A Foothills war veteran was known as a "north star" for many in the Millarville and Okotoks communities.
Winston Parker, 102, passed away on Nov. 16 due to heart failure.
“Just his heart quit beating,” said niece Marion Kennedy. “I guess these things often happen when you least expect them.”
She said the call from his caregiver, Beauty, came as a shock to the family. He had been in good health overall and they had been chatting regularly.
While the pandemic will prevent a large celebration of life, as it thwarted birthday party plans for his 102nd year on July 31, she said the family will have a private ceremony graveside, in the hopes of a community memorial celebration down the road.
She said he will be missed by everyone who knew him.
“Winston had a life well-lived and for all of us who knew him, we were blessed because he was a treasure to all of us,” said Kennedy.
When she spoke to him about not being able to host a birthday party this summer, Parker had told her not to worry – they would do it bigger and better when he turned 105.
“I would have thought he’d outlive me,” said Kennedy.
In keeping with what she called a great sense of humour, Parker had an ongoing rivalry with his sister – Kennedy’s mother, Jessie Fleischman – that he would outlive her, too.
“My mom said, ‘No you won’t, you’ll never catch me,’” said Kennedy. “They had this little back-and-forth, and my mom lived to be 102-and-a-half, so he really only had another couple months to go and we all were sure he’d make that.”
Living more than a century, Parker managed to have an influence on many people, including his family and the people in the Millarville community where he’d settled as a pioneer rancher after returning from the Second World War, where he had been a prisoner of war in Germany (modern day Poland).
He told that story, with some hesitation, to Elaine Thomas when she was a journalism student at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).
“One of our assignments was to interview someone and write a feature story about them,” said Thomas. “I asked Winston if he would talk about his years as a prisoner and he said no.”
He soon called her back to say he had never shared that story with anyone, but he would tell it to her because they shared a connection. Their families were closely tied in Millarville and he knew Thomas’ mother, Cecilia, well and cared about her daughter.
Nervous, and without proper understanding of the war to ask the right questions, Thomas said she showed him her story and Parker straightened her out – “because I just didn’t get it.”
Years later, she approached him about telling his entire story in a book, entitled Saddles and Service, and although he wasn’t keen on the idea of shining a light on himself, he agreed because he knew it was important to her.
“That’s how we came to do it. But he was a stickler,” said Thomas, adding Parker was clear about only including three pages on his imprisonment in the book because he had only spent as many years in the camp.
It was difficult to summarize his experience, which she said defies description, into so few words. He had lived through significant depravation with his fellow prisoners of war, being broken physically and mentally over the course of nearly five years before finally being marched out. By the time he was rescued, the once-180-pound man weighed only 98 pounds, she said.
In the hospital, a nurse helped him into a bath and provided him with fresh clothing, but he was too weak to get himself out of the tub and required her assistance. They got to know one another, and she asked to keep his worn-out boots as a souvenir.
“He just said, ‘Have at it,’” said Thomas.
During his time in the prison camp Parker had contracted malaria from some prisoners out of the Mediterranean who were being treated for the condition. It was something that plagued him for the rest of his life back home, she said.
“It would just come back on him,” said Thomas. “He had to deal with that malaria the rest of his life.”
Despite the hardships he endured during those years, Parker never resented the German people, she said, though he did harbour some resentment for the German government, Hitler and his followers who carried out war crimes.
“But he was a gentle man, he was always very kind,” said Thomas.
That kindness was extended to many people throughout Parker’s life in Millarville and Okotoks. He helped Thomas’ mother on errands and as she grew elderly and struggled to hoist herself into his pick-up, he built a stool for her to use.
He always gave without expectation, said Thomas. Parker would donate money to efforts he thought were worthy and contributed the proceeds from his book to a scholarship at SAIT for students of the aircraft mechanics program, which he saw as integral to the flying industry as a past member of the Canadian air force.
When he returned from war, he was one of the Millarville community members who would dig the graves of his neighbours, because it was typically done by families of the deceased at the time.
“Is there ever a service to mankind, to your fellow community, to your neighbours, where you would go and dig their grave and not feel like you were put upon, but in fact like they were paying you an honour?” said Thomas.
While attending SAIT, Thomas found a mentor and helping hand in Parker. She decided not to take photography as an elective because it would be difficult and she didn’t have a vehicle to travel around Calgary. When Cecilia informed Parker – an avid photographer – of that decision, he was having none of it and told Thomas he would drive her to any assignments that came up during her second year of classes.
The first assignment was to capture action, and not only did he offer to drive her and take photos alongside her, he arranged for them to document a round-up by ranchers from the Black Diamond and Turner Valley area.
“To tell you the truth, it’s some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken,” said Thomas.
Thomas, who now writes a column and has a blog site from her Texas home, said he had a profound impact on her life.
“He was my north star, and he was the north star for many, many people in the Millarville community, many people who he helped,” said Thomas.
She said his indomitable spirit shone through as he did things like help found the Okotoks Seniors Club and, just last year at 101 years old, read through two books on the bestsellers list in spite of needing a magnifying machine due to macular degeneration.
It was all part of keeping his mind healthy, she said.
“Winston may have been 102 but he never lost his sharp mind and his interest in the world around him,” said Thomas. “His body aged but his mind and the way he viewed the world never changed. He loved people, he loved to help people, he loved to be around people, and he was an extrovert by every measure.
“He never lost any of that. What a gift that is.”