“Dr. Lotta and I became very close friends. She was a great human being and worked night and day for years. When she died in 1990, I lost a true friend. She was a living saint, if such a person can exist.” – John Buss
Few Canadians got to know humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova as well as John Buss, and like Lotta herself, he lived a most remarkable life.
Born and raised in Toronto, at the age of 17, he joined the Canadian Navy, serving in numerous harrowing WWII combat situations. As his friend Allan Martel noted in a Globe and Mail tribute to John Buss:
“He rose to the lowly level of Stoker 2nd Class, which was as near to the bottom of military rankings as one can get. He was not cut out for leadership in the military, though all who had the privilege to work for him would have gone to hell and back several times for him at the drop of a hat.”
In his autobiographical memoir, “A Part of Me,” John relates a WWII incident right out of a Hollywood movie. His ship was on convoy duty in the North Atlantic, ran into engine trouble and docked at Londonderry for repairs, giving the crew much-needed leave.
Then, as amazing as it may seem, for the next three days, this lowly seaman found himself feted by the Laird and Lady of the magnificent Culzean Castle on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast, before returning to his lowly duties stoking coal on his ship.
“After the channel crossing, I travelled by horse and buggy on to the castle. I was overwhelmed: going from a navy ship to the beauty of the castle was quite a transition. It was a wonderful break for me, from sleeping in a dingy, narrow hammock aboard ship to sleeping in a great bed in a room in one of the castle’s turrets. I spent three days enjoying the beautiful grounds and scenery of the estate. My hosts spent as much time as they could to entertain me. We always had our meals and afternoon tea together. The most charming hosts one could wish for.”
After leaving the Navy, many more adventures too numerous to relate awaited John, including a real Hollywood story: when he was invited to a party, with Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Jones as his date!
Blessed with a truly creative spirit, John returned to Toronto and had aspirations of becoming a professional pianist. However, in the early 50s, as Allan Martel relates: “A concert-quality pianist, John lost two Toronto Kiwanis music competitions – both to Glenn Gould.”
It was 1952, and TV was starting up in Canada. So, if being a concert pianist wasn’t in the cards, true to form, John managed to get a job with the CBC, as a lowly stage hand. As he relates in his memoir:
“I was not very good with a hammer and other tools, so the boys thought I could do a better job entertaining them by playing the piano.”
He soon left staging and went into film editing, then studio directing, then production. Starting in 1954, he produced a well-known farm show called “Country Calendar,” which enabled farmers to keep in touch and included a segment on seasonal gardening tips.
A born traveller, John was soon on the move again, producing travel films in Singapore, Thailand, Borneo and Hong Kong. In the late 50s and early 60s, he became a freelance videographer, living in Hong Kong and then Bangkok.
It was in Hong Kong that by chance he first met Lotta Hitschmanova:
“She walked into the CP Airlines office where I had been given a desk to work at and asked if I would help her with the work she was doing.”
And that led to a working relationship and friendship that lasted throughout the 1960s and 70s.
“In the years that followed, I accompanied Dr. Lotta on many of her working tours and did all the photography. Each trip was at least two months long. The films and photographs would be used during the fundraising tours. They showed the great need that existed.”
In 1967, Maclean’s did a feature article on Lotta, which quotes John Buss:
“On her tour abroad,” says John Buss, a CBC film maker who followed her recently for two months in Asia to make a documentary, “she had everything planned in detail weeks in advance. I’ve never seen anybody agonize so much over a minute’s delay. I lost track of the number of notebooks she filled with interviews and observations during the day; then she’d be up half the night typing reports or filling dictation belts.”
John and Lotta became great friends, attending concerts and plays together at the National Arts Centre during the time John lived in the nation’s capital:
“Dr. Lotta and I became very close friends. She was a great human being and worked night and day for years. At the end of her life, she had lost the use of her voice and the ability to speak. When she died in 1990, I lost a true friend. She was a living saint, if such a person can exist. Her wonderful work goes on today.”
During the final months of his life, I had the honour of meeting John several times at the Sunnybrook Veterans Wing in Toronto, and to conclude this blog post, I can only echo what Allan Martel has so aptly put:
“This Stoker 2nd Class was a true class act of the premier rank. He personified the concerns and empathy of thinking Canadians about the world’s less fortunate, and acted upon his empathy by travelling among the most destitute of regions in an effort to help in whatever manner he could.
“Canada has lost one of its finest citizens, and also one of its finest ambassadors – a Stoker 2nd Class who rose above almost all around him in a gentle, unassuming but completely compelling manner.
“We will miss you John, for your magnanimous personality but also for what you stood for, shovel and all.”