The Leasider behind Elmer the Safety Elephant

Elmer celebrates his 40th birthday with Ontario school children. ORONTO STAR, OCT. 27, 1987.
Elmer celebrates his 40th birthday with Ontario school children. TORONTO STAR, OCT. 27, 1987.

The Leaside Heritage Preservation Society (LHPS) recently received an interesting item from a generous donor: a certificate of recognition from the Town of Leaside, dated October 1966. This was just before Leaside was to merge with East York, and many of Leaside’s key community leaders received these certificates as a parting “thank you” for their service. The document acquired by the LHPS was awarded to one Vernon Page. His name may be unfamiliar to people today, but 60 to 70 years ago, virtually everyone in Leaside knew who Vernon Page was.

As a young man, Vernon Page (or “Vern,” as he was often called) was one of the best-known officers on the Toronto police force. Joining in 1935, he steadily climbed the ranks to become the youngest inspector in the department’s history in 1948. He was a big man with a muscular physique acquired in his youth as a champion swimmer. When he was still a fresh recruit, the Toronto Star ran an article spotlighting Page’s height (6ft. 2in.) and his shoe size (12) – the largest on the force.

Page’s focus throughout most of his police career was on traffic safety – especially child safety. He considered the automobile “an atom bomb with wheels,” and did everything in his power – giving speeches, interviews, radio broadcasts, etc. – to educate the public on its safe operation. His most significant achievement in this area was partnering in 1947 with Toronto Mayor Robert Saunders to launch the “Elmer the Safety Elephant” project across Toronto schools. Within the first year of its operation, traffic accidents involving children fell by 44 per cent – even as car registrations rose. He was also instrumental in introducing an early version of the breathalyzer (termed a “drunkometer” by the Toronto Star) to control drunk driving, and ordered all the cars in Toronto’s traffic squad painted bright yellow to make them more visible to motorists.

Page’s association with Leaside began around 1952, when he left the police force after 17 years of service and bought a home at 52 Rykert Cresc. Taking a job as safety director at Kingsway Transports Ltd., based in Toronto and Etobicoke, he also entered local politics. He served for three years as a Leaside municipal councillor, running for mayor in 1958 against incumbent Charles Hiscott. Page lost badly to Hiscott and left politics for a while. But it was in his blood, and he returned to Leaside council in the early 1960s, serving as reeve from 1963-1966. During this time, he also wrote a weekly column for the Leaside Advertiser on local community matters called “This and That from Here and There.”

Page was a fiscal conservative who advocated low-to-moderate taxes, sound administration and strong controls on new development – while always maintaining his commitment to road safety. He was a passionate defender of single-family homeowners and Leaside’s unique residential/industrial character. He loved and took pride in his community – so much so that in 1964 he proposed to council that Leaside develop its own flag displaying the town’s coat-of-arms and its colours of green and gold. Council unanimously supported the idea; unfortunately, the flag never became a reality.

Following Leaside’s merger with East York in 1967, Page continued in local politics – serving six more years as an alderman on the newly formed borough council. For most of this time he also continued to work as safety director at Kingsway Transport until his retirement from that company in 1970. He then became a member of the Ontario Highway Transport board, where he served until 1980. He died at the age of 73 in July 1987 – still living at 52 Rykert, with his wife Anne.

In a letter to the Toronto Star following his death, a former Leasider praised Page as a “very patient listener” who believed that if “I listen long enough to even the humblest of our citizens, I will gain some wisdom.” 

A few years later, in 1993, Page was further acknowledged when his wife Anne was presented with an award honouring her husband’s work in child traffic safety. Conspicuously present at the ceremony was an old acquaintance – Elmer the Safety Elephant (or rather someone dressed to resemble Elmer).

I suspect Vern Page would have approved.

About Ted DeWelles 40 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.