John Rex Batten was born on April 30, 1926 in Louisburg, Nova Scotia. He was raised in Halifax and Montreal. His earliest years were not easy. He spent much of his youth, until he entered the army, moving from one boarding house to another. He and his brother were often forced to go knocking on doors asking for a meal. When Rex found himself welcomed by a loving family, he saw another side of life. It was the future he imagined. He never forgot the generosity of those who gave him food and shelter.
Food became a constant passion in his life. To eat well, to be immaculately dressed, to raise a family that would know comfort and success, these were important values to him, values that arose out of having once lived with no security. He and his brother Louis aspired to do more with their lives, and they both succeeded.
When Rex turned 18, he enlisted in the Canadian Army as a trooper in the Armour Corp during World War II. After the war he became a highly respected marine insurance broker. He was on the executive of the Grunt Club, (a fun-loving association for members of the marine industry in Montreal’s Old Port). Rex was also president of the Young Men’s Canadian Club, and president of the Montreal Debating League.
Rex had been a dedicated brother, visiting his brother Louis every week. Rex had been retired from the marine industry when his brother died suddenly. He stepped out of retirement to take over his brother’s successful lingerie manufacturing company, which he then ran for many years.
In all the years that I have known Rex, I never heard him speak of his work. He was always more likely to ask a lot of questions about you and your work or your family, before he’d start talking about himself. But Rex did tell me about many things that mattered to him. He spoke about his children and grandchildren whom he adored. He spoke about his days in the army, and even loaned me a book about the German officers’ POW camp in Alberta where he served at the end of WWII.
Rex spoke about his friendships and his days in the Fossils. The Fossils wrote and performed musical theatre and satirical reviews together, raising funds for underprivileged children to go to camp. Rex always played women in the shows. One time he played the Queen — and they say he played her very well. His children remember growing up painting sets and watching performances back stage. They say it was hysterically funny to watch out-of-shape grown men dancing the Cancan in what they called the corps de belly (probably named for the large bellies of the not-so-agile dancers). Rex missed those days and those friends, most of whom are gone now. He also missed his wife Lorraine, who he always described as beautiful and elegant. She had died much too soon.
Rex found the Unitarian Church late in life, thanks to a memorial service for a friend. Walking into the sanctuary, hearing a jazz band playing, hearing the readings, and noting the scant mention of God, he felt he had finally found a religious community he could belong to. As long as his health held, he was there every Sunday, filled with praise for everyone he met, acting as an ambassador to newcomers, charming all the young women, and engaging all the young men. He was even known to skip a family brunch to make it to the Sunday service. I could always count on Rex to cheer me on, no matter what. I loved him dearly, as did our whole community. The weight of his loss to us is beyond words.
Rex often spoke about the importance of Ala-non in his life. Ala-non is an incredible volunteer-run international organization that provides emotional and spiritual support for the family and friends of alcoholics and addicts. Rex would often bring materials to the church about local Ala-non programs, so they could be shared with those who might need nonjudgemental support as they dealt with loved ones struggling with the illness of alcoholism. He found power in the twelve steps, although he questioned everything. Through Ala-non he found a caring community of friends. He wasn’t the hugging type, but the members of the Ala-non community hugged him and made him feel loved. He always said that Ala-non and the Unitarian Church were the two communities that came to matter most to him later in life. He said he was very lucky that he had found both.
Daughter-in-law Cindy says that Rex had the ability to appreciate the small things in life. A good omelet for breakfast was a major event. Mark says his father was wise, and always late. He never wanted to be the first one to arrive, perhaps because he wanted to make an entrance. Rex was also a brilliant public speaker, but each speech he wrote cost him dearly. Ten minutes of speaking represented twenty or thirty hours of writing, rewriting and perfecting. His daughter Leslie remembers an especially playful evening of laughter with his granddaughters as Rex tried to edit a eulogy for his cousin Edna. His grandchildren, who called him Pakka, could tell you about Rex’s mischievous side, as he often engaged them in debate.
Of course, Rex was wonderfully dapper, a first impression that no one could miss. His possessions were important to him. He took incredible care of his clothes, darned his own socks, and yes, he always, always wore a bow tie, which all the men in his family have now inherited.
Rex loved to talk and he was good fun to be with. He had a great sense of humour. He was loyal, strong-willed and also stubborn. He kept on going, he never gave up. When he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, I think he, and all of us, thought it was the end. Yet he opted for treatment and he recovered — amazingly. He became the comeback kid. So much so, that when his own doctor was diagnosed with cancer, he said Rex inspired him to keep going.
Over the past two years, Rex’s health was becoming increasingly challenged. Rex and his daughter Leslie were very close, and she and grandson Brent spent many hours seeing to his needs. Yet, Rex seemed to spring back from each health event. Even when gravely ill, he’d respond brightly, “Oh, I’m fine,” to the paramedics who came to his rescue. It wasn’t in his nature to publicly show his weakness.
Rex spent his last few days at the West Island Palliative Care Residence where he received excellent care. He was thrilled by the facility’s giant Jacuzzi bubble bath, a first for him. The last day of his life was filled with visits from many friends and family. He heartily finished a dinner of fish and chips and apple pie with Leslie. Then his dear friend Eliana came, bringing sherbet ice cream from their favourite restaurant. She covered the table with linen and they had a wonderful conversation. The restaurant staff had remembered him and had sent him a card of well wishes. It was his last meal.
Later that night, Leslie and Mark were both at his side. He died peacefully, just as he wanted to die. He was ready to go and he wasn’t afraid of dying. He gave us courage. He said he’d had a good long life, and a good loving, family. That was everything to him. Love would be the last thing to leave.