British Columbia’s North Country: Vanderhoof

Ken Warren

Story and Photos by Ken Warren (ISN)

June 12, 2013, Victoria, BC (ISN) – Welcome to the fifth article of Ken’s Blog, where historian Ken Warren takes us through some of his childhood memories, sharing with us the lives and times of his sports oriented family growing up in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the 1900’s and beyond. In this article Ken shares his life after the RCMP and the lessons learned in the town of Vanderhoof.

After I was discharged from the RCMP, I went to see the guys from my troop on the Hill, met Scott Coxen, the reason I was discharged, and lastly said good bye to my beautiful girl friend Norma Keyes. I haven’t mentioned Norma before, but we had a great relationship. The very first time I ever danced with her, before I even knew her name, something caused me to kiss her on the cheek while we were dancing. I was shocked that I had done it, and I looked at her not knowing what to expect. “Thank you,” she said. That was it for me, I was almost 19 and she was 21. I never looked at another girl the next five months in Ottawa.

However, now I was out of a job, only had a grade 10 education, and was broke. I had to hitchhike back to BC, so tears weren’t going to change anything. We said our good-byes, there were a few tears, and then I was on the road. I had been hitch-hiking with Jim when I was four or five, and with Arnie for hundreds of miles, so this was going to be nothing. I stopped in Winnipeg to see Jim and Joan. I stopped in Regina where my good friend Alfie Vaughan had been posted at Regina Town Station. Funny, Alfie had arrested one of our Depot Division Instructors for rape, or attempted rape. It happened to be an instructor who was always yelling in your face, so it seemed ironic that the tables had turned.

Eventually, I got home to Vanderhoof to my family and the following week went to see Pete Diemert, the principal of Nechako Valley High.

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“That’s my buddy Kirk passing his candle of great knowledge on to a Grade 11 girl and me behind him going to pass mine on to Sally my grad date. – Photo by Ken Warren (ISN)

If W.J. Cybulski, the principal in Lestock, hadn’t been perfect, I’d be nominating Pete Diemert. I don’t know what kind of school records I had. I skipped out of everything in the afternoons in Kindersley. Oakner was a hopeless case. Chilliwack was even worse, and Britannia was absopositivaf…amalutely the worst. Peter Diemert saved my skin and gave me back my dignity. I have indicated earlier how Pete allowed me to take sufficient courses to get both my Grade 11 and 12 and Grade 10 French in one academic year so as to go on to university.

It was a memorable school year that started out a couple of days late because George Evans and I went to Vancouver to see Elvis Presley at Empire Stadium, August 31, 1957. What a way to start your return to school. I had seen Elvis on two Dorsey Brothers’ Shows where there were no restrictions on his gyrating. He was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. When he later appeared on two Ed Sullivan shows, he was amazing, but they tried to control his hips by showing him from the waist up. Elvis changed life for teenagers. The world opened up and we found a voice. More importantly, our voices were being heard. Elvis did that. Rock ‘n Roll did that. He was the King, indeed. He was the biggest Super Star I had ever seen in person at that stage in my life, and remains the biggest as I get nearer to the end.Who could possibly be bigger than Elvis?

So here is what I owe to Vanderhoof: My first real academic success since Bill Cybulski in Grade 10 at Lestock. Kindersley, Oakner, Chilliwack, and Britannia never advanced me a single course. If I eliminated all four of those schools and went directly from Lestock to Vanderhoof, I’d have entered Nechako Valley High with exactly the same qualifications. What an enormous waste. The reason I hadn’t taken French at Lestock was because at 15 going into Grade 10, I had no desire to go to university. All you needed was a Grade 10 general program to be a Mountie.

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“Back row: That’s me, second from the left, then Kirk and Victor on my left, then skip one, and that next one is Richard. ‘The Four Shooters.’- Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

Vanderhoof was a great town of a little more than a thousand people nestled in the valley of the beautiful Nechako River. The main industry was lumber from several planer mills in and around town. The town had a great senior men’s hockey team, the Bears, in league competition with Williams Lake, Quesnel, and Prince George. There was great moose hunting, and almost every day after school in hunting season four of us from Grade 12: Victor Bowman, Kirk Morrow, Rich Lydell, and I would travel up mountain roads with .303s and .410 gauge shotguns. We’d shoot grouse over top of the cab while standing in the back. We brought home grouse for the dinner every day. We didn’t do a lot of trekking through the bush or around swamps for moose, so we never even took shots with the big rifles.

There was one shocking day however that we ended up with no birds, and we didn’t know it at the time, but this would be our last day of shooting. There was just Vic, Rich and me on this day. We had been dropped off early, a couple of miles out of Vanderhoof, and since we hadn’t shot at anything that day, we decided to have a competition shooting at our caps. We agreed that no matter how badly destroyed our caps looked, we’d wear them into town. Each guy would throw up his hat and the other two would blast it. At the conclusion of three rounds of shooting at each of the hats, my hat was in the best shape, Vic’s was badly shot up, and Rich’s was in tatters. Rich looked so ridiculous wearing his hat that after laughing our heads off, we almost let him avoid walking through town with it on his head. However, that was only ‘almost’. It didn’t happen. We all had to wear our hats, and Rich got the looks and laughs. We were in a jolly mood as we reached Rich’s door and prepared to take off to our own homes. But the jolly mood ended the moment Rich’s door opened and his older brother Jim whispered something to Rich. Vic and I heard a plaintive cry and Rich hurried into the house.

“Mom has just died,” Jim whispered to us, and closed the door. Talk about mood suddenly changing. Talk about being suddenly stunned by a hammer. Vic and I walked sadly away from what had been short minutes ago a joyous scene.

There is a young man in his 20’s who is a legend in Vanderhoof. His name: Beanie Zelke. Beanie was the wildest man in the area by far. He worked for the Department of Highways and must have fought half the tough guys in northern BC. Almost everytime we went to a weekly dance at Prairiedale Hall Beanie took somebody outside and bloodied them. At house parties in town, Beanie would show up uninvited and nobody had the guts to tell him he wasn’t welcome. Inevitably, he would take somebody outside and whip them. When a group of natives beat him up for beating one of theirs, he went onto the Reservation and shot up some of their houses, so I was told.

There was a fellow named Pete that I met at Lars Frederickson’s party, and Pete apparently was a judo expert. He told Beanie that he wasn’t welcome at Lars party, and Beanie beat him so badly that Pete was hospitalized for two weeks. Lars younger brother, Gerdes, (almost my age) asked me to teach Beanie a lesson: “You were a Mountie, Ken, you should be able to handle him.”

“I don’t think so, Gerdes,” I said. “You and Lars thought Pete, the judo expert, was going to teach Beanie a lesson. If that was a lesson, then what I’ve learned from it is avoid Beanie.”

Almost two months later, my younger brother Phil and I were at the Prairiedale dance, so was Beanie, and Pete came to the dance looking for Beanie. I tried to talk Pete out of this foolish quest, but somebody had convinced him that Beanie had caught him by surprise and he hadn’t had the opportunity to use his judo. I could see that Pete was resigned to try, so I went back into the hall where Beanie was getting ready to go out and meet Pete. I hadn’t ever really talked with Beanie before, but I tried to disuade him from going out to fight with Pete.

“C’mon, Beanie, you’ve already showed him you’re the man; you beat him good last time.”

“Yeah, but he’s out there waiting for me. He says his judo’s going to help him,” Beanie responded.

“Well, it didn’t last time. Is it going to this time? I say go out there and remind him that you