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Remembering Rompkey

Bill Rompkey, former MP and Senator, passed away at the age of 80
Bill Rompkey, former MP and Senator, passed away at the age of 80

Bill Rompkey was a fixture in Labrador politics for decades, as an MP and as a Senator.

Rompkey, a former teacher, passed away on March 21. Following is the eulogy read at his funeral by Edward Roberts, a former Lake Melville MHA and Lieutenant Governor, who was a friend of Rompkey’s.

 

Hon. William Rompkey – Eulogy

The summer of 1972 – 45 years ago – was not a good time to be a Liberal in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Our province had sent six Progressive Conservatives and only one Liberal to Ottawa in 1968 – the first election of the Pierre Trudeau era and the beginning of the end of the Smallwood years. He and the Liberals had been thrown out of office after the 1971 provincial election and we were all but wiped out in March 1972.  And then, that fall, came another federal election. The political pundits were unanimous. The Liberals might as well concede that they would be defeated again.

Eight Liberals survived the March 1972 provincial election, after the Labrador South by-election that July. Three of us – Mel Woodward in Labrador North, Bill Rowe in White Bay South and myself in White Bay North, had won seats within the federal riding of Grand Falls-White Bay-Labrador. We decided that a Liberal – the right candidate – could regain the seat. But who was that candidate?

Mel suggested that Bill Rompkey was the man. But there was a problem; Bill, who had become Superintendent of the Labrador East School Board after some years of teaching in North West River, had moved with Carolyn, and Hilary and Peter, to Toronto to begin work on his PhD. To make the story no longer, let me say that Mel and I were able to persuade him to return to Labrador and run for the Liberals. He did so, won a contested nomination, and in October became the Liberal member for the riding.

Mel’s gone and now so has Bill. But they wouldn’t mind me recounting the story of our recruiting meeting, here in St. John’s. We needed a private place, and so got together in the sauna at the Battery, the Inn with a View. Mel and I made our pitch. Bill said he was interested, and would discuss the decision with Carolyn. The rest is history. But what isn’t well known is that I was the best dressed of the three of us that afternoon – even in the sauna, I wore my glasses. The three of us remained the best of friends over all the years since then. We had many a laugh over our recollections that day.

As an aside, let me add that the two MPs the Liberals gained in our province in 1972 – Bill and David Rooney – made the Liberals the largest group in the Commons. That enabled Pierre Trudeau to continue as Prime Minister after that election. Our province was the only one that added Liberal seats. Bill’s winning his seat helped to change the future of Canada.

I’ve long believed that helping to recruit Bill may have been the most important achievement of my years in the political arena. Bill went on to win four more elections in Grand Falls-White Bay-Labrador [74, 79, 80 and 84] and two in Labrador [88 and 93] after that seat was created in 1988. He served our province and our country well as a Minister in the Cabinets of Pierre Trudeau and John Turner. He sat in the Commons until 1995, when he became Labrador’s first Senator – an honour he cherished because it allowed him to continue to serve the people of Labrador. His 16 years as a Senator were the capstone to an illustrious political career.

Bill Rompkey – who I came to know very well and count as a treasured friend – was a good man in the very best sense of that word – a man of honour, decency, and courage. I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody. He lived by his principles, and strove always to do what was right for his constituents, his province and his country.

Bill was passionate about his work, devoted to working to help the people who sent him to Parliament, and both tireless and fearless in advocating for them. He became a politician for all the right reasons, and never forgot why he was in Parliament. I’ve known just about every man and woman who has stood on our province’s political stage since 1964, when I went to work with Mr. Smallwood. There have been a lot of them over those 53 years. Bill stood in the very first rank. He was “my MP” during most of my 19 years as the Member for White Bay North, and for all but a few months of my four years as the Member for Naskaupi, in Labrador. It was always a joy to work with him. His 39 years in the public arena were a great contribution to our people and our country.

We’re here to celebrate Bill’s life. But we are also here to support Carolyn, and Peter, and Hilary and her husband Joel, and their children Max and Ana. The ugly reality of an MP’s life is that their duties take them away from home often – too often in many cases. Bill and Carolyn were a team for every one of their half-century together, and they stood by each other and with Hilary and Peter as a family. Bill would be the first to say – I heard him do so many times – that he could not have served as he did had it not been for the staunch support of Carolyn and their children. He told me that he left the Commons with some reluctance when Jean Chretien offered him a Senate seat, and did so only because it meant he could spend more time with his family. And when Max and Ana were born, Bill became the best grandfather ever. Max even had the good fortune to share a birthday with his grandfather!

Bill grew up in St. John’s although he was proud of his outport heritage – Belleoram in Fortune Bay. He went to Bishop Feild College in St. John’s – those were the days of the denominational schools – and on to Memorial. He had a brilliant career there – and topped it off by being chosen as Mr. Memorial in 1957, the year he graduated with his first degree. He was always proud to be an Old Feildian, irrationally so to those of us who went to Prince of Wales or St. Bon’s. But Carolyn is a very proud Old Collegian. Bill would be the first to say that her acceptance of his marriage proposal, more than 54 years ago, was his saving grace.

Let me recall for you, briefly, an incident that reveals much about Bill Rompkey, the man. In 1992, the province’s government gave a dinner to mark Bill’s 20 years as a Member of the House of Commons, an anniversary few MPs ever achieve. It was held in Goose Bay, at the Labrador Inn. Bill’s brother Ron spoke first. He told us about Bill’s career in the CLB, where he was a member of the CLB Band. Bill became a noted piano player in later years, but that’s not how he began Ron told us. There he was, he went on, “Marching along, carrying his big bass drum – boom, boom, boom.  And he’s still doing it!” The crowd laughed and clapped.

And then it was Bill’s turn to speak. He thanked Ron, and told us how much his family meant to him and how they had supported him unstintingly. But then he looked at Carolyn, and began to sing:

“I can fly higher than an eagle, For you are the wind beneath my wings.”

The entire crowd rose as one, to cheer him. There weren’t many dry eyes among the crowd!

I want to say just a few words about Bill’s books – a part of his life that’s too often overshadowed by his political career. His Story of Labrador is a classic, by far and away the best history of the land he loved so greatly since Gosling wrote his history more than a century ago, and his anthology of Newfoundland’s Second War naval history is a wonderful read. When illness overcame him, he was working on a book about Walter Rockwood, an important figure in post-Confederation government policies about Labrador whose career is too little known. Those of us who care about the story hope that the book will be finished, as Bill would have wanted.

Bill was a student of English literature. All of us here today know John Donne’s famous lines – written 450 years ago, in his 17th Meditation – that “no man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a part of the Continent, a part of the main”. But few recall that Donne went on to say that “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”. All who are here today, and all who knew and loved Bill, have reason to be grateful for his time among us and to remember him and honour his memory. Truly, he was “part of the Main … because [he] was involved in mankind”. We shall not see his like again.

Thank you.

Edward Roberts

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