After he lost his home, his wife and his life — a seemingly-forgotten Prince Rupert World War II veteran will finally be laid to rest beside his wife with full military honours.
Since his death, 22 years ago, his ashes resided in a small black box, his extended family in Burns Lake unsure of how to handle their uncle’s burial.
That was until a year ago, when a former RCMP officer contacted The Northern View wondering what had happened to the homeless man he had often been forced to place in a jail cell.
Wendel Ottmann, who had been stationed in Prince Rupert in the late ‘80s, always remembered his encounters with the homeless man living in a cardboard box in the remnants of a burnt-out hotel. Those memories often doused with humour and hardship.
In his retirement, Ottmann contacted The Northern View from his home in Saskatchewan to find out if the man had been given the proper funeral deserving of a former military member.
“His story represents, to me, the plague of homelessness,” Ottmann said. “For whatever reason they just fell off the track and they’re living basically in the dumps and that bothers me.”
The search for this one homeless man began last January, and a year after digging up records, memories, locating family members and sorting through the layers of bureaucracy — a funeral for Earl Corliss is planned for Feb. 25 at 11 a.m. at the Fairview Cemetery.
Where We Left Off
Earl’s story was published in The Northern View on Nov. 23 without a conclusion.
But throughout the area, people began to contact us remembering the man as a kind neighbour, a distant relative, or the guy they knew who once lived on the streets.
“I remember him stopping me on the street as I was taking a can of worms and my fishing rod down to Hays Creek,” wrote Chris Hebb. “He grabbed one of the worms and put it in his mouth and pretended to eat it. Then he took it out and laughed.”
The Last Post Fund, a federal government program that provides veterans with grave markers, had agreed to deliver a headstone to Earl, with his wife’s name — Salome — included in the engraving. The program would also pay for Earl to be interred with Salome, who had been buried at the Fairview Cemetery in 1979.
During our investigation, The Northern View had discovered that Earl’s family in Burns Lake had his unburied ashes but they didn’t have a cremation certificate or the proper paperwork to move ahead with the interment. The City of Prince Rupert needed to connect with the family to work out the details but Earl’s 82-year-old nephew, George, has been unwell and his wife, Rhoda had been driving him to and from appointments in Prince George.
The tragic story of Earl Corliss was at a standstill — he couldn’t be given a proper burial beside his wife.
Two weeks after the publication of the Earl Corliss story, a phone call came into the Northern View office.
Gwen Tait was calling from Lax Kw’alaams. She had just read the article and saw the wedding photo of Earl and Salome in the paper. She recognized her great auntie right away.
“My father didn’t know anything about what happened to Earl,” she said. “I knew right away when I saw the picture. I knew that was my grandmother’s sister.”
After she called the newsroom, Tait made a call to the city. As a family member, she was able to order the cremation certificate from MacKay’s Funeral Home in Terrace.
“It’s really weird how it came back to me, to us. I’m just happy to be of some help to put him to rest beside his wife,” she said over the phone.
The Ball Starts Rolling
From the moment Salome’s family in Lax Kw’alaams connected with the City of Prince Rupert, the ball started rolling. Public works agreed to remove the old weathered stone on Salome’s gravesite, to prepare for the headstone provided by the Last Post Fund.
Ottmann continued his involvement from Saskatchewan. Although he won’t be able to travel to Prince Rupert for the service, he took it upon himself to purchase an urn for $330 from the Royal Canadian Legion store in Ottawa.
“Every penny of that is worth it, because I’ve seen what Earl went through, walking the alleys at night looking for food, other times he’d be down in his box when it was pouring rain or snowing out. I can’t forget that,” he said.
The service continued to grow to include a memorial by Chaplain Derry Bott, attended by cadets, RCMP and family members of Earl and Salome. The Prince Rupert Royal Canadian Legion is holding a reception to follow.
But there was one last remaining piece — who was going to bring Earl home?
Hand painted wood and a poem by Earl Corliss. CONTRIBUTED/THE NORTHERN VIEW
As the details fell into place, there was still the matter of picking up Earl’s ashes from Burns Lake. One City of Prince Rupert employee stepped up to the plate and agreed to pick the veteran up on her way back from holidays.
Danielle Dalton, the customer service coordinator with the city, made a stop in Burns Lake on her way back to the North Coast from visiting family. She met with Rhoda, her son Keith and her daughter, Debby. George wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t join them.
The family shared memories of their uncle and auntie. They brought poems of nature he’d written, and a polished piece of wood he’d painted.
“Earl had a family, a vibrant exciting family who loved him. They offered Earl a home, it’s not like he was totally abandoned, but Earl made his own choices,” Dalton said, reflecting on their conversations.
Along with sharing memories of her uncle, Rhoda brought a black shoe box — inside was a smaller black box carrying Earl’s ashes. The man in the cardboard box was ready to return home.
Debby Chaisson, with Rhoda Corliss holding Earl’s remains in a shoe box beside Cary Dalton and Keith Corliss. PHOTO BY DANIELLE DALTON
This Saturday, Feb. 25, Earl will be laid to rest next to his wife Salome, who many called a classy woman who could cook up a storm.
“They were life-long companions,” Rhoda said.
Over the past year, I have been in back-and-forth contact with Rhoda over the phone, she doesn’t have email. I gave Rhoda a call a week before the memorial to see how she felt about the outcome of the situation. She surprised me by saying she plans to make the trip with her son and his wife, fingers crossed, she hopes George’s health will allow him to join as well.
But even with his interment, the story isn’t quite finished.
Wendel Ottmann breathed life back into the forgotten tale of the homeless veteran, and he continues to foster the momentum to bring Earl — and others like him — peace.
He has been busy planting the seed with multiple levels of government that Prince Rupert needs a homeless shelter for men — and to call it the “Earl Corliss Village.”
A poem by Earl Corliss, handwritten by his relative Debby Chaisson.
To be continued with Part III in the March 1 issue of The Northern View