"HE WAS THE KIND OF GUY YOU WANTED AS YOUR NEIGHBOUR, THAT YOU WANTED AS YOUR FRIEND, AS SOMEONE TO BACK YOU UP"
VERNON - Gentle, humble and sweet are the words friends use to describe a 95-year-old war veteran who has been charged with second degree murder.
John Furman (Jack to his friends) had been living at the Polson Special Care Unit for two weeks, and rooming with William May, 85, for only three days, when he allegedly killed the man. Furman suffers advanced Alzheimers and dementia, and is being assessed in a psychiatric ward in Kamloops to determine if he can be held criminally responsible for the death.
To those that know Furman, the news was so shocking they almost didn't believe it. Ron Candy, curator of the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives got to know him over the course of several years and describes him as "a real sweet old guy."
"We (at the museum) were completely shocked. Our first comment was that's so unlike Jack. That's so uncharacteristic of him," Candy says. "Because we knew him by Jack and the news was saying John, we weren't convinced at first it was him."
Furman was born in Calgary in 1918 and enlisted in the King's Own Rifles in 1942. He was handpicked for the First Special Service Force (known as the Devil's Brigade) just months later. Training for the special service was intense: Furman learned how to parachute, downhill ski, and rock climb in addition to receiving combat training. Candy equates the Devil's Brigade to today's Navy Seals, adding they "did the difficult, dangerous missions." Furman was awarded a Bronze Star Medal in 2007 for his heroism.
During his years as a soldier, Furman survived several brushes with death. While fighting in Italy in 1943, he survived a harsh battle that left 77 per cent of his comrades dead. A year later, he was shot in the neck and chest. He recovered, and served the force for another two years.
By then he was 28 and ready for other things: a wife, a new home and a new career. He married his childhood sweetheart Myrle Dunn and moved west to B.C. A man of many trades, Furman started selling Snap-On merchandise, opened a hotel called the Flamingo and became a volunteer fire chief in Hope. Around 1971, he retired, moved to Vernon and spent his days boating on Kal Lake, gardening at his tidy Coldstream home, and volunteering with Big Brothers. He and Myrle, who died about five years ago, never had children.
Candy interviewed Furman about his experience with the Devil's Brigade and the museum included him in a special wartime exhibit a few years ago. The highlight of Furman's year was always attending the Special Forces reunion wherever it was in the world—France, Italy, or the United States.
"He was proud of what he'd done, but was very humble," Candy says. "He never came across as boastful or bragging. He downplayed a lot of things."
Furman would come in from time to time, and his visits were welcomed by staff.
"When he came in, you knew the next 15-20 minutes you'd be having fun," Candy says. "He loved to joke and was always smiling."
The manager of a Vernon grocery store remembers him well, saying that cashiers would light up whenever he came in.
"He was the most charismatic man in his 80s that you could find," Craig Dickson says. "The Alzheimers and dementia... that's not who he is."
Furman has no living relatives, to Dickson's knowledge, and indicated to him numerous times that he intends to leave his estate to the Canadian government because the Department of Veteran's Affairs "had been so good to him."
Dickson, like others who know Furman, couldn't believe the headlines he read this week as news broke on what police are calling a homicide.
"It's upsetting to me or anyone that knew him to think he was put in a situation that made things go so wrong," Dickson says. "He was the type of guy you wanted as your neighbour, that you wanted as your friend, as someone to back you up. Jack was just Jack."
And to his friends, he still is just Jack, no matter what transpired in that care home room.
"We'll remember Jack as we knew him, not what this disease turned him into," Candy says. "He was a victim of a tragic turn of events."
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston.
John Furman, 95, is undergoing a psychiatric assessment to see if he can be held criminally responsible for the death of William May. Furman was a decorated war veteran. His medals, and a photo of him, were used in a museum display and are pictured here.
Image Credit: Greater Vernon Museum and Archives