Farmer, father and oatmeal philosopher

James Roderick Myles Tait was “a two-dollup man.” That’s a reference to oatmeal. But it runs a little deeper.

James Roderick Myles Tait was “a two-dollup man.”

That’s a reference to oatmeal.

But it runs a little deeper.

Tait’s son Russel is a shop teacher, who takes his students on snowmobile trips to Haines Junction.

The kids always spend a night on the floor of the family farm.

After his dad passed away earlier this month, Russel got an e-mail from one of these former students, who’s now in his 20s.

The student remembered Roderick, whom most people called “Rod,” holding a sticky spoon of oatmeal over his bowl and asking, “Are you a one- or two-dollup man?”

The boy realized the question alluded to more than just how much oatmeal he could manage.

“To this day, I’m a two-dollup man,” wrote the former student.

Rod died in his wife’s arms on October 15th. He was 79.

The Haines Junction farmer had been out all day helping a neighbour bring in the hay.

Before dinner Rod turned a few rows in his garden, then came and sat at the dining room table where he collapsed in his wife’s loving arms.

He died doing what he loved and with who he loved, said Russel.

Farming and family were Rod’s life.

Although he didn’t always know it.

Rod, who grew up on an Alberta farm, had dreams of law school.

But his hands were way to big to get into anyone’s pockets, joked family friend Wolf Riedl during his eulogy on Saturday.

Rod’s law-school dreams were dashed when his father died prematurely. He was forced to quit school in Grade 12 and take over the family farm.

By the time he was 20, Rod had met the woman of his dreams. Five years later, he married her.

Enid and Rod had five kids and farmed in Alberta for a decade before Rod got the itch.

Tempted by a foreman position at the Pine Creek Experimental Farm just west of Haines Junction, he decided to try his luck in the North.

His family joined him a few months later.

“I was three weeks old when we arrived on an old DC3,” said Russel, who’s the youngest son.

“I came up in a hammock.”

After a six-hour flight, Enid and the kids landed in Whitehorse.

 It was dark and the temperature was hovering at minus 53 Celsius. The family still had to drive three hours on the twisty highway to Haines Junction.

Enid cried and cried the whole way, said Russel.

“But the next morning when she saw the sun shining on those mountains — she never shed another tear.”

Rod’s confidence in farming north of 60 was lost on the federal government.

Six years after he took over the experimental farm, the feds cut funding. Rod went from 30 farm hands down to one.

Although he was forced to take interim work with Parks Canada and later at the local weigh scales, Rod never stopped working the fields.

During the summer, he was lucky to get four hours of sleep, and most of it was at the dinner table, said Riedl in his eulogy.

Rod had all this antique farm equipment, and he used to dig his potatoes by hand, even thought there are machines to it.

“I guess he just didn’t want to miss any potatoes and didn’t want them damaged,” said Riedl.

“And he was a real source of employment for all the local kids, who got to stook oats, stack hay and loved driving the machinery.”

Riedl remembers moving to the Junction in ‘77 to become principal of St. Elias Community School.

The houses supplied for the teachers were new and pretty barren.

Rod learned that Riedl wanted a vegetable garden and was in his backyard digging in manure one day when Riedl returned from work.

The pair became fast friends and spent weeks hunting in the St. Elias Mountains and fishing the local lakes.

“Rod would take a wall tent and the kids would come along,” said Riedl.

And inveterate walker, Rod would often head into the hills on foot.

“Then he’d come back into town and round up all his friends and family, telling them he’d found a great place for a picnic,” said Riedl.

“We’d get way back there in the bush and there’d be this dead moose at the end — it’d be his way of getting the moose out,” he said with a laugh.

Rod loved the outdoors and instilled the passion in his children.

“He was very conscious of doing things with his kids — you didn’t see them in front of the TV,” said Riedl.

“And you never saw him mad. He was a family man and a community man.”

Russel remembers his dad tapping on the door at 4 a.m., with a whisper — “want to go fishing?”

“You’d leap to your feet before you even knew you were awake,” said Russel, who remembers hiking in to the end of Kathleen Lake.

The family was always doing things together.

One of the more memorable events is Easter Sunday, which, like the fishing, starts at 4 a.m.

The whole crew jumps on snow machines and rides to the top of Mt. Decoeli to watch the sunrise.

Russel’s kids have been part of that tradition since they were old enough to bundle up, he said.

“It’ll even hold more meaning next year,” added Russel.

Rod was famous for his potatoes and supplied half the town.

His passion was experimenting with agriculture, said Riedl, who remembers oddities like purple potatoes.

And Rod had his planting system down to a fine science.

The seed potatoes are sliced in half, placed cut side down in the heel depression of his stride, and covered with just enough dirt to protect them from late frosts, but not so deep the young shoots had to battle their way to the surface.

“His patience and work ethic were inspiring,” wrote longtime friend and farmhand Sean Fry in a letter read at the service.

Fry started working for Rod as “a young lad,” earning a few cents a hill for the potatoes he dug.

Over the years, Fry’s summer job expanded to include fencing, hay production, root picking and even cattle tending.

Rod taught Fry many things — how to cook potatoes to perfection in a microwave — how good a beer left chilling in a mountain stream tastes after a day of dusty work in the fields — that oatmeal really does stick to the ribs enough to get a person through a morning of hard work — and how to butcher animals.

“When you butcher a cow that you’ve helped calve, named, fed in all manner of weather and now need to eat, you speak softly to it with great respect,” wrote Fry.

From Rod, Fry learned that at the end of a day of hard work, “you can look back with a sense of accomplishment and really feel alive.

“Rod lived and savoured these simple pleasures as well as anyone I have met.”

Rod was a quiet force that everyone listened to, said Riedl.

But he also had a good sense of humour.

One year, Rod came back from Alberta toting a plywood cutout of a cow with a Holstein hide tacked to it.

It was supposed to be a hunting blind, but instead became Rent-A-Cow.

The tattered animal would appear on front lawns at birthdays, at weddings and even ended up in a government truck.

Renewable Resources unwittingly left keys in one of its trucks. The vehicle showed up downtown Haines Junction with Rent-A-Cow in the back.

More than 400 people showed up for Rod’s funeral on Saturday, where John Deere tractors acted as the honour guard.

Rod’s headstone is going to be “that damn rock” the size of a truck, that sat in the middle of one of his fields.

The obstruction was always in Rod’s way.

“He used to say he wanted to be buried under the thing,” said Russel with a grin.

“So we’re going to do it.”

They just have to figure out how to move the rock first.

Contact Genesee Keevil at gkeevil@yukon-news.com