Otto Graser – 50 years of friendship

Otto Graser with his award-winning painting   Photo: Courtesy of Graser family

By Jaan Krusberg

Editor’s note: Otto Graser of the Glebe died of COVID-19 on April 6.

Otto and I met in 1968 when we were working at Indian and Northern Affairs. He was the architect planner for reserves in Ontario; I was a landscape architectural student from Toronto figuring out what I was going to do for the rest of my life. He was a large imposing figure with a big black moustache. Otto received his degrees from the Regent Street Polytechnic in London and McGill University in Montreal.

Otto travelled extensively to reserves in remote areas of Ontario, usually in Beaver or Otter aircraft. We were pals around the office when he was in town. We worked on national and historic parks projects as well as projects in the north. I met my wife Glenda in the same Centennial Towers. She was an exhibit designer in the national historic parks and sites branch.

Otto met Gail as a student at the University of London, and they toured Europe on a small Vespa. They married when they returned to Montreal from England in 1961. They moved to Ottawa to work in the public service in 1965. The four of us became fast friends in 1970. They invited us to see the large house they had purchased on Wilton Crescent overlooking Brown’s Inlet. The house was so big I don’t think I ever saw every room. By 1973, they had moved to a smaller house with a much larger yard on Oakland Avenue. That’s where we watched their sons Alex and Chris grow up.

Glenda and I lived in Sandy Hill and were looking to move. In 1973, we found a handyman’s special on Woodlawn Avenue and put in an offer. “We won,” Glenda yelled late one Friday night after the agent called to say our bid on Larry and Pat Zolf’s house was accepted. Little did we know that our new house was right across the back lane from Otto and Gail. This led to many Canada Day back-lane parties and memorable New Year’s Eve celebrations at their house that usually ended with the singing of “Jerusalem” around 4 a.m.

When they still had only a black-and-white TV, we would lug our television across the lane so we could watch Monty Python or Masterpiece Theatre in colour.

We started a tradition of Sunday dinners that continued even after they moved to Fourth Avenue, Rideau Terrace and Blackburn Hamlet. Gail would make her special steak and kidney pie or moussaka. Glenda would make her mom’s Yorkshire puddings to go with the roast beef at our house.

Otto was a multi-talented renaissance man. His curiosity and talent extended to painting, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking, photography and painting with computer software. His computer art won a best-in-show award at ArtEast last year. He had a passionate love of books on art, culture, sailing and anything else that caught his fancy. Otto was so passionate that he opened Arlington Books and Black Squirrel Press. Gail helped him organize and run the bookstore. They shipped rare books to collectors around the world. He set up a vintage letterpress in their basement on Fourth Avenue and printed limited edition folios, posters and small press books. He was also a collector of many strange things – elephants of all kinds, frog figurine candlesticks and brass sailing ships.

Otto disappeared mysteriously for a couple of weeks one February more than 30 years ago. On his return, he showed us photos of vineyards in winter sleep in France and quietly said they had purchased a 13th-century convent in a small village north of Toulouse. Puycelsi was to be their spring, summer and fall refuge for many years. Glenda and I had some wonderful visits with them in the mystic landscapes of southern France. They would always celebrate Canada Day with other Canadians visiting or living in nearby villages.

With the increasing demands of maintaining a household in France as well as a cottage west of Perth and the trials of long-distance travel, Otto and Gail decided to sell the property in Puycelsi in 2018. But the siren lure of France still captured them – they spent a remarkably warm and sunny time in Toulouse from February to April in 2019, and they were doing the same this year. Then COVID-19 struck France with a vengeance.

Jaan Krusberg and Otto Graser

Gail and Otto (In front), Jaan and Glenda have been friends since 1970. Photos: Courtesy of Graser family

Otto and Gail were booked to fly home from Paris to Montreal on April 2. They decided to come back earlier and changed their flight to March 23. Their EasyJet flight from Toulouse to Paris was cancelled because the airline shut down. Gail managed to get a rental car from Hertz after another agency said it didn’t rent to anyone over 70.

Otto and Gail started the 700-plus km drive to Paris on March 20. The trip was a nightmare. Hotels were closed, it was difficult to find food and gas. They managed to make their flight out of Paris, arriving home and going straight into self-isolation.

A week later, they didn’t feel well and went for tests at Brewer Park. Otto tested positive, Gail was negative. On April 4, Otto was admitted to hospital. Son Chris was allowed in to see him twice before he died on April 6. That same day, Gail, who had fallen ill, was admitted to the same hospital and was able to say goodbye to Otto. She has been recovering from COVID-19 and was expected to be released from the Rehabilitation Centre on May 8 to continue her recovery at home.

Otto has left a huge wake as his creative ship plied the high seas of curiosity and discovery.

Jaan Krusberg is a graphic designer and principal at JaanKrusbergDesign Inc. and a long-time friend of Otto Graser.

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