He was an engaging storyteller, a master at delivering puns and always good for a funny joke or two.
John Panton’s dedication, devotion and admiration for STARS, however, were no laughing matter.
“Without John’s support, and that of others from the Lions Club and community, STARS wouldn’t be here,” said Dr. Greg Powell, STARS founder. “John and his colleagues supported our vision, and his commitment galvanized those involved during the initial years.”
On April 16, nearly three decades after John helped launch STARS, he passed away in Calgary.
He was 90 years old.
Dr. Powell and Panton met in in 1985, the year Panton was elected district governor for the Lions Club for District 37. Dr. Powell recalls a series of meetings with Lions members, including Panton, Art Hironaka and Dave Dalgetty, as well as medical colleague, Dr. Rob Abernethy. Those sessions culminated in a meeting at a Calgary hotel where STARS’ humble financial beginnings were calculated on a paper napkin.
As district governor, Panton was looking for a key project to support and given his keen interest in aircraft – coupled with his parents’ medical backgrounds – an air ambulance service seemed a natural fit. The Lions committed to a $50,000 grant and a $50,000 loan to help get the project off the ground.
“With that money we were able to establish the lease and the beginnings of a helicopter service,” said Dr. Powell, adding that although the early days were challenging they were made easier because of Panton’s dedication to the mission.
“The Lions matched me stride for stride in getting it done,” said Dr. Powell, adding the club is recognized in perpetuity as a founding donor of the Lions Club Air Ambulance – its name before it was changed to Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS). “It was tough going and John always had the attitude that if this route doesn’t work we’ll try another one.”
Panton remained on STARS board of directors until 1991, and stayed on as a dedicated volunteer until shortly before he passed away. For nearly three decades he and his late wife, Daphne, travelled across Alberta to share STARS’ story and volunteer at community events.
“John never tired of STARS, or speaking about STARS,” said Dr. Powell. “That speaks to his passion.”
Panton’s daughter, Lisa Gaunt, said her father developed an interest in aircraft early in his life. He joined the Air Force at age 18 and much of his working life was spent working on jet engines. He also volunteered at the Aerospace Museum in Calgary and was a member of the local Aircrew Association until his passing.
She admired her father’s commitment to STARS and says it was his love of people and unwavering belief in the project that kept his volunteer spirit alive.
“He truly enjoyed people and could talk to anyone,” said Gaunt. “It was never a chore to head out on the road for STARS. Each trip was an adventure and an opportunity to meet new people or reconnect with people he already knew. He remembered names and when he asked about children or grandchildren, people somehow knew he actually cared about the answers.”
His volunteer work included some of the best experiences of his life, said Gaunt. “He was immensely proud to be associated with STARS and was never at a loss for words when it came to expounding the virtues of the project, downplaying his own role significantly.”
Over the years Panton received special recognition for his volunteer commitment to STARS. He was inducted as an honourary member of STARS in the early years, recognizing his contribution. He and Daphne also received their 25-year service pins in 2010.
Many who knew and worked with Panton will miss his sense of humour.
Dr. Powell recalls a photo shoot a few years ago where some of the founders reunited and were asked to wear flight suits. Panton’s, he said, was a couple of sizes too small. Rather than complain, Panton poked fun at himself for the rest of the day, walking around and talking with a high-pitched voice.
“John was hilarious,” said Dr. Powell, laughing at the memory. “He will be missed.”
A celebration of Panton’s life was held in Calgary on April 26. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made directly to STARS Air Ambulance, 1441 Aviation Park N.E., Box 570, Calgary, AB T2E 8M7 or a charity of choice in his memory
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