John Bédard, 87, died with his wife and sons by his side at his home in San Diego, California on 10 September 2012. A decorated veteran of both World War II and the Korean conflict, he was born into a Québec winter on 28 December 1924 to Delphis and Amabilis (n Hébert) Bédard near present day Laurier-Station, Québec, Canada.
At 14, he left home to finish school at the College de Ste-Croix-de-Lobtinière. At 16, he worked for the Canadian National railroad in various capacities (including telegraph operator) before serving in the Canadian Merchant Navy from 1942 to 1950. John’s ships sank three times. One of every eight Canadian seamen in the service never came home, the highest casualty rate of all the Canadian services during WWII.
During the Korean War, five of the Bédard brothers (John, Guy, Denis, Laurent, and Laurier) were sergeants in the Canadian forces. John served from 1950 to 1953, and returned home from action in Korea sick with malaria. In 1954, he joined the Canadian Immigration service.
John’s sister, Jeanne-Mance, thought he and her best friend Thérèse Roy from Thetford Mines, would suit each other well and encouraged him to write to her. She and Thérèse were in nursing school at St-Michel-Archange in Québec City. Thérèse was an ex-novitiate with the Sisters of Charity (Gray Nuns / Soeurs Grises) who had left the order after four years, just before taking her final vows and becoming Sister St-Pierre-Celestin. In John’s first letter to her, he declared himself “of good humor” and said “to date I haven’t had the easiest life, but it’s always been agreeable. I consider myself, and I know that I am, lucky.”
At 9pm in St-Jean d’Iberville on 26 April 1955, John and Thérèse married. It was a quiet ceremony witnessed by two friends, John’s mother Amabelis, and his sister Jeanne-Mance, who would later be Pierre’s godmother. John and Thérèse raised two sons: Pierre born in St-Jean-d’Iberville in 1958, and Marc born in Montreal in 1962.
The couple eventually honeymooned by driving a VW Beetle to Mexico City and back. It was the first time John would take Thérèse out of Canada. It would not be the last.
Québec then was a different place than it is today. There was a clearcut class system in place being increasingly questioned as the middle class grew – there were many Québecois sergeants but very few Québecois officers. The reforms eventually brought about by Québec’s Quiet Revolution were only ideas yet realized.
In 1963, John applied for a promotion with Canadian Immigration at the Montreal port of entry. John, who spoke English, French, and Spanish fluently and could swear effectively in Greek, Portuguese, and Yiddish, was attending night school to learn Russian. When someone from “out Ouest” who only spoke English got a job he thought was his, John chose to vote with his feet. Using his connections from La Colle on the US border south of Montreal, he applied for and obtained US green cards for the family.
On 27 March 1964, John, Thérèse, 6 year-old Pierre, and 2 year-old Marc left their home on Place Arthur Buies in Montreal Est for California. Over the next week or so, the family drove their blue 1963 Rambler American across the US on Route 66, towing their possessions in a small trailer. On 4 April 1964, the Bédards arrived in Orange, California.
Life in Orange was all about shift work for both John and Thérèse. Their bed never seemed empty, one worked as the other slept. Life was about 8-4, 4-12, and 12-8 — round the clock, shift after shift.
A day trip to Tijuana changed John’s life forever, when he failed to bring the family’s green cards. Perhaps John deliberately left the cards at home to see if anyone he knew from Plattsburg or Rouse’s Point were working a shift that day. Our temporarily undocumented family detained in secondary inspection at the San Ysidro port of entry pedestrian entrance for a few hours, gave John a chance to talk to the US Customs and Immigration crew. From that day, John planned to join US Customs.
From 1964 to 1969, John was a resident alien, he could not legally carry a gun and work in law enforcement. He worked as a janitor and as a security guard. He sold women’s’ shoes at the Broadway in Fullerton. He had a job milling whitewalls, greenwalls, and rainbowwalls into car tires.
Everything changed on 16 April 1969, the day he became an American citizen. On that day, John applied for the US Customs Service. He was quickly accepted, leaving home to go into training. Following assignments around the US, he settled at the Port of San Ysidro. The family bought a house, regrouped and settled in for a year in San Diego.
From 1972 to 1975, John served in Laos, based in Vientiane. An advisor to the Lao government, he was an able diplomat, making many friends. His family joined him in Vientiane, where they experienced a completely different world.
John returned to San Ysidro after Laos and served in a variety of posts in the San Diego District until his retirement in 1990. His life was not without its 15 minutes of fame. In 1981, he appeared on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and in Time Magazine, dumping counterfeit Cartier watches on the pavement to be steamrolled at a media event in Los Angeles, promoting his seizure of thousands of fake Cartier watches.
His career saw him work the line at many ports of entry in the Northeast (for both Canadian and US sides) and the southern border. Having worked for both Canadian Immigration and US Customs, John had a unique perspective on the challenges of the border.
John loved to read and write. Border Guards, a collection of his short stories about more than thirty years of work on international borders, was published in 1996. In 2011, he and his son, Pierre, released Thetford Park*, a fictional account of an ammo run on a Canadian merchantman joining a convoy in Halifax, Nova Scotia bound for Liverpool, England during World War II.
John is survived by his wife Thérèse, his son Pierre and his family (wife Caroline Brunjes Bédard and their two children Jean-Pierre Andre and Claire Thérèse of Los Altos, California), and son Marc and his family (wife Jessica Rutan-Bédard and children Philip John, Jackson Dakota, Skye Itzachu, and Starr Biih Naiheeh of Fullerton, California).
John was the first of eleven children and a 10th generation Québecois, tracing his roots back to Isaac Bédard who arrived in Québec in 1661 from La Rochelle, France. A Huguenot, he became Roman Catholic to emigrate to Nouvelle France. John was predeceased by his siblings Guy, Marcel, Jeanne-Mance, Laurent, Suzanne, and Colette. John is survived by his siblings Gilles, Laurier, Denis, Thérèse, and Michel. He loved his sisters and brothers, all their spouses, and his many nieces and nephews. Knowing John, he is playing cards and eating Oka cheese with his best friends, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles after a long day in the fields.
A memorial service was held on Monday, 22 October 2012 at St. Charles Catholic Church in San Diego, California. A funeral service was held on 2 August 2015 in Ste-Croix, Lobtinière in Québec, Canada.