When Port Hardy’s William Reeve visited a Canadian war cemetery in France to pay his respects to fallen soldiers, he had no idea that one day he would be tracking down the family members of a Parksville man who lay buried there, to reunite them with a piece of family history.
Since 2016, Reeve has been on the hunt for the relatives of Private Alexander Edwin Shaw, after his friend Heather Jones discovered a Memorial Cross pendant amongst her things while packing for a move.
The Memorial Cross, or Silver Cross as it’s more commonly known, is awarded to mothers and widows of Canadian soldiers who died as a result of active duty.
In the mid-1980s, Jones’s mother–in–law worked at Arrowsmith Lodge, a care facility in Parksville. Her husband had purchased a suitcase from a garage sale held by the Lodge.
It wasn’t until years later than the family discovered the Silver Cross medal tucked deep within the suitcase, which had been owned by a resident named Molly Shaw.
Reeve has an extensive background in family history and genealogy research, and Jones had asked him to try and track down any living relatives of Shaw’s that might be interested in having the piece of family history.
Digging into family history is a particular fascination of Reeve’s.
“It’s kind of like a hobby – a detective work hobby, with no blood and gore and dead bodies and court cases. Finding out what became of people, or who their ancestors were, or why they went where and what they did and so on,” said Reeve.
Reeve is originally from Port Hardy, but often spends time in Parksville.
He’s researched the Shaw family, and found that they have deep roots in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area.
“Apparently they go back to the mid–1800s in Nanaimo. He was born in Coombs, or Parksville, or Qualicum Beach – somewhere in this area. Before he went to the service he was here most of his life, or all of his life,” said Reeve.
“I’ve actually put together in the computer a little family tree for this Shaw family. Which I will pass a copy of to the people to whom I give this Silver Cross.”
Using online records kept by Veteran Affairs Canada, he’s tracked down a bit of information about Private Alexander Edwin Shaw.
The date of Shaw’s death is listed as July 24, 1944. He rests now in Beny–Sur–Mer Canadian War Cemetery outside Calvados, France, the resting place of Canadian soldiers killed in the early stages of the Battle of Normandy.
Using a combination of birth, marriage and death records at the provincial archives, Reeve has been able to successfully track Shaw’s relatives.
The death records in the archives tend to only appear about 20 years after someone’s death, but he says that’s where obituaries pick up the trail. They often list living family members.
“Where the death records in the archives disappear, because they’re too recent, the obits in the newspaper take off. They only go back about 10-12 years, but they’re helpful,” said Reeve.
In this way, he’s been able to track down Cilka LaTrace from Black Creek – Private Shaw’s granddaughter. He had spoken to another grandchild, but wanted to make sure he was giving the medal to the person in the family who would value it most. LaTrace seemed like the right candidate.
“She or her brother have the other medals awarded to this serviceman for his service in the Second World War. They had kind of wondered why there was no Silver Cross amongst them, but they hadn’t really obsessed about it,” said Reeve.
He was meeting up with LaTrace and her husband to hand the medal off on Remembrance Day.
For Reeve, the conclusion to this puzzle piece is satisfying.
“It’s a feeling of accomplishment. You know, it’s not like I’ve discovered a cure for some disease, but at the end of days, weeks, sometimes years of research – to actually reach the conclusion and actually solve the problem gives you a good feeling of accomplishment,” said Reeve.
It’s far from the only project for Reeve. He’s trying to track two other military service project medals, and has made good progress on another one, recently tracking down a living relative in Calgary for a medal awarded to a family member in 1953.
“I have many projects on the go,” said Reeve with a laugh.
Check back for part two of this story, where Reeve connects with Cilka LaTrace to hand off the medal.