I can’t remember the exact moment I met John Overall although it occurred sometime in the year 2000. I know this because that’s when he joined Union Gas at our Toronto office which, at the time, was in North York. Natural gas utilities were going through enormous changes. In my case, deregulation meant spinning off our retail business and I remained with the utility, moving to Toronto to become the marketing manager for the residential and commercial customer base. For John, the changes had brought forth the closing of, first, the Canadian Gas Research Institute and then Gas Technology Canada. While I might not remember exactly when I met him I do remember, quite distinctly, how John the engineer introduced himself: a professional skeptic. The moniker signifying his adherence to the scientific method, assessing any claims with logic, and casting a jaundiced eye upon quackery and false claims.

That phrase — professional skeptic — remains in my head to this day, a description of John that is both accurate and consistent. And, getting to know John far better in these retirement years, my second adjective rings truer now than ever: he is one of the most consistent people I’ve ever known. His boyhood interests and ventures have carried through from the 1950s to this current decade of the 21st century.

Decades before smart phones, John figured out the selfie in the 1950s using a box camera.

Case in point: born in Scarborough in 1951, John grew up not far from the bluffs, attended R. H. King Collegiate (formerly Scarborough High), lived at home while attending the University of Toronto and, when he married Audrey forty years ago, they bought a house about eleven kilometres from his family home. None of that is to say he lacks a desire to travel or a nose for adventure — completely the opposite, in fact, as his two years living and working at the Arctic Circle on the Beaufort Sea would attest. Yet there is something about John regarding Thoreau’s famous declaration: “I have travelled extensively in Concord.” As our former colleague Bryan Goulden (well, Bryan was actually Da Boss when we worked together ) says of John: “he is a pretty knowledgeable Toronto history buff”. Indeed, whenever we’d get out for a lunch hour trek in Toronto (after our offices moved downtown) for a bit of exercise, John could never hurry by one of those big blue historical plaques without reading the factual details and often expanding on the context just a little. You can travel the world but that shouldn’t preclude you from travelling and knowing your own country, your own region, your own city, your own neighbourhood — all of which John has done extensively. Not only physical travel but through the fiction and non-fiction he reads, the television he watches, the history he’s learned. To professional skeptic I add thoroughly Canadian.

Mother Dorothy, father Ken, and younger brother David. Photo credit to John and the box camera, though at his age the photo was necessarily taken from a rather low angle.

While at high school, John’s passion for sports ran to individual activities, wrestling and the gymnastic rings. Short and powerful, his physical pursuits grew into long range hikes, canoeing, kayaking and cycling — as much as John loves engines, the bicycle has been his constant, life-long companion. That John went on, after high school, to become a professional engineer seems pre-ordained given his boyhood interests and his paternal family qualifications: both his grandfather and father had a background in electronics.

In the Second World War, John’s father served as a radar technician and joined a contractor for Avro Canada in the early 1950’s, focusing on technology research. Readers with any sense of Canadian history understand, of course, what happened to Avro after Prime Minister Diefenbaker shut down development of the Arrow, Avro’s supersonic interceptor jet aircraft that was recognized as one of the most advanced of its era. To this day, the grand Canadian debate still lingers on whether, to quote The Canadian Encyclopedia, “cancellation was a betrayal of Canada’s aerospace industry” or “the jet was extravagant and had little chance of competing with impending innovations.” Either way, John’s father, like tens of thousands of others, was tossed out of his job. After that he earned his living fixing commercial two-way radios, eventually going to work for Philips Canada, then a leading electronics manufacturer.

Obviously the interest — and I suppose genetic coding — for things electronic and mechanical came to John from his father’s passion for gadgets and research, although it should also be said that John describes his father as “having had very clear views of engineers”. John expressed this sentiment in a tone which, shall we say, assured me the view was not wholly respectful. As a young boy, John received a WWII tank radio from a family friend which he managed to get operational after putting together a power supply. A few years later, at the ripe old age of fifteen, he scrounged up twenty-five dollars to purchase a broken down 1946 AJS motorcycle which he rebuilt — and still owns today. The fact John still owns that motorcycle may be attributed to a certain romance of his past — or may be attributed to the fact, as he’s admitted to me, he’s something of a hoarder. Getting rid of items is not John’s strong suit.

The AJS 29 years later in 1995.
The 1946 AJS, a British manufacturered motorcycle, after John finished rebuilding it, at age 15, in 1966.

