Rolf Johansen can still remember the week he chauffeured the Queen around.
While the 82-year-old may not be as nimble as he was back then, his memory is still sharp and he recalls the moment like it was yesterday.
It was May, 1971 and Queen Elizabeth II was on a royal tour of British Columbia to celebrate the centennial of the province’s entry into Confederation.
Johansen, a master corporal, was tasked by an Air Force Officer with driving the Queen around upon her arrival at the Comox Harbour.
“She arrived on the (royal yacht) Britannia and I picked her up and we went everywhere,” recalls Johansen, a native of Norway who moved to Canada in 1950. “It was a Rolls Royce silver convertible and I wasn’t allowed to put gas in it or wash it and every night after I parked it, it was under armed guard.”
A guard also sat beside Johansen in the passenger seat with a gun tucked neatly under his arm.
“If I took my hands off the steering wheel, he probably would have shot me,” Johansen said.
To commemorate the experience, Johansen has framed photographs that were sent to him from Buckingham Palace chronicling the adventure – one photo even shows Johansen chauffeuring the Queen down Cliffe Avenue in Courtenay.
Johansen shared the photos Wednesday during a ceremony at Campbell River City Hall to celebrate Queen Elizabeth as the longest reigning monarch at more than 63 years and seven months, or 23,226 days. She surpasses her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who formerly held that distinction.
At 89, Queen Elizabeth has sat on the throne for six decades. As the oldest of two sisters, she became queen in 1952 at the age of 25 following the death of her father, King George VI.
At Wednesday’s ceremony at Campbell River City Hall, Freeman and former Mayor Mary Ashley had high praise for Queen Elizabeth.
“As a figure of unity she denies herself the expression of personal opinions in favour of listening to what we have to say,” said Ashley, who is a recipient of one of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medals given out in 2012. “She is a Mother of our Confederation and constant companion in the ups and downs of our nation’s life. ‘I am no fair weather friend,’ she once observed while visiting Canada.”
And it was during one of those visits to Canada that Johansen got a glimpse into who the Queen really is.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” Johansen said. “She’s perfectly nice.
“I wasn’t allowed to speak to her but she spoke to me. She saw my kids – my four sons – outside waving and she waved back at them and complimented me on my kids being nice,” Johansen says. “She gave me one of those painted eggs, the ones the Hungarians make, and she said ‘give it to your boys’. Well, I kept it. I wasn’t giving it to them. I still have it.”
Coincidentally, Mayor Andy Adams said he too was involved in the Queen’s 1971 visit to Vancouver Island.
“In 1971 when the Queen was visiting Victoria I was in my Boy Scouts uniform,” Adams said. “There was a barricade of Scouts as the Queen went in to the Royal BC Museum.”
Ashley also recounted her brush with royalty. As a Girl Guide in Vancouver she was part of the Honour Guard when Queen Elizabeth visited as a princess in 1951.
Ashley said that experience made Wednesday’s commemoration all the more special for her.
She said she was honoured to pay tribute to a monarch who inspires by example.
“At age 89 she shows us that a busy schedule, interest in others and engagement with communities is a recipe for happiness and longevity we might all wish to emulate,” Ashley said. “Queen Elizabeth II is the only monarch that most of us have ever known. God bless and keep her.”