Earl Corliss as a young man. This photo was provided for by Rhoda Corliss.

The Last Post: The search for the man in the cardboard box

Near the end of his life, he lived in a cardboard box in the pit of an old burnt down hotel.

Near the end of his life, he lived in a cardboard box in the pit of an old burnt down hotel.

On rainy nights, he would cause a disturbance forcing the RCMP to deal with the unruly man who often played this game to rest his head in the warmth of a jail cell.

For those who knew him before his wife passed in 1979, they remember him differently, as an outdoorsman and a saw filer who could make the toothed tool sing.

Very few knew that this seeming dredge of society had once scribbled his name down to join the militia in Prince Rupert after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Only one person seemed to remember that this man, who spent the last portion of his life living in a cardboard box, had sworn to defend his country.

Former RCMP officer, Wendel Ottmann, had many encounters with this homeless man who was barely surviving in that burnt-out hotel.

Ottmann later learned that this man, who caused trouble to escape the cold and rain, was in fact once a decorated soldier.

Despite only being stationed in Prince Rupert for a short time during the early ‘80s, the encounters stayed with Ottmann — he couldn’t shake the memory of that WWII veteran in his seventies who had been living in a cardboard box.

“It had always bothered me that he was going to die and at no time was it mentioned in our records that he had a family. It bothered me that he would be buried very close to a pauper’s grave and there would be almost no markings of him,” Ottmann said to me over the phone.

The near 40-year-old memory stayed with him, and in January 2016, it prompted him to call the funeral home in Prince Rupert to find out if the homeless veteran he remembered had been buried.

But no one returned his call.

Ottmann didn’t leave it there. He was still disturbed that there seemed to be no trace of this veteran. He had to know whether or not the man had received the proper honour he deserved in death, the dignity he may not have had in life.

The homeless man Ottmann was searching for was Earl Corliss.

The search begins

After no response from the funeral home, Ottmann contacted The Northern View publisher and editor Todd Hamilton about Earl Corliss, the homeless man he knew from the ‘80s.

“It is my sincere intent that Earl (as I knew him) receive a proper headstone if he does not already have one,” Ottmann wrote in January. If he didn’t, he mentioned that there is a federal government program — the Last Post Fund — that provides veterans with a military grave marker.

Hamilton, knowing my attachments to the military, as my childhood friend had served in Afghanistan multiple times, forwarded the email to me. He asked me to look into what happened to Earl, and if Corliss was indeed a veteran of World War II.

With few details to start with, I called Ferguson Funeral Home to see if they had any records of an Earl Corliss. They didn’t.

After, we put out an advertisement in The Northern View to find out if anyone in the community knew the man — we were surprised, people began to call in to share their memories of him.

One of the first callers was Dorothy Bagshaw. It was Bagshaw who offered the first real breadcrumb that led me to the full story of Earl Corliss.

He had a wife — Salome.

Earl Corliss with his wife Salome on their wedding day Dec. 12, 1942. Photo provided for by Rhoda Corliss.

The first breadcrumbs

Earl Corliss had lived on 317 9th Avenue West in a cute little house with his wife Salome, Bagshaw recalled.

“Salome could cook up a storm. She used to make shortbread, it was outstanding,” she said.

Marlene Dileta, a former care aid from the hospital and Acropolis Manor, a residential care facility, called in to say she had worked with Earl for five years.

She remembered that the harsh winter weather had got the best of him. He was found with frostbite on his toes and fingers, Dileta said, his condition was crippling and he could no longer live on the streets.

“There would have been nobody going to the funeral,” Dileta said, but she recommended I call the funeral home to see if he was there. I had already tried that, and still no leads as to where he might be buried or the exact year of his death.

The next call was from someone who had been equally curious as to what happened to Earl. Diana Jackson, a member of the Prince Rupert Genealogy Club, and a former nurse, who would often see Earl at the hospital in the ’80s where he would spend the night when he had nowhere else to go.

“I may have a lead,” she told me. The club has photographed every gravestone, including Salome’s, but they have never been able to find Earl.

She knew that he was cremated in Terrace, and that the ashes had been shipped back to Prince Rupert where they remained at the funeral home until someone claimed them. I called Ferguson’s again, they didn’t know who had taken the ashes.

Jackson decided to reopen her investigation on Earl and a week later I received an email from her full of breadcrumbs.

The Story of Earl Corliss

Earl Danford Corliss was born in Medina, North Dakota in 1909.

