The death of longtime White Rock resident Eric Griffiths at the age of 91 marks the close of another, earlier chapter in the evolving history of the city.
His passing was marked only by a quiet ashes-scattering ceremony at Victory Memorial Gardens on Aug. 4 – it would have been his 92nd birthday – attended by relatives of his late wife, visiting from Wales, and a small coterie of surviving friends.
In recent years, most locals encountered him as an affable regular at Semiahmoo Shopping Centre’s food court. Widowed, with no children, and long-retired, Griffiths lived, latterly, at Bayview Chateau on Blackwood Street.
But White Rock residents with longer memories recall Griffiths as one of the proprietors, with father Walter, of Midway Motors – a landmark Johnston Road automobile sales and service operation from 1947 until 1973, so-named because it was located midway between the then King George Highway and the beach.
Like his father, Griffiths was known as an enthusiastic, if not-too-skilled, member of the city’s boating community in the decades following the Second World War; he and his father bought their first boat, a 34-foot cruiser christened the Wallerdeeno, in 1952, and he became the first commodore of the White Rock Yacht Club, from 1953-’56.
Indeed, at one time, the Midway Motors building (at 1549 Johnston Road, near the current KFC franchise) was virtually headquarters for many Peninsula boaters; an upstairs clubhouse served as the venue for meetings and dances for the club.
White Rock historian Lorraine Ellenwood said the dances were legendary as riotous affairs in which restraint in imbibing was not notable.
“It had an exterior staircase and I’m surprised, from what I hear, that any of them made it down to the street safely after the dances,” she said. “I would have liked to have been around to see that.”
After White Rock’s breakwater proved inadequate for mooring, and members tried unsuccessfully to form an alliance with other yachting groups, the club closed in 1961. Griffiths became one of the founding directors of the White Rock Power Squadron the same year, and Midway Motors’ clubhouse, in turn, became the venue for squadron activities.
At that time, according to a 50th anniversary history compiled by squadron member John Toews, the Griffiths owned two vessels moored in Blaine Harbor, Wa., the 100-foot wooden Lady Valentine, of 1914 vintage, and the 65-foot Vantonia.
Griffiths, who had been a director of the Kiwanis Club of Peace Arch, was also active in the Masons, serving as worshipful grand master of his lodge.
“He was a strong part of the community,” said Wilf Price, a former employee at Midway Motors.
Stubbornly self-reliant to the end, Griffiths succumbed to a heart attack after being rushed to Peace Arch Hospital on July 26, just days after returning home following surgery for a broken hip.
“He was a very strong-willed man,” said longtime resident Mary Beals. “He was determined he was going to walk again, and he did.”
She recalled Walter and Eric Griffiths first arriving in the city in 1945 – along with Eric’s mother, Olive, and his Welsh war bride Dean (Deanie) – following both men’s service in the war.
Father and son were also Welsh by birth, said Bob Haining, who befriended Eric Griffiths some 10 years ago and compiled a family tree for him. Walter was born in 1900 and Eric in 1920, and the family emigrated to Canada in 1926, Haining said.
Walter Griffiths had also served in the British Army during the First World War. Both he and his son enlisted in the Canadian Army at the outbreak of the Second World War, serving together in England. (Eric Griffiths, first a gunner, and later a lance-bombardier with the Third Canadian Field Regiment, saw active service during the invasion of Sicily and the French and German campaigns).
Ellenwood said the pair were noted at the time as the youngest father and son serving with British forces, and the pair had the distinction of being presented to King George VI in February 1940.
“Eric was very close to his Dad,” Beals said. “He worked with him and for him, and (Dean) did the books for Midway Motors for years and years. They were a very close family, all four of them.”
“They lived in the same house on Marine Drive and Eric and Walter came to work together every day,” Price remembered.
Price, who was first employed by Midway Motors on the lube rack in 1963, spent a decade working there – mostly in the parts department.
The Griffiths’ originally sold and serviced Austins, but by 1953 the company had switched products to become a Chevrolet-General Motors dealership.
“I bought a car from Midway and I think my dad bought his Austin from them,” said local history buff Dave Henderson, who added that Griffiths later gave him some of his early photographs of the dealership.
(Both Haining and Price remember Griffiths as a keen amateur photographer who retained a lively interest in changing photo technology. After Dean died in 2001, Griffiths bought a computer and used it to digitize his photographs. “He went from never having turned a computer on, at age 82, to becoming very proficient in Photoshop,” Haining said.)
Although the senior Griffiths was more the imperious boss, according to Price – “Walter was the owner and everybody else knew that – you didn’t cross Daddy” – he viewed both father and son as “excellent people to work for.”
“They were people-people – they liked meeting and talking with you,” he said.
Walter died in 1971, passing the reins to Eric. After the business folded a few years later, Griffiths devoted his time to caring for Dean, who was in declining health.
“He kept a sharp eye out for her and made sure she was enjoying herself,” said Merv Lowen, who has happy memories of the couple accompanying her, and her late husband, Leo, on numerous post-retirement vacation trips to Palm Springs.
“We had a motor home and they had a Cadillac,” Lowen said. “Dean was a very lovely lady, always so proud about the way she could dress, and she made friends so easily. They were a very close couple. And Eric was so well liked – when he had the car dealership he sold lots.”
Price said he also got to know Griffiths well over their 10-year association at Midway.
“The thing I remember most is his presence,” he said. “He was always friendly – he’d stop on the street and talk to everybody.”
“He was a short man – like a banty rooster,” said Haining, who remembers Griffiths seeming to know everyone at the Semiahmoo Shopping Centre food court, where he had coffee at least three times a week.
“You didn’t want to back him into a corner but he had a wonderful sense of humour – he was liked by everyone.”