The longer we spend in this hobby, the more excellent people there are to meet. By excellent people, I refer to those who enhance the hobby for all. Their deeds are not for personal gain, and not just for their own close friends. Excellent hobbyists have big hearts, and serve the greater good of their hobby at large. They accept everyone, and they alienate no one. Without a doubt, John G. Powers, known to some of us as The Butterfly Man, was an excellent hobbyist, and we are richer for having known him. John, who joined the plate-collecting crew late in life and made the hobby bigger and better, passed away on November 5, 2019, after a battle with cancer.
John first became interested in collecting licence plates in 2008, as an unintended spinoff of his main passion: Studying, spotting, and collecting butterflies. The first meet he attended was the spring installment in Acton, where he began his search for graphic plates with butterflies on them. During the summer months, he managed to collect many such plates from all over North America. By the time the fall Grimsby meet rolled around, he had collected, to his knowledge, a complete set of all available graphic butterfly plates. In so doing, he became interested in plates in general, whether or not they featured a “flying jewel.”
He inquired at the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario if they would be interested in commemorating Ontario’s licence plate history in the form of a poster. They declined, citing the cost. John was unfazed, and designed his own poster featuring an extensive run of Ontario plates through the years, with pictures from Gary Edwards, plus contributions from Dave Steckley, Paul Cafarella, and a few other sources. He hired a private firm to print and laminate them, and he had them ready for the 2008 Grimsby meet. To the pleasant surprise of everyone, he offered one free of charge to each collector who was in attendance!
John shared his butterfly hobby with us from time to time, and always drove his instantly-recognizable butterfly van everywhere. At the 2009 installment of Grimsby, he brought a framed mount of a sexually dimorphic butterfly (male on one half and female on the other), and also brought the largest moth on record, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records. Like many life-long hobbies, John’s love for butterflies originated during his childhood. At the age of 14, his butterfly collection was featured in National Geographic! As an adult, he authored children’s books about butterflies. He created three traveling exhibits to present to a who’s-who of royalty, national leaders, and celebrities. He started his own company to produce and sell butterfly products. He was interviewed numerous times on radio and TV. His expertise surrounding butterflies was solicited by breeders and conservatories across Canada. I can’t imagine what his passing must mean for that community, let alone his family.
John was interested in connecting with people. He was impressed by the comradeship that was on full display during our meets in Acton and Grimsby. He thought it was something special and wanted to do something to commemorate it, and he spearheaded a “Halton Tag Club” certificate at the 2010 edition of Acton. He printed up colour certificates on card stock, with each one personalized with the name of a regular attendee. It was a one-time memento. Some people were confused, and some were amused, but everyone could agree that it was a nice personal effort from someone who was eager to be a booster for the hobby at large. 2010 was the year that John made lawn signs for Dave Steckley and Don Goodfellow to hammer into the ground on meet day, to bring in extra traffic from the street. He took pleasure in surprising people with tokens of goodwill. A few years later, John brought a handful of commemorative Centennial dollar bills from 1967, and surprised me by giving me one of them. Each one bore “1867-1967” in the place where the twin serial numbers would ordinarily be, and featured the centennial logo. I kept mine in my hobby ephemera box, where I keep old letters and other paper things.
John was a former officer with the Waterloo Regional Police, badge number 263. In his early days as a plate collector, he came across a short 1947 plate that seemed tailor-made for him, number X263. He loved it, because as a retired police officer, he was already ex-263. He also brought a relic from his active days as a police officer: He once confiscated an Ontario plate in the 1970s with falsified renewal stickers. I don’t have a picture of it, but as I recall, the outdated sticker in the lower-right corner had been painted over with the colour of whatever the current year was. He kept it in a drawer for years before joining our hobby and bringing it for show-and-tell.
John often supported the meets in both Grimsby and Acton by bringing a couple of “Take Ten” boxes of hot coffee from Tim Horton’s, along with a box or two of doughnuts, for anyone at the meet to freely enjoy. John wasn’t typically among the door-crashing collectors who show up before the official opening time, but when the coffee made its appearance, we all knew he had arrived. There are a few pleasures in life that only an Ontario plate collector will truly understand: One of those pleasures is pouring hot coffee, compliments of The Butterfly Man, in the middle of the Acton curling rink on a cold morning when you can see your breath. John’s generosity didn’t stop there. Whenever he attended a swap meet in either Grimsby or Acton, he brought door prizes for us to raffle off. He picked items people could actually use; he brought booster cables, gasoline discount cards, plate covers, washer fluid, and snow brushes, among other useful things.
Probably the most memorable thing John Powers did was produce a set of plate replicas as a response to the unprecedented auction of a matched pair of temporary 1916 Ontario fibre plates. Many of us were watching that auction in February 2018, and I played a small part in sending the bidding sky-high. John enjoyed the story as it unfolded, and to commemorate it, he had a CD recording made of the auctioneer’s chant. He played it for us at the 2018 installment of Acton and lightly re-enacted the bids that a couple of us made, before we heard the auctioneer hit the gavel with the now-legendary high bid of sixteen thousand dollars. John reasoned that $16k was too much to pay for the real thing, so he had replicas made of 1915 and 1916 Ontario temporary plates. They were beautifully made, complete with brass mounting grommets. He had fourteen of each made up, and they were $25 each. My feelings about them were mixed at the time. I tend to frown upon replicas, but John had them made to help us remember an event, and certainly not to deceive (which they probably won’t). John certainly wasn’t selling them as a money-making venture; he was simply recouping his costs. Given the years of donations he had made to our swap meets, his generosity could never be questioned. I happily bought one example of each replica, as a memento of John Powers and his exuberant enthusiasm for our hobby. John also slipped me a CD copy of the auction audio, as yet another token of his boundless goodwill.
I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t recognize John when I saw him in 2019 at Acton. I put two-and-two together with the help of a couple of friends. By the time I realized it was him, John had left the meet; he didn’t stay for the group picture. He was clearly unwell, and it was through Dave Steckley that I later learned he was battling cancer.
John Powers put his all into this hobby, and for that, I will always remember him. Many of us had gotten used to John’s tokens of appreciation: If you ever enjoyed a free coffee at an Ontario swap meet, or took home a nifty set of booster cables because you had a winning ticket, you had John Powers to thank. He was just a guy who wanted to be kind to others, and in so doing, he made things better. And perhaps that’s an enduring lesson that we can all continue to learn from him.
Rest in peace, sir.
- With thanks to Dave Steckley for edits and additional images
Further Reading: - John's obituary
- Flying Jewels (the business that John founded)
- John's Orangeville butterfly exhibit in the news (Orangeville Banner)
- John's butterfly and banknote exhibit (Canadian Coin News)
- John's Sault Ste. Marie butterfly exhibit in the news (Sault Online)
- John's Stratford butterfly exhibit in the news (Toronto.com)