Ottawa artist discovers ‘forgotten’ sketches of a former PM

OTTAWA — Shirley Van Dusen was decluttering her Ottawa apartment when she rediscovered a compelling chapter of her past in a crumpled cardboard box.

“I was delirious,” said a smiling Van Dusen.

“There they are. And there he is,” she said.

“They” are a series of sketches, drawn by Van Dusen nearly 50 years ago. “He” is John Diefenbaker, Canada’s 13th Prime Minister and a dear family friend.

Van Dusen, now 95 years of age, is a celebrated landscape and portrait painter in the capital. In 1975, the artist went to Diefenbaker’s Parliament Hill office to sketch “The Chief” while he worked. The sketches would aid Van Dusen in the eventual painting of a portrait.

Shirley Van Dusen

“He said to come in and do whatever I want, so I did.”

Diefenbaker, who was no longer Prime Minister, but was sitting as an MP, never posed for Van Dusen. He worked at his desk and took phone calls while Van Dusen observed from her easel in a corner, completing a variety of sketches and taking some photographs.

“He was priceless,” she said.

“That great face and those glittering blue eyes. He was great. And he had a terrific sense of humour,” said a smiling Van Dusen.

Diefenbaker sketch

Shirley did paint his portrait, but it was lost during a devastating fire in her studio. The sketches, however, survived—some slightly water-damaged. She tucked them away and only recently discovered them.

“She’s going through these old boxes and, lo and behold, up pop these forgotten sketches,” said former broadcaster Mark Van Dusen, one of Shirley’s seven children.

“We said, ‘Mom, these are treasures—precious heirlooms,” he said.

The Van Dusens treasure the sketches because they treasured the Diefenbakers.

Shirley’s late husband, Tom Van Dusen, served as Diefenbaker’s executive assistant. Under “The Chief’s” leadership, Van Dusen twice ran in Gatineau for a federal seat in Parliament. The two men were close, and before long, their families were too.

Diefenbaker sketch

“They became very fast friends. More than boss and staff member, but very fast friends,” said Mark Van Dusen.

“Dad had tremendous respect for Mr. Diefenbaker and his wife, Olive. And through that connection, Mr. Diefenbaker, who loved to get out of Ottawa, would come out to our place in Wychwood, outside of Aylmer, Quebec, and later in Russell, to spend a Saturday and Sunday.”

“The Chief loved to come out to Russell because he said it was flat like the West with big skies. They came out quite a bit. They were kind, down to earth, very nice people,” said Shirley.

Over the years, the Van Dusen family collected several items gifted to them by the Diefenbakers. There are autographed photographs, signed books, and engraved silver trays.

Shirley even has a tuxedo, once worn by Diefenbaker, which the former PM gave to her late husband, Tom.

“And Tom wore that tux a lot,” Shirley laughed.

The family’s collection, along with Shirley’s “forgotten sketches” will have a new home in Russell. They are on display at the Russell Historical Society’s Keith M. Boyd Museum.

Diefenbaker sketch

“It’s a miracle the sketches survived,” said museum curator, Harry Baker.

“But because they survived, we’re able to show them off here,” he said.

Russell became Tom and Shirley Van Dusen’s second hometown. The family made profound contributions to the tapestry of life in the community.

“It’s a beautiful little museum and this is the right place for everything,” said Shirley.

“We have kids, grandkids and great grandkids living in Russell, so they can go in and see this when they want,” she said.

Mark Van Dusen believes many Canadians will also want to make the trip to Russell to view the Van Dusen-Diefenbaker collection. The sketches, he believes, provide a rare and poignant glimpse of a fiery orator and eloquent Parliamentarian.

Difenbaker sketch

“These are important to all Canadians. They were done just four years before his death,” said Van Dusen.

“I look at those sketches and if I stop, and listen closely, and let my mind drift a little bit, I can hear that incredible, trademark voice, with the shaking jowls, speechmaking on the radio or television or in the House of Commons.”

And the family’s matriarch, who has spent most of her 95 years at the easel, is grateful for her gift of time with “The Chief”; a gift she is happy to share.

“I’m honoured that this is happening,” she said.

Shirley Van Dusen will continue to honour her gifts—a close, devoted family, and the freedom to do what she loves.

“I’ll be 96 in February, and I’ll paint as long as I can,” she said with a chuckle.

“I know I’ve had a good life and thank you, God.”  

Shirley Van Dusen

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