In 1920, his parents, along with eight children, immigrated to Canada and ended up at Uncha Lake, Burns Lake district. According to the Canada Voters List, Earl registered in 1949 as a carpenter living in Prince Rupert, and in 1972 he registered as a labourer in Burns Lake.

Earl’s brother, Clarence Mitchel lived in the Burns Lake area, and his son George still lives there with his wife Rhoda — now the closest living relatives to Earl.

The genealogy club gave me a glimmer of hope — George and Rhoda’s contact details.

Before I called George and Rhoda, I reached out to the Last Post Fund to find out if they would actually do something for Earl, should we ever find out where he was buried.

Yes, they could. But I had to provide his death certificate.

As Earl had passed more than 20 years ago, the bureaucratic hurdles were many but incredibly the death certificate came through the mail a week after my request.

Earl was 85 years old when he died in Prince Rupert on Feb. 5, 1995. Concrete evidence made Earl seem more real than the memories I was jotting down on a notepad.

I sent the certificate to the Last Post Fund and they opened a file on Earl. Then another piece of the puzzle fell into place, they sent his service details — he was indeed a veteran.

Earl Corliss's attestation papers for entering the militia of Canada during World War II in Prince Rupert.

From March 31, 1943 until Oct. 24, 1944 he was a private in the Canadian Army. Yet, decades later he ended up living on the streets in Prince Rupert. Many people in the community who called in remembered him as a heavy drinker. But how he fell through the cracks remains hazy.

The Last Post needed to know where Earl was buried to arrange his military grave marker.

It was time to call his closest relatives in Burns Lake.

Earl’s family

Rhoda picked up the phone. Her voice lifted when I mentioned Earl’s name. Connecting with his family was another minor victory. She told me about his outdoorsy nature, his complicated upbringing of looking after his siblings when he father was away for long periods, and his love for Salome.

Earl Corliss with his nieces, Frances and Eleanor Corliss. Photo provided for by Rhoda Corliss.

They used to visit Earl quite a bit, and at one point the couple stayed in Burns Lake with them until Salome got homesick and wanted to go back to the coast.

Toward the end of his life, when he was alone, Rhoda said they’d go visit him and they found him living under a sidewalk.

I asked her where Earl was buried.

“We drove down together and picked up the little he had, which wasn’t much,” she said. They never received any paperwork regarding his ashes, only the few belongings he had.

Rhoda and George were unsure what to do with his ashes.

“We just figured we would try to get back down to Prince Rupert, because we knew Aunty was buried down there, and since that was where he was when he died and they had been together so long it just seemed like that was where he should be.”

But then health problems arose in their own home and the complication of getting the right paperwork has kept Earl above ground.

These days Rhoda, 79, makes frequent trips to the University Hospital of Northern British Columbia in Prince George for her 82-year-old husband whose health is deteriorating.

I put Rhoda in touch with the Last Post Fund, which agreed to pay for the opening and closing of the grave to place him next to Salome in Fairview Cemetery. He will also have a military grave marker, and his wife’s name would be included on the stone — her own marker is worn and barely legible.

After months of searching for Earl, finding his relatives, who have agreed to bury him next to his wife, and receiving approval from the Last Post Fund to give him the military marker that Ottmann thought he deserved, there remains one last problem — he needs to be buried.

Salome Clara Corliss's grave stone is now barely legible. This photo was taken by the Prince Rupert Genealogy Club at the Fairview Cemetery.

The Last Post postponed

But you can’t just bury a body or ashes without the proper paperwork.

Rhoda contacted the cemetery and they said she needed a couple certificates before they could open the grave.

“I have so much going on here at home I never pursued anything further,” she said. “I had no idea where to get a certificate of cremation.”

At this point, Private Earl Corliss, a World War II veteran, has still not been laid to rest.

The City of Prince Rupert is responsible for the cemetery and said it would work with the family to help them with the bureaucratic details.

Nearly a month later, Rhoda said she hadn’t heard anything from the City of Prince Rupert but she appreciated all I had done to try.

Regretfully, the story of Earl Corliss seems to have no end.

The natural, seemingly logical and deserved conclusion would have been when the ashes were brought back to Prince Rupert, where Earl could be buried with his wife Salome, and a new headstone would have been erected that honoured his service in the Canadian military.

Instead, paperwork and bureaucracy have put a halt to the process and a veteran of World War II may end up just as homeless in death as he did in life.