Neil J. Lehto hiking Algonquin Park's
Mizzy Lake Trail in August, 2005.
Neil J. Lehto is a 65-year-old attorney who lives in Berkley, Michigan. He and with his
wife, Cheri, have seven daughters. So far, they have seven grandsons, Andrew,
Joseph, Ayden, Austin, Max, Ethan,and Oscar, and a two granddaughters, Hannah and
Lehto began writing as a part-time newsroom assistant at The Daily Tribune in Royal
Oak, Michigan, in 1968, while he attended Wayne State University. In 1972, he began
working fulling time as a reporter upon his return from training as a mechanized
infantry scout with the Ist. Battalion of the 225th Mechanized Infantry Division of the
Michigan Army National Guard stationed in Detroit, where he served as Battalion Public
Information Officer. After graduating from Wayne State University in 1974 with a
bachelor of arts in journalism he enrolled at the Detroit College of Law.
He also graduated from the Michigan Military Academy in Battle Creek in 1974 with a
commission as second lieutenant and returned to service as a platoon leader with
Company C of the 225th. Neil was honorably discharged in 1976. He served as a
managing editor of the Detroit College of Law Review in 1976 and 1978. He graduated
in 1978 and joined a law firm in Sterling Heights, Michigan, where he eventually
became a shareholder. He left the firm in 2003 to establish a solo practice
representing cities, villages and townships in cable television, telecommunications,
public utility, right-of-way management and related matters. He remains actively
practicing law part-time today.
Neil first visited Ontario's Algonquin Provincial Park in 1976. On that first five-day canoe
trip, he was introduced to the true story of Canadian landscape painter, Tom Thomson,
who drowned on July 8, 1917, in the Park's Canoe Lake. Visiting the Park almost every
summer for a week to 10 days, with side trips to Owen Sound, Toronto, Kleinberg,
South River, and Ottawa, Neil toured all of the Ontario museums with paintings by
Thomson and he collected most of the Thomson art books and earlier biographies.
Over the last 30 years, he has taken several whitewater canoe courses and tandem
paddled many sections of the Oxtongue, Ottawa, Magnetawan, and Madawaska
Rivers in the Algonquin area.
He began the writing of Algonquin Elegy: Tom Thomson's Last Spring, in 1994,
completing several character sketches for an on-line writing class, starting with a
character he then called Northway Jon O'Connor, described as returning to Algonquin
Park to investigate the drowning of Tom Thomson following a bitter divorce.
Northway Jon O'Connor became Jon Kristian in the final writing of the book. Most of the
other fictional characters, Howard Hancock, Dixie Waterford and Lucky Haskins,
emerged from these writing exercises. Here's an interesting little-known fact -- their
names come from freeway exit signs along I-75 and I-69, which Neil passed while
traveling to conferences and meetings with municipal clients in Michigan, Ohio and
In chapters of the book called Kristian's Notebook, Lehto tells the carefully researched
Tom Thomson's story. He gathered particularly important insights from a visit to the
Trent University in Petersbourough, Ontario, to personally inspect Algonquin Park
Ranger Mark Robinson's 1917 daily journal with permission from the family of his
daughter, Ottelyn Addison.
He obtained copies of telegrams and letters relating to Tom Thomson from files of Dr.
James MacCallum, M.D., bequeathed to the National Gallery of Canada and others
from the files of the Owen Sound Public Library. Neil received invaluable advice and
assistance from Thomson experts, Joan Murray, former chief executive officer of the
McMichael Canadian Art Collection, and Roy MacGregor, national columnist for the
Globe & Mail. He corresponded with many others, including Dr. Phil Hall, M.D.,
professor of obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Detail crucial to an understanding of the events of July 8 to July 21, 1917, required
many hours of research into early telegraph, telephone, train routes and schedules
between New Haven, Connecticut, Toronto, Owen Sound and Algonquin Park during
those days. Gaining insight into Thomson's family and his relationship with Alice Elinor
Lambert and Winnifred Trainor demanded historical period and genealogical research
into each of their families. Understanding the events required a thorough
understanding of the Canadian Army's victory at France's Vimy Ridge in World War One,
embalming, steel caskets, disinterment, abortion, adoption, the personal property law
of gift, 1917's weather at Algonquin Park, black flies and cold water drowning.
Thus, this story of Tom Thomson's life and death is based on historical fact and
meticulous research. Drawing on all the available direct and circumstantial evidence,
Lehto draws inferences for the reader about what actually happened between Tom,
Alice and Winnie and what Tom older brother, George Thomson did and what
conclusions George would have brought back with him from his two trips to Canoe
Lake on July 12-14 and July 18-20, 1917.
"Clearly, nobody today knows exactly how Tom and Alice met or what George Thomson
actually thought about his younger brother's drowning while traveling home to New
Haven," Lehto said. "Nonetheless, in the book I include these crucial scenes. I
struggled with the few known details to write what I hope is a convincing account,
drawing on what I learned making closing arguments in court cases."
"George Thomson emerged from my research as a particularly remarkable man,"
Lehto said. "He moved from rural Ontario to urban Seattle as a young man, married
and suffered the death by diabetes of his wife shortly after the birth of their son. He was
a very successful businessman and educator, graduated from law school, moved
across country to New York and Connecticut to study painting and certainly knew more
about his younger brother and what happened at Canoe Lake than anyone else.
"Judge William Little talked with George several times about Tom's story for his
sensational 1970 book, The Tom Thomson Mystery. However, what Little eventually
wrote is completely debunked by all of the direct evidence. So, I struggled to
understand how men of their character could have gotten the story so wrong. I
concluded that in those interviews George used all of his skills as an advocate for his
brother and family to persuade Judge Little that he could know nothing about what
"The task of sorting through what George Thomson could and should have known and
what he said and did was the most difficult part of writing this book because I so
admired and identified with him. I think that my conclusions withstand close scrutiny.
While George would admit to me that he helped persuade Judge Little to erroneous
opinions, otherwise he would never have agreed with me."
However, as Jon Kristian wrote in his Notebook: "After a careful review of all the
evidence, the reader will be able to decide that he or she has an abiding conviction,
amounting to a certainty, of the true story of Thomson's death."