Neil Penn Sawers
Neil Penn Sawers was born on September 14, 1938, in Hartland Village in Devon, England. His father Norman was originally from South Africa, emigrated to England and became a country doctor who cared for local families in the area. His mother Helen was a nurse when she met Norman, and then retired to stay home to care for Neil, his sister Claire, and two brothers Guy and Clive. Neil had a close and loving relationship with his nanny Winnie, who often would have to go searching for Neil and would find him high up in a tree.
When Neil was ten years old, he and his brother Guy were sent to boarding school in the English tradition. This was not an easy time for him, but Neil found his path by excelling at various sports. He eventually graduated from Blundell’s at age 18 and entered the British Army to complete his two years of National Service (serving in Germany). After his service was complete, he attended Edinburgh University where he graduated with his Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1963. Neil would go on later to attend the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and graduated with an MA in Hospital Administration.
He was an avid sportsman. He played soccer, tennis and rugby and eventually became a marathon runner. He was rightly proud to have completed the Boston Marathon twice, along with multiple other marathons in North America. When running became too much, he took up swimming. He made some great friends at the Hardisty Pool where he could be found several nights a week until 2020. He could still be found in the gym most evenings this last summer when he wasn’t glued to sports on tv.
It was always easy to tell when Neil was happy because you would hear him humming, whistling or singing a song. Music was a part of his daily life, and there was nothing that he loved more than musical theater, especially those by Rodgers and Hammerstein. He stayed current, repeatedly listening to Rent, Wicked, and Hamilton in more recent years (in addition to repeatedly watching Queen at LiveAid on YouTube constantly). He loved being able to see Come from Away at the Jubilee the week before he passed.
Neil had a varied and eclectic career path. He was often restless, always adventurous. To name just a few: he worked as an accountant (hated it), a hospital administrator (not much better), worked in advertising for a country radio station (more fun), and even drove a taxi in Toronto for several years. His interest in writing blossomed while he lived in Toronto and bloomed when he published his first book: “I Wish I’d Had This When I Was in School: Better Essays and Term Papers” and later on “How to Write Sales Letters, Proposals and Reports” (named one of the best business books of the year by the Edmonton Journal in 2004). He also co-authored a book on retirement (“Mutual Fundamentals”) with Jim Yih.
Neil loved the time he spent working under contract at Duval Publishing, working with Cree people to help edit the Cree language curriculum program for Alberta Education. He toiled for many years on his novel – The Sapmakers. He truly felt it held an important message about how we treat one another and the Earth, but he was never satisfied with it enough to bring it to completion. A draft of his novel was laid to rest with Neil, along with a rose from the rose bush he gifted Marilyn this year and some leaves from his beloved tomato plants.
It was during a break from university that he came to Canada for a fateful summer job as Manager of Concessions for the Horse Race Circuit in Alberta in 1962. That summer, he met Marilyn Cole, a blue-eyed brunette who caught his eye. Neil was shy around girls (having grown up attending an all-boys boarding school), but his boss introduced them, and they were immediately taken with one another.
At the end of the summer, their romance came to an end when he had to return to university. He promised to write, but the letters never came. Both of them moved on with their lives and each was married to another for a time: Marilyn to her husband Paul for twenty-six years, and Neil to June for a decade. The blessing for Neil from that relationship was the continued love and affection he has always shared with his step-children, Nichole and Thomas.
A year after Paul’s death, it was Marilyn’s turn for a beautiful twist of fate to intervene. It took planes, trains, and automobiles (actually a hunter with a truck full of dead pheasants, but that’s a story for another day) for her to reach his sister Claire. It turns out, Neil was not in England at all. He had been living in Toronto for years! Claire gave Marilyn his number and the rest is history (to be provided in far more detail if Marilyn ever writes the whole story down). When they spoke on the phone for the first time after many years, each felt butterflies. They had so many parallel interests and passions.
Within six months, Neil packed up his life in Toronto and moved to Edmonton, Alberta to be with the love of his life. Neil and Marilyn were married in 2000 at Cloverdale Community Hall, looking out on the hillside of the Folk Festival where they spent many a night dancing under the stars. They traveled the world together over the years, visiting the United Kingdom many times (including the Orkney Islands which Neil loved) along with Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, Norway, Iceland, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize. They travelled all over Canada, visiting friends and family, as well as the United States. Neil was considered an ‘honorary’ Concordia alum, even going along on the Alaska Cruise as part of Marilyn’s high school reunion.
South Africa held a very special place in Neil’s heart. His father was born there, and he and Marilyn spent three winters together volunteering in Hamburg, Eastern Cape with Keiskamma Trust starting in 2011. This experience was deeply impactful for Neil and Marilyn both. While she was off leading workshops for teachers, Neil was completing every odd job imaginable to improve the property. He worked closely with some local men, demonstrating how to make repairs and fix up the buildings. His last year, he also taught classes in the high school. He later served on the Board of Keiskamma Canada for several years.
This was a running theme in Neil’s life. Wherever he would go, he was embraced and welcomed because he embraced and welcomed others. He was known as “Father Canada” to many local Syrian families whom he helped during the wave of refugees coming to Canada seven years ago. He set up beds, hauled mattresses, helped people pass driving exams, and registered dozens of kids for local community soccer programs. He would often meet his friend Kamal for coffee and feasted regularly on delicious Syrian food. He told our friend Ingrid that “his purpose in life was to serve others and to help people have a better day.” That sums up Neil perfectly.
He is survived by his adoring wife, Marilyn, her children Dan (Karen), Catherine (Michael), Ben (Lindsay) and Neil’s stepchildren Nichole (Cary) and Thomas (Delly). He leaves behind many grandchildren who loved to toss water balloons and play silly games with him: Alex, Andrew, Juliana, Aidan, Livia, Chloe, Duncan, Liam, Olivia, Florian, Oriana and Sophie. He will be sorely missed by his loving nieces and nephews and their children, as well as countless friends and many other family members near and far. He loved you all.
We wish to extend a special, heartfelt thank you to Dr. Joseph Brandwein and his entire team at the Kaye Clinic for their exceptional care. We also wish to thank the University of Alberta Outpatient Care team for always looking after Neil during his many treatments (as well as to the nurses who stayed at his side right to the end). We are so grateful for their compassionate support.
Celebration of Life
3:00PM Friday September 30, 2022
Cloverdale Community Hall
9411 97 Ave NW Edmonton, AB
Memorial Donations can be made to two charities that were very near and dear to Neil’s heart:
Keiskamma Canada (https://keiskammacanada.com/) supporting the program where Neil and Marilyn volunteered or KidsSport Canada, ensuring no kid who wants to play sports is ever left watching from the sidelines (https://kidsportcanada.ca/alberta).
“"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love." - Dumbledore