Nestor Prisco, one of North Bay’s unofficial historians, and I dropped by Antiques at Deegan’s March 3 for a chat with ‘Mr. Downtown’ Ralph Diegel, 96.
We talked about his youth growing up in Ferris, scouts, Camp Tillicum, cadets, his Second World War service in the Royal Canadian Navy and much more. Highlights of the conversation made for a popular video with almost 400 views in just a few days on Small Town Times YouTube channel (you can watch it in this web browser below).
The Back in the Bay Magazine will convert some of the interview into a feature that goes with a special West Ferris section in the Spring 2023 edition.
This interview is a follow up from the 2019 one I conducted prior to his North Bay Kiwanis Walk of Fame star presentation and a feature in the now-defunct A Bit of the Bay Magazine’s November edition, which included a great spread spread on the city’s military past. See the 2019 story at the end of this post.
Naturally, we also talked about how he came to work at and then own Deegan’s Shoes, Canada’s longest running shoe store with 133 years of continuous operation. It’s now called Antiques at Deegan’s, run by his wife, Pat Kenzie Diegel.
“Never be satisfied, never give up”
Work on self-improvement every day and lend a hand to others who are struggling. Those were the basic philosophical tenants Ralph Diegel prescribed for others to consider as North Bay was preparing to honour ‘Mr. Downtown’ in 2019. Diegel, now 96 and still sharper than most, was among five local icons to be celebrated with a Kiwanis – Downtown North Bay Walk of Fame Star that year. At the time, his Deegan’s Shoe Store on Main Street was the oldest independent shoe store in Canada at 130 years, setting the bar high as far as retail resilience as well as a life-time of community service.
It was a different world in the fall of 2019, before the COVID pandemic.
The video interview I did that year was conducted Oct. 24 before he played Last Post at the service for fellow legionnaire Madeleine Eisen, who had passed away. Diegel has always stepped forward when it came to honour and duty. A couple weeks later, at Remembrance Day 2019, the Canadian Navy veteran of the Second World War played Taps once more as part of the Br. 23 Royal Canadian North Bay Legion commemoration at Memorial Gardens. And then the decades-long Legionnaire, Rotarian – a Paul Harris Fellowship member – helped kick off the last ‘normal’ Salvation Army Christmas Kettle Campaign for a while.
The story below is from the 2019 interview:
“Do the best you can with what you got,” the respected and humble gentleman advised while adding the secret is to not rest on your laurels or wallow in your misery. “Never be satisfied, always try to be better. Always try to improve yourself one way or another.”
Ralph Diegel understands life can be hard and keeps in mind that not everyone has had an easy time of it. “Never give up, keep struggling … Remember where you came from, we all have roots … you just have to try hard to remember the good things.”
Diegel said making little improvements to your own life adds up eventually and helping others is part of it. “If you can, do something for your fellow man to improve his lot … that’s important too, that’s been my philosophy.”
He enlisted in the navy in 1943 after being in the Royal Sea Cadets through high school. He recalls morning assemblies when the local Second World War casualties were announced, something that made an impression on all the students at the time.
“If you are of age, what do you do? I went along with the majority,” he said, describing how his basic training was in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) and he was shipped to the East Coast to serve afterward. He feels fortunate not to have been involved in combat action.
Diegel, who celebrated his 93rd birthday Oct. 27, said his grandfather was in the First World War while his father missed the chance to serve. “My father was too young (for the Great War) and was too old for the second one, so his son had to do his part,” he said, noting his Dad, John ‘Jack’ Diegel worked for the Ontario Northland Railway and was an “excellent” trumpet player.
“Naturally I had to pick it up too,” he said.
Diegel was 13 when he and his Dad played for the ONR band that performed at the Toronto Exhibition in 1939. “And when I got into the navy, it didn’t matter which ship I was on, I was the ship’s bugler.”
Inducted into the North Bay Musicians and Entertainers Hall of Recognition in 2011, the plaque at the North Bay Mall installation says he played for the T.&N.O. Band, Rocco Lucenti Orchestra, Eighth Field Squadron Band, North Bay Concert Band, Salvation Army Brass Band and Norm Mauro’s Orchestra.
Diegel said he recalls playing at the Empire Saturday nights and service club gigs Fridays. “Now, if I can do the Last Post at the Legion (and play Sundays for the Salvation Army) I think I am doing well,” he said.
His first job in North Bay after returning from service was with Price Signs but the owner of Deegan’s Shoe Store was also the uncle of his fiancé, Gwen Darling, and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse … an indoor job, more pay and an opportunity to buy the business over time.”
He had two children with Gwen before she passed on about 25 years ago and then married Pat Kenzie Diegel, who moved her own antique shop to the north side of Main Street to combine their businesses.
“I can’t complain a bit, I had a lot of good years,” Diegel said. “I was very fortunate I had good parents … and when my time came to enlist (in the military) I figured it was my duty to do so, which I did, and I survived. And I was fortunate enough to marry a good woman, and she passed on and I found another woman … she’d lost her husband and we threw our kit bags together and we are enjoying our later years,” he said before commenting on the qualities of this community.
“North Bay is a great place to live, great place to raise a family with a good education system and the weather is not too bad, nice variety. When you think about it, we’re pretty lucky, it’s not all bad,” he said, estimating the pros and cons of life in the Gateway of the North is about 60:40. “You could live in places that are worse.”
Diegel credits his relatively good health to relatively clean living. “Stay away from the booze and cigarettes and you’ll be alright, eh? Don’t need that. I have never smoked … I get pretty hot but I’ve never smoked,” he joked.
But judging others at first blush is not something he likes to do.
“We all make the odd mistake … I haven’t been perfect you know, I committed the odd sin here and there,” he said. “You have to remember where the other guy came from; you don’t know what his lot in life has been. Most of us in Canada have been pretty fortunate, but some people haven’t had it as well off as we have.
“So I try to keep that in the back of my mind. I have been the luckiest bastard so I can’t complain. The world has been good to me.”
Ralph Diegel highlights:
- Second World War veteran (1943-46)
- National President of the Canadian Shoe Retailers Association in the 1960s.
- Served as Commanding Officer of the 104th Brilliant Sea Cadets working on regional committees retaining officer’s rank for 37 years
- Br. 23 Royal Canadian North Bay Legion service with regular duty assisting Remembrance Day services.
- Has assisted local, provincial and national campaigns of the Salvation Army for more than 54 years, including 40 years performing for the Salvation Army Band wherever they travelled.
- North Bay Rotarian for 60 years, was president in 1967, and has been recognized with various awards, including YMCA Peacemaker and Paul Harris Fellowship.
- North Bay Figure Skating Club supporter for 52 years
- Long-serving member of Downtown North Bay (formerly Downtown Improvement Area) and has been involved with Downtown’s Old Christmas Walk for 30 years.
Writer, photographer and proud father. My mom’s family is from the Soo with its Algoma Highlands, dad hailed from Cobden in the Ottawa Valley and I spent my teen years in Capreol. Summers were at the beach on the Vermillion River and winters at ‘The Rink.’ Born in East York but Toronto never was my thing. Ever since a kid looking out the window on long trips, I imagined living on the highway in a little house with a big yard and trees growing all around me.