The last commander

Roger St. John remembered as a brilliant and compassionate man

Chilliwack Times, Friday, September 18, 2009

The community of Chilliwack has suffered a second major loss as CFB Chilliwack's last base commander, Roger St. John, passed away Tuesday morning.

St. John, 65, suffered three massive strokes over the weekend, which ultimately resulted in brain death.

St. John served as base commander of CFB Chilliwack from 1994 until its closure in 1997 when he retired after 32 years of military service. In January of 2008, St. John was appointed colonel commandant of the Canadian Military Engineer (CME) Branch. The honourary title is presented to a retired officer who has served with distinction. The position is the second highest rank within the CME Branch, after the colonel-in-chief, her Majesty the Queen.

For retired Chief Warrant Officer Tom Walton, St. John represented what was great and honourable about military life. Their friendship began almost 40 years ago when St. John took command of the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

"He was an outstanding personality," Walton said. "I was a corporal and he was a captain but we just hit it off."

One of Walton's favourite memories was a visit St. John paid him in the wee hours of the morning while stationed in Yugoslavia.

"When he came over he went looking for me specifically," he recalled. "He woke me up because he wanted someone to talk to. I had to get up and have a beer with him. Roger and I were more than pretty tight."

Walton and St. John kept in touch throughout their military careers, including a stint when the Turkish army invaded Cyprus and fatalities occurred.

"He was one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew," said Walton fondly. "He led by example with a heart as big as they come."

St. John was a former president of the Rotary Club of Chilliwack (2003-2004). His death follows that of former Friday club president and community stalwart Ron Goldfinch, who passed away Sept. 5.

"The entire club is in a big state of mourning," said current president Terri Powers. "It's a difficult time for the club."

Powers said St. John was a driving force behind the club's Centennial Park project.

"He was very instrumental in carrying that park through," she said. "Roger was brilliant, incredibly active socially and with his volunteering. He was a hugely compassionate man."

Although St. John had traveled the world through his military career, he chose Chilliwack as his home after retiring and "jumped into the community," said close friend John Lee.

"I met him after he retired and we became close friends; our wives connected," he said. "I remember he had a tremendous rapport with young people."

It was St. John's ability to put people at ease that Lee admired.

"When you spoke to Roger, you knew he wanted to relate to you," he said. "He was a man with a real balance in his life . . . a complete man."

St. John's distinguished career included responsibilities such as command engineer for the army. After the local base closure, St. John was assigned as the deputy engineer/corps engineer brigade commander of NATO's Implementation Force in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

St. John's extensive accomplishments were served in various military headquarters in Canada and overseas. He was the commanding officer of 22 Field Squadron in Gagetown, N.B. Missions overseas included a peacekeeping tour in Cyprus, and assignments with NATO in West Germany and the UN in Pakistan.

St. John was also involved with Chilliwack Big Brothers, Chilliwack Hospice Society and was a board member of the B.C. Corps of Commissionaires.

His wife Joy and daughters Michelle and Danielle survive St. John, who was born in Vancouver in 1944.

As of press time, a funeral service had yet to be announced.

 Chilliwack Times 2009

'Last commander of CFB Chilliwack' passes suddenly, MLA says


commander of CFB Chilliwack, was announced in the BC Legislature Tuesday by Chilliwack-Hope MLA Barry Penner.

St. John, 65, passed away early Tuesday morning after a sudden illness.

"Roger served our country very well, in a distinguished and dignified way, representing the Canadian Armed Forces overseas, participating in various peacekeeping missions on behalf of our country," Penner said in a statement.

St. John was named CFB Chilliwack commander in 1994 and presided over the difficult years of its closure in 1997 showing "respect for the community and all the forces in Chilliwack held their heads high with him at the lead," Penner said.

Last year, St. John was named the Colonel Commandant of the Canadian Military Engineers.

He was also a past president of the Rotary Club of Chilliwack and involved in several community organizations including Big Brothers and the Chilliwack Hospice Society.

St. John was born in Vancouver in 1944 and joined the Royal Westminster Regiment in 1959.

His military career included a peacekeeping tour in Cyprus in 1974, and an assignment to NATO's Central Army Group Headquarters in Heidelberg, West Germany.

In 1988 he was promoted to Colonel and assigned to Pakistan the next year as head of a mine-clearing and training program for Afghan refugees.

After CFB Chilliwack closed in 1997 he was named deputy engineer of a NATO force in wartorn Sarajevo, Bosna-Herzegovina.

St. John retired from the military in 1998, but his service to country and community continued through a consulting company he formed that specialized in emergency management.

Penner said St. John "cared passionately about his community, but even more so for his family, particularly his daughters Michelle and Danielle, and most importantly, his wife Joy."

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