In 1969, he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study engineering. Most engineers I have known over the years always express the fact that first year engineering is brutally difficult and good marks are tough to come by. John was no exception and before he received his final marks in the spring he assured himself he’d failed. Distraught, he decided to get away for awhile. When you’re John Overall, getting away comes in a different form than hopping on a plane or hitchhiking to parts unknown. After getting his hands on some angle iron, he manufactured a makeshift carrier for the back of his 3 speed bicycle and headed east along Highway 2, pedalling one hundred miles a day for thirteen days straight until he reached Prince Edward Island. You ask: hotels or motels along the way? Ahh, no, John slept in fields near the highway every night in the Egyptian cotton tent that he’d strapped to that homemade carrier. With one exception: while riding through Montreal his bicycle embarked on an angry argument with an automobile and John was forced to stay with relatives while he repaired the bike’s bent forks — he, luckily, remained unbent.

Upon returning home, John learned the wonders of the Bell Curve: second year awaited him. He also had someone with whom he could bum a ride if he decided not to pedal his bike to campus on any given day — his mother. After John’s mother had completed high school, her father had forbidden her to attend university, so she ended up in administrative jobs, working in a doctor’s office as a medical secretary. Whether that robust time of second wave feminism at the end of the 60s inspired her or not I don’t know, John never said, but she enrolled at the University of Toronto as an adult student and after graduating with a general arts degree she began a new career in the U of T registrar’s office. Denied attending university as a young woman John’s mother ended up spending the remainder of her working life on campus. Now ninety-five years old, she lives at Bloor and Yonge, having moved downtown when her husband died in the 90s. “She always loved the activity of downtown,” John says. Her sister, John’s aunt, lives not far away, an artist in her own right who, he adds, never fails to remind him that she was friends with Doris McCarthy. In Scarborough, if you don’t know, there is the Doris McCarthy Trail, a near 10 km walking path named after the Toronto landscape artist whose teachers included Group of Seven’s Arthur Lismer, A. Y. Jackson, J.E.H MacDonald and Lawren Harris. Arts and hiking coming into John’s sphere through family.

I learned a number of these things about John, talking as we hiked a couple of trails near my home west of Toronto: Milton’s Crawford Lake and Hilton Falls. The maternal influence came into focus and helped me understand how John always seemed, when we worked together, one of the most well rounded engineers I’ve ever known. Technology research may have been his passion and life’s work, but he’s articulate and well-read about anything from art and literature to history and politics and economics. And I see no coincidence that Audrey, the woman he married, made her career with the University of Toronto Library Automation System and after the kids were older, the Toronto District School Board library system.

Now, about that passion for technology research. After graduating, he stayed on at U of T for his masters in chemical engineering and found work one summer with the federal government in Ottawa researching issues raised by oil spills on ice. This led to a job with Norcor Engineering and Research who had a federal contract to explore that very subject. Their offices were in Yellowknife, the capital city of the Northwest Territories, but his work took him to the edge of the Beaufort Sea in such places as Cape Parry.  For a quick geo-check, those places are about 6 degrees north of the Arctic Circle. When I asked John if he had any photos from back then he sent a couple accompanied with this story.

On guard, and John quickly found out why.

“While at the Beaufort Sea ice camp, on my shift as camp manager I tended to chase away the polar bears that wandered in. I complained once about the guys taking photos while I did all the work. One day, while inside the Parcol (tent), one of my guys came in and said ‘come with me and bring your camera’. I didn’t have a clue. When I got to the nearest pressure ridge, I saw a couple of the guys with rifles on alert. At the top of the ridge, I met Buddy what’s-his-name.  Luckily, there were no other fellas. Can’t remember who scared him off. Got a photo though.”

You looking at me? That’s the caption John provided when he sent me this photo of “Buddy Wasisname”.

For those readers with a bit of Newfoundland background, you might have picked up the Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers allusion. For the uninitiated, Buddy Wasisname is a comedy musical trio in Newfoundland and it gives you some insight to both John’s wide-ranging knowledge, particularly Canadiana, and sense of humour. Because he knows my Newfoundland background, he worked in the tongue-in-cheek reference as an important tool to dampen any overly serious considerations. He’s a keen adherent to playful language, the humorous bon mots that fifty years ago were the stock-in-trade of the best known back-page columnist MacLean’s magazine ever had: Dr. Foth (aka, Allan Fotheringham). John was a great fan of the journalist who gave our neighbour to the south the epithet Excited States of America, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard John refer to the USA as anything but.

After returning from Yellowknife and completing his Masters thesis, he went to work for a U of T economics professor in a centre then known as the Institute for Policy Analysis. He focused on the economics of residential furnace efficiency and through that work learned the Canadian Gas Research Institute (CGRI) was looking for an engineer. He got the job and said about the time:  “At CGRI we worked on many new applications, although we always had trouble commercializing them. I understand now that we really needed a commercialization team. On the other hand, a lot of our ideas seemed to spread anyway and at the time, my view was that the CGRI membership wanted to see new applications hit the market and did not worry so much about profitability.  When they did start to focus on return on investment, there was not much of an improvement in ROI either with CGRI or their other R&D contractors. Amongst many other things, we worked on sealed combustion water heaters, condensing gas water heaters, gas-fired baseboard heaters, power vented water heaters (before there were any) and even a sealed combustion gas range.  All lots of fun.”

For the rest of his career, whether at CGRI or, later, when he became the Director of Research at Gas Technology Research or, still later, joining Union Gas, his focus has been on technology development and codes and standards. I’m not sure many people, outside any industry, recognize the amount of resources, human and financial, that go into developing technology or the incredible volunteer efforts made by industry professionals in ensuring proper codes and standards are in place for safety as well as efficiency. In the energy appliance industry, whether natural gas or electric, there are a myriad of intertwined parties involved: private companies, the industry associations representing those companies, utilities, universities, and government ministries such as Natural Resources Canada which operate extensive laboratories and test facilities throughout the country, especially in and around Ottawa. For the reader I want you to understand this, whenever you flick on a light switch or turn on an appliance, that you don’t get electrocuted or have things explode owes to the fact a whole lot of people spend a whole lot of time on the details. For forty years John was one of those people. And, as a mutual friend who is the past president of the Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Institute, Warren Heeley, said to me about John: “He never approached any matter in a simple way. He either went whole hog into the issue or did not get involved; there was no in between.” 

John and Audrey at Cupids, Conception Bay, Newfoundland. The province’s website says Cupids (formerly Cupers Cove) was the first English settlement in what became Canada, 1610.

The Canadian Standards Association obviously felt the same way in 2013 when they stated: “Mr. John Overall of Toronto, Ontario receives the Award of Merit in recognition of dedicated leadership and unwavering advancement of CSA Group standards for the safety and energy efficiency of fuel burning equipment.” 

Regarding technology development, John was on the forefront of developing the condensing natural gas furnace in the 80s, an appliance most people refer to as a high efficiency furnace. Before this furnace, forty per cent or more of the energy created went up the chimney — now, less than ten per cent of energy is wasted. Not every technology John was involved with became a market success, though as often is the case, the fun stories are in the lesser known ventures. Such as this one he related to me:

“I was involved in the development of a biogas refrigerator through funding from the Export Development Corp (or something similar). Our Chinese customer was the Beijing Solar Energy Research Institute and they wanted a small frig that ran on (basically) septic tank gas, so varying composition and pressure. They wanted the deluxe model that restarted automatically if the flame went out and of course without electric power – sheesh. Nice bunch of guys though. I was the project engineer for our part of the work which was to develop the control and combustion system. 

“When I visited their facility in China there was an old gent (maybe 60) working there who casually mentioned he was a nuclear physicist. I asked him what he was doing here and he said at his age, it was too far to bicycle to work at his old job. This was in the ’80’s before China’s industrial revolution took off and there were no private vehicles on the Beijing streets but lots of bicycles.

“I flew to Shanghai from Canada with a connecting flight to Beijing and my contacts said they would pick me up and take to me an unspecified hotel to stay. In Shanghai I learned my connecting flight had been rescheduled. When I got to Beijing there was no sign of my contacts and I had no contact info for them (another lesson learned). I found a room at a Shanghai western chain hotel and the next day hotel staff figured out where the Institute was located and gave the address to my taxi driver who did not speak English. After an interesting ride across Beijing, we arrived. I got out and wandered through buildings until I recognized the head guy. I remember he did not seem surprised when I showed up and said that they had gone to the airport at the original scheduled time and when I didn’t show they just went home. It was all smooth sailing after that.

“The western hotel stay was the only part of the trip with lousy food (western).  Other than that – I had amazing meals all the time.  That reminds me that when their team visited here, I took them to the downtown Chinatown for dim sum.  They said it was the best Chinese food they had tasted during their visit, which is to say, there were no chicken balls in red sauce.”

John with his children Sarah and Michael while attending a family wedding. The somewhat serious looks on the male faces may be attributed to the fact John says “Mike & I are not really suit & tie people”.

As John’s career was beginning in the early 80s, he stayed physically active through the University of Toronto Outing Club, an affiliated organization founded in the late 50s, providing camping and hiking excursions which is how he met, fell in love and married a fellow traveller in life: Audrey. They have two children, now adults, Sarah and Michael. It seems that Audrey’s sister and her husband, Darcy, also enjoyed the outdoor life and they planned many trips together. However, one time back in the late ’80s, brother-in-law Darcy told John that he’d like to go on an extended, more secluded hike. Oh Darcy, this is John Overall you’re talking to! You can imagine what plans John came up with. Being familiar with the NorthWest Territories, he arranged for them, after getting to Yellowknife, to secure a “short bush-plane flight west of Norman Wells and hike back on the old Canol road, developed with an oil line, built during WWII to ship oil to the Pacific. The pipeline was never used.”

The Canol Trail as it was when Darcy & John hiked it.
Bush plane that dropped off John & brother-in-law Darcy at the Canol Trail.
Darcy in their makeshift camp on the Plains of Abraham (NWT not Quebec City) .

Since that time, the road has become something of a tourist attraction but when John and Darcy hiked, “it was more an unmaintained trail through the mountains.” John continued: “Got dropped off at Godlin Lakes. Hiked through Plains of Abraham  (aren’t Canadians original) to Dodo lake. No trees on the plain so good thing we were heavy enough so the tent did not get blown away during a wind storm while camped there.” And somewhere along the way, John thought they’d easily cross one of the rivers — he thinks it might have been the Carajou. Turns out they were forced to wade waist deep through a strong current. As John casually said, “I remember thinking that it would be tough to make a raft above the tree line. I was thinking that we were screwed as, before cell phones, there was no way to contact the flight service if we couldn’t get across.” But cross they did — and Darcy got his long distance, secluded hike, somewhere not far below the Arctic Circle. These days, John’s hikes are more confined to short, local trips and he tells me that Audrey has been clear any long distant trips include hotels, motels, or reasonable cabins — her days of camping in a tent are over.

On the short hikes I do with John, the professional skeptic is ever present. He has this manner in which he raises an eye brow while twisting his mouth in a full facial contortion if he’s presented with any kind of balderdash, claptrap or blather, be it by politicians (such as was a daily occurrence in our recent federal election) or over-reaching technology claims. John’s adherence to the cornerstone of the scientific method — skepticism — has over the years pissed off many a technology pedlar but I remember also learning of how his reputation informed important decision-makers. A few years before I retired, I found myself at a NRCan sponsored forum in Ottawa dealing with potential new technology integration required to meet energy requirements while dealing with climate change. During a break, one of NRCan’s leading authorities on a technology known as combined heat and power (devices that take waste heat which is given off while generating electricity to improve the overall efficiency of the process), approached me about an emerging heat pump technology being developed by a company in British Columbia. Called a thermoacoustic engine, the device used high-amplitude sound waves to pump heat — leading edge technology for sure. What NRCan’s expert said to me was roughly this: “I wasn’t very interested in supporting this technology until I heard that John Overall had committed Union Gas funding. When someone as skeptical as John is interested, I have to change my mind and take another look.”

John and Bryan Goulden during a post-retirement hike the three of us did a couple of years ago. Local hike near Uxbridge Ontario, no bush planes involved.

When I think back on those days with John in the corporate world, I’m also reminded of his clear-eyed take on corporate consultants, those MBA wizards that descend on businesses offering to fix or enhance their business model, whatever it may be. If any reader has ever worked for a large corporation you know the drill, the experts coming in to explain to you how you should really run your business. John had a very simple definition. “Ed,” he told me back in the day, “a consultant is someone you pay to come in and borrow your watch so they can tell you the time.” I’m far out of the corporate world now, but I’ll never forget the simple accuracy of that definition.

The radios keep multiplying in the Overall basement.

John’s long out of the corporate world too, retiring before me in fact, but his fascination with gadgets continues. He’s back to short-wave radios, unable to stop buying old, broken models and bringing them to life. The problem is, he can’t seem to part with them so his basement is beginning to overflow. Ahh well, many greater problems in the world than that — though now that Audrey has retired, I wonder if she agrees?

Next up is Chandra Wohleber, a freelance editor who began life in Britt, Ontario (just north of Parry Sound), went to Montreal for university, then London, England and New York City as her career began to take shape from selling books to editing them, eventually coming back to Canada. Chandra will always hold a special place in my heart: she is the editor who recommended to The Porcupine’s Quill that they publish my novel Fair.

I hope you come back.

About Ed Seaward

Ed Seaward is the author of a number of short stories and screenplays, including Mother Daughter Happiness, which was a finalist at the 2019 Pasadena International Film Festival…

More About Ed

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