By Denis Gibbons
Pete Leppard and Keith Bender never forget about the friends and teammates they lost on a rainy Saturday morning in February more than 60 years ago. They were just 10 at the time and their whole world literally came crashing down on them.
It was community hockey in Listowel, Ont., and the local peewee organization was holding tryouts for the prestigious Young Canada tournament the following month in nearby Goderich. On the morning of Feb. 28, 1959, the roof of the Listowel Memorial Arena collapsed under the weight of rain that fell on top of the existing heavy winter snow. Two dozen peewee players and coaches were buried in the rubble. Most were rescued but eight people were killed, including seven youth players and Listowel recreation director Kenneth McLeod. McLeod was 37, a husband, and a father of four.
Leppard was skating to the bench when he saw the arena wall slipping away. “It was down in a matter of three seconds,” he said. “Myself and more than 20 other kids were buried under the debris. I was lucky to be near the boards. My father, Gordon, grabbed me by the shoulders and took me off the ice.”
Bender can still remember seeing the roof open up and daylight appear. He was sitting on the players’ bench at the moment of collapse and suffered a pinched nerve in his back, was left with no feeling in his left leg and was knocked unconscious by a falling beam. “I didn’t wake up until three in the afternoon in the hospital,” he said. “Because of that I don’t have a lot of horrific memories.”
Coach Norm Stirling saved the lives of two young players when he tossed them against the boards and fell on top of them after the first crack in the roof was heard. A crowd of between 500 and 600 had attended the local figure-skating carnival the night before.
After that day, childhood was never quite the same for Leppard and Bender. But they went on with their lives – playing sports and delivering newspapers and going to school – and later established themselves in their careers and had families.
Bender became a teacher at Listowel Central Public School and in Markdale. Leppard was a counselor at the Midwestern Regional Centre. Both are now retired and still live in the community. They never forgot that day in 1959, and as time went on, they decided they didn’t want the town to forget either.
The idea of creating a memorial came to Bender in 1989 on the 30-year anniversary of the arena collapse. He was doing an interview with CFPL-TV in London, Ont., when the notion was raised. Nothing formal had been done for his peewee teammates whose lives were cut short before they truly began.
Stained glass windows were put in at two churches used for funerals in 1959 as a memorial for the victims, and a plaque was put in an arena by the Listowel Minor Hockey Association, but Bender and Leppard wanted a permanent monument created.
Leppard’s call to action came in 1997 when attending the visitation for Cecil Rheubottom, the father of Jackie Rheubottom, one of the boys killed in the disaster. Cecil’s widow was standing by the casket, so Leppard gave her a hug and asked her how she was doing. “That’s what brought it into my head that something should be done to remember these boys,” he said.
In 1999, Bender and Leppard created the slogan “Friends of ’59” and before long $20,000 was raised to create a permanent memorial in the local Rotary Club Gardens in front of the library in the town of 3,000.
On it are depictions of McLeod and the seven children killed in the roof collapse – Jimmy Hastings, Kenneth Hymers, Ricky Kaufman, Jackie Rheubottom, Bryan Seehaver, Barry Smith and Keith Wight.
A mass funeral was held for the victims, with about 1,500 people filling two churches.
Initially, there was some opposition to the monument.
“For years this was washed in town because there were a lot of rumors going around about how the place was built and a lot of blame was put on contractors,” said Leppard, now 73. “I had phone calls. I would pick up the phone and all they would say is, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’ Then they would hang up.”
Added Bender, who is also 73: “For years it just wasn’t talked about.”
The Listowel arena was constructed in 1953, just six years before its collapse. A lot of volunteer labor was used. The rain that winter season in western Ontario caused snow loads to become excessively heavy on the roofs of arenas.
Three people died when a curling rink roof collapsed near Huntsville, Ont., in January, 1959. Luckily, nobody was in the building when the arena roof came down in Chatsworth, Ont., around the same time. The same morning of the Listowel disaster, in nearby Acton, the Georgetown peewees were playing in a tournament when strange noises were heard from the arena roof. Spectators rushed to the exits. A heavy load of wet snow broke loose and slid down the tin roof to the ground. On that Georgetown team were several members of the NHL’s first-ever draft class four years later in 1963 – Rod Presswood, Wayne Davison, Jim Blair and Mike Cummins.
The difference was the roof in Acton was built with a high pitch so the snow could slide down. The one in Listowel was flatter and could not support the weight. Nevertheless, before the next hockey season, Acton town council ordered the outside north wall – where the snowslide had occurred – shored up and placed on cement footings instead of the old system of cedar poles.
The Ontario Minor Hockey Association sent out a bulletin urging arena managers to have immediate inspections of their buildings. An inquiry determined there had been faults in the construction of the Listowel building, namely laminated trusses and weak footings. The snow load, made heavier by rain, aggravated the situation.
There are few positive results from the darkest day in Listowel’s history. One was that standard building codes were implemented for all arenas in Canada. By 1976, the inspections fell under the jurisdiction of the provincial governments. Several buildings in Ontario were found to be faulty and the government provided financial aid to construct replacements.
Leppard and Bender remember the outpouring of support back in 1959. Bender still has a copy of a telegram from Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe offering to pay for the funerals of all the deceased. NHL players and officials stepped up to help the people of Listowel.
“Mr. Smythe also arranged for a busload of us to go down to Maple Leaf Gardens to see a game,” Bender said. “I remember meeting Ron Stewart, Bert Olmstead and Gerry Ehman and getting their autographs.”
Hall of Famer Fred ‘Cyclone’ Taylor, who grew up in Listowel, initiated a drive to boost the disaster fund. Each of the six NHL clubs that existed at the time donated $500.
Listowel native George Hay, also in the Hall of Fame, launched a campaign in nearby Stratford. Hay played for Chicago and Detroit in the 1930s.
NHLer Jack McIntyre, who lived in Listowel, organized fundraising in Detroit. He was playing for the Red Wings on the night of the calamity in a win over Toronto.
Shortly after the 1959 roof collapse, some survivors said they had nightmares and could be heard screaming in the middle of the night by their parents. Nevertheless, joined by newcomers, they continued to prepare for the Goderich tournament. Nearby communities of Kurtzville, Milverton and Palmerston donated ice time in their arenas. “We never thought of not coming,” said Grant Bitton, the new Listowel coach, to The Toronto Star. “We felt it was the best thing we could do for the surviving players to get them back in hockey as fast as possible.”
Listowel lost its only game of the tournament 7-2 to Delhi, only 32 days following the tragedy. Jerry McLeod, who had been trapped in the collapse and was mourning the death of his father, Ken, was the goalie. Two other survivors – Gary Skelding and Jerry Talsman – who had sustained broken legs attended the game in wheelchairs.
Ross Werth was on the team and lost his best friend Jackie Rheubottom. The two had played together on
Listowel’s championship peewee baseball team in 1958.
Werth, 74, wrote a book of poems on the 40th anniversary of the disaster in 1999 and called it ‘59.’ One of the poems, entitled “Crack from hell,” begins with the following words:
“That dreary day in ’59 it fell.
A cold and frozen sudden crack from hell
And when we all could take no more
Heaven opened up its door
And took our comrades, gone from earth.”