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03 September, 2008


...Being John Diefenbaker's wife

From time to time I am moved to write about individuals who have impressed me as I've journeyed life's pathway. For no particular reason other than the fact that the following is a story that deserves to be told, this is one of those times.
Most Canadians who were witness to the Diefenbaker era in Canadian politics will share a tableau of Rt. Hon. John and Olive Diefenbaker, inseparable. Wherever Mr. Diefenbaker's lengthy political life (Prime Minister 1957-'63) and duties took him, Mrs. Diefenbaker was usually alongside.

No outsider can put into adequate words the deep bonds of affection and understanding that make a close marital relationship. The strength of the Diefenbaker's marriage was evident, however, in their public life together. There remains a lasting image of Olive on public platforms, travelling, mingling with crowds, always self-composed, an unobtrusive influence, her presence and personal warmth an obvious source of pride and support for her husband. Theirs was a touching public companionship. "Dief the Chief", as he was affectionately called, could certainly be difficult and testy at times, but in Olive's presence he was as soft as warm butter.

"The whole direction of my life is that I am John's wife," Mrs. Diefenbaker said in an interview in 1975. She attributed the strength of their relationship partly to the fact that they married in maturity, both in their 50s as widow and widower. In total they had 23 years together.

Then Managing Editor of The Herald in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (Dief's home riding), I undertook a special edition of the newspaper honoring the former prime minister on his 80th birthday, September 18, 1975. In conjunction with the tribute edition, I was granted a rare interview with Mrs. Diefenbaker that resulted in one of my longest conversations with her -- but virtually no story.

I envisioned a feature piece based on Olive's impressions and opinions. The "My Life With John Diefenbaker as told by Oliver Diefenbaker" theme, I thought, would be a natural. We talked openly and casually for the better part of 90 minutes and she volunteered for the first time several personal details that would have been journalistic scoops in the day and fodder for some stimulating reading.

As the interview drew to a close, however, she interjected in her quiet, yet persuasive manner: "Of course, you will not be printing any of this, will you?" Talk about a letdown. I hardly knew how to respond.

She went on to explain that it was her policy to stay in the background and never become involved in publicity of any kind. "The minute he (John) became prime minister in 1957 I never opened my peeper again," she said convincingly. "I would prefer that if you write anything, that you put into your own words the love that John has for his fellow man. That's it -- love, and they love him too! He has done so much for people. No one will ever know how much. I hope you understand," she added.

I was trying very hard to understand, and at least I felt honored that she confided in me as much as she did. At that point I did not have the heart to negotiate with her. I later tore up my notes and manufactured a rather nebulous piece for the special edition which, I was told later, met with the Diefenbakers' approval. In fact, Dief was "deeply touched" by the edition as a whole. Needless to say he held nothing back when it came time for his interview.

Olive suffered the first in a series of strokes several months later and Mr. Diefenbaker had tears in his eyes as he sat in my office at The Herald and sadly reported: "My dear wife is slipping badly but she remains in good spirits. She puts up a good front for my sake, I know. She is just an amazing woman."

As Olive was forced to share John will all of Canada, he shared her with his "fellow Canadians". Throughout the last year of her life, in and out of hospital, Mrs. Diefenbaker received a steady flow of mail from people across Canada expressing concern and affection. Until shortly before her last illness, she was still handwriting replies to her mail at a daily rate that reached in excess of 50 personal messages.
John did not last long after Olive passed away. His heart was broken and I know he could not live without her.
She may never have "opened her peeper", but many aging Canadians like me remember the charm that warmed hundreds of encounters on the political campaign trail and countless social functions across the country. Olive Diefenbaker was always there, at John's side. Attentive, serene.

Her mold has apparently been broken.
Here endeth recent dissertations on marriage and mothers and fathers, none too soon in Rosanne's mind. "People don't want to read that sort of thing and if they do they can go to Dr. Spock or somebody like that," she says with earnest expression. Wives really know how to make a good point, don't they?

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