As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the First World War’s end, a larger-than-life bronze sculpture by Western alumnus Wynn Walters has revived the memory of a Canadian war hero – and started a conversation about so much more.
“The resurrection of Sam Sharpe has been embraced wholeheartedly, by people within our community and by others further afield,” explained Walters, BA’59 (Journalism), whose statue portraying Lt.-Col. Samuel Simpson Sharpe was unveiled this summer in Sharpe’s hometown of Uxbridge, Ont. “We need to have these conversations about mental illness and mental trauma.”
Sharpe was a celebrated soldier and sitting MP who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for gallantry.
When war broke out, he raised a battalion of men from around Durham Region and led them into a number of battles, including Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and Avion. The war took a terrible toll on his men’s lives, as well as on Sharpe himself. Of the 1,145 men in the battalion, fewer than 10 per cent made it home alive.
Sharpe personally wrote a letter of condolence to each one of his men’s families.
Despite his heroics, Sharpe’s memory has been virtually erased from the history books after committing suicide at his Montreal hospital on May 25, 1918.
In the statue, funded by a Canadian Heritage grant matched through community fundraising, Walters portrays Sharpe in a moment of contemplation, rather than the more familiar ‘victory’ or ‘at attention’ pose that define many First World War memorials and statues.
“He is forever caught in the moment of composing a letter to Mary, the wife of his best friend, with a human expression of pain forever etched on his face,” Walters said.
Born in Wales, Walters is a largely self-taught artist, having taken up sculpture full-time after a 26-year career in the telecommunications industry. Practical training and experience came from close working relationships with two prominent sculptors in the United States – Malcolm Harlow and Allan LeQuire.
“I was 17 years old when I left Tenby, a small seaside town in southwest Wales, to board a boat to come to Canada and begin my journey to study at Western,” said Walters, who credits his ability to communicate clearly, in whatever medium he uses, to Bud Wilde, former Western Journalism dean. “I was fortunate that I thrived. But many students today are in crisis, from worrying about the cost of tuition and debt to the reality they will have to re-invent themselves many times over during their careers.”
Walters was one of the four inaugural holders of full international scholarships established by Max Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, the Canadian-British newspaper magnate, for the sons and daughters of UK journalists to study abroad at Canadian universities.
“Both my father and uncle were journalists,” Walters explained. “Western had a good program and it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Delighted at the beauty and vibrancy of Western’s campus, he dove into the complete university experience, from studying to socializing. He left his mark on university history, through his weekly cartoons in the student Gazette, as well as his cover design of the 1959 Western Yearbook.
“Those were the days when there was a total student population of 3,500 and we could publish a yearbook and also hold convocation in Conron Hall,” Walters laughed.
He met the love of his life, Mary Margaret Walters, BScN’61, while at Western. In later Gazette cartoons, he hid the initials “MM” in tribute to her. Finding them was a running joke among his classmates.
After 60 years together, Walters continues to pay tribute to his university sweetheart, including a small carving of MM on the full-scale bronze statue of author Lucy Maud Montgomery he crafted and installed at Montgomery’s home in Leaskdale, Ont.
Walters leveraged his storytelling skills into a career that evolved from journalism, to public relations, to United Nations information officer stationed to Beirut, to VP for Northern Telecom. He confesses, however, that if he had to do it all over again, he would have become an artist much sooner.
“Stories are at the heart of the human experience, whether we use words, metal, wood or stone to express them. Lt.-Col. Sam Sharpe suffered in silence. It is my hope that his statue and story contribute to conversations about how we can do better for people for the next 100 years.”