Celebrating Leaside’s unsung hero, Bruce Catchpole

Bruce behind the wheel. Photo courtesy Bill Catchpole.
Bruce behind the wheel. Photo courtesy Bill Catchpole.

Inside the Leaside fire hall (Toronto Fire Station #321) at McRae and Randolph, there’s a modest wooden plaque honouring a fallen firefighter named Bruce Catchpole. The plaque only tells us that he died Jan. 26, 1964 “in the line of duty serving the community from this fire hall.” But behind this brief epitaph there’s a bigger story waiting to be told.

Bruce Catchpole plaque at Leaside Firehall.
Bruce Catchpole plaque at Leaside Firehall.

Bruce Catchpole was born in Hamilton, Ont. in 1909 and served in the Canadian Army during World War II at Camp Borden, north of Toronto. In the late 1940s, he moved to Leaside with his wife and young family and purchased a newly built home at 255 Donlea Dr., where he lived for the rest of his life. Soon after arriving in Leaside, he joined the town’s fire department.

Bruce loved being a firefighter, according to his son Bill, who remembers waking up late at night to the sound of his father bounding down the stairs on his way to a fire. “He drove a ladder firetruck with an open cab; it was known as a California cab,” recalls Bill. Bruce not only drove it to fires, he also drove it on special occasions like the department’s annual Fire Prevention Week parade – photos of which are available at Toronto Archives, on the Leaside Heritage Facebook page, and in Jane Pitfield’s (ed.) Leaside.

Bruce Catchpole as Santa Claus. Photo courtesy Margot Nicol.
Bruce Catchpole as Santa Claus. Photo courtesy Margot Nicol.

Margot Nicol, Bruce’s daughter, remembers how her father also used the truck during the department’s Christmas celebrations. “Every year, he played Santa Claus for staff and their families who had assembled at the municipal building on McRae.” The firetruck would arrive at the building, and Bruce, dressed as Santa, would climb the ladder and enter through the second storey window – to the delight of the waiting children.

In 1952, Bruce made the front pages of the Toronto Star when he helped save a five-year-old boy who became lost overnight. Bruce was the first to find the lad, who was stuck in the mud in a ravine off Blythwood Rd. Two years later, he made the news again by rescuing a tourist who had fallen in the Severn River, near Orillia. Despite not knowing how to swim himself, Bruce jumped in and saved the drowning man. When his children asked him afterwards how he had become so wet, this unassuming and modest individual answered simply, “I was in the water.”

Bruce Catchpole died of cancer at the age of 54 – the result of years of exposure to the noxious fumes and hazardous substances he encountered while fighting fires. His daughter recalls that there was an honour guard of firemen at his funeral. Years later, in 2011, through the efforts of his son Bill (who also became a firefighter), his service was officially recognized, and his name added to Toronto’s Fallen Firefighter Memorial Honour Roll. Bruce’s name also appears on the National Firefighters’ Monument in Ottawa. He is buried in Goderich, Ont.

 

About Ted DeWelles 39 Articles
Ted DeWelles is a retired public relations professional and community college professor. A Leaside resident for more than 20 years, Ted currently serves on the board of the Leaside Heritage Preservation Society. He loves reading, cycling and researching and writing about Leaside’s history.