Many little girls look up to their grandfathers, viewing them as heroes. For Catherine Soplet, a Newfoundlander now living in Ottawa, her grandfather really is a hero
Soplet is the granddaughter of Thomas Ricketts, a private in the 1st Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment during World War 1.
He enlisted at just 15-years-old, lying about his age to join. He went on to show immense bravery in the war, his actions garnering him the esteemed Victoria Cross, the highest honour Britain can bestow, as well as France’s Croix de Guerre with Golden Star.
Ricketts passed away in February of 1967 and was given a state funeral.
For Soplet, she doesn’t immediately associate these details with her beloved grandfather – instead, she recalls fond childhood memories of a young girl, hanging out with her granddad during summer vacations in Kelligrews, Conception Bay South, where many St. John’s residents had summer homes.
“My memories are of him preparing paper-thin slices of Cracker Barrell cheese, giving these morsels to me and Blackie the cat,” she recalled, just one of a handful of treasured thoughts.
Soplet delved into another humourous anecdote, from her fourth birthday. “On my birthday I decided to go visit my grandfather at his drug store,” she began.
“The house was at 4 Craigmillar Avenue, and the drug store was on the corner of Job and Water Street. I just sort of showed up at the drug store, and he called my grandmother and gave her heck, because it was actually a four-kilometre walk. She didn’t even know where I was,” Soplet shared with a laugh.
“He gave me a pink lipstick and let me look at comic books until she came and picked me up.”
These warm memories cast a different light on the celebrated hero – a reminder of his long life after the war, and the normalcies of everyday living that we often take for granted.
“I didn’t really fully understand his legacy until I went to visit my grandmother in 2006,” Soplet said, noting that she had moved away many years before. “I just thought everybody had a hero in their family. Everybody had a granddad, so everybody had a hero, right?”
It was during this 2006 visit to Newfoundland that Soplet really began to connect with her family history, as she dug through old photos and letters with her grandmother.
The Ricketts Legacy
This trip down the family memory lane gave Soplet a new outlook on the Ricketts legacy.
“As an adult, I had a different perspective on what it meant to be 19, to be illiterate, to become literate, to face poverty, to overcome poverty, and what that meant for his children,” Soplet said.
Today, Ricketts’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond can celebrate Thomas Ricketts’ life at the newly dedicated Tommy Ricketts Memorial Peace Park, located in Kelligrews. The land, which houses the Kiwanis Club, was donated to the Kiwanis organization by Ricketts, who had purchased the land in 1943. This information was discovered by then Kiwanis Club president Clem Drake, who after more research, organized an application to have Ricketts recognized as a person of significance in the province.
With the land’s historical background, it made sense that this location would be used to create a memorial park for Ricketts.
The Tommy Ricketts Memorial Peace Park had its grand opening on October 14, and Soplet travelled to the island to say a few words at the ceremony, her first trip home since 2007, when she attended the rededication of the interpretive centre on the corner of Job and Water Street, the former location of Ricketts’ drug store.
The Peace Park features a new playground, a bronze statue of Ricketts, and there are plans to create an outdoor amphitheatre onsite.
“For me, it was very exciting to see all these other people excited to be there,” Soplet said, noting that there were hundreds of people in attendance that day. “To be there was exhilarating,” she added.
Soplet noted at the event that we are only weeks out from the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, a legendary peace treaty that ended the First World War on November 11, 1918.
“These next few weeks give us the opportunity to be robust in our reflection,” she said.
“A soldier doesn’t stay a soldier,” Soplet added. “A soldier is actually civilian, and in a civilian role, a soldier can contribute a great deal to their community.”
We can continue to salute Sergeant Tommy Ricketts in 2018, and pay our respects at the Tommy Ricketts Memorial Peace Park in Kelligrews.