as this airplane roared overhead in the big blue sky, while peanuts dropped all around. They would scramble and squeal and scoop up the peanuts from the Harvard Man of Drayton Valley. A wonderful gift to the town, a powerful memory for his children who no doubt were so proud of him.

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Old 294. John's beloved Harvard now resides at the Combat Air Museum in Topeka, Kansas. Though it now has an American registration, it still sports the same markings as it did when it was John's pride and joy.  Close inspection reveals that beneath the cockpit window there is still the inscription "F/O John P. Bootsma".  Photo: Shaun McGee

Inset Photo: John warms the big Pratt and Whitney as he gets set to take a passenger on the ride of a lifetime back in the late 70s.

John P. Bootsma died this past September 24th in his 72nd year. Just days before he died, he watched a DVD of the Canadian Harvard Aerobatic Team flying their bright yellow Harvards through their stunning routine at Vintage Wings of Canada's July Open House. Contacted by his daughter Janet, the Vintage Wings team put together the DVD and sent it out so that he could enjoy the sight and sound of his beloved Harvard once again. According to Janet, there were tears in his eyes and as the aircraft flew their loops and rolls on the screen, his feet were moving imaginary rudder pedals through the whole sequence. Those were happy feet.

Some Albertans, perhaps the spiritual loner cowboy type, call Alberta God's Country, while others with their heads turned upwards call it Big Sky Country. It could be argued that there is no more spectacular canvas upon which to practice the looping strokes of the fine art of flying than those towering blue skies west of Edmonton that sweep up from the prairies, past the forested foothills and on up to the jagged edges of the Rocky Mountains. That's where aviator John Bootsma loved to be - in that sunlit place between the Pembina oil fields and heaven. It may well be that he is there still.

The complete Warbird U Calendar for 2012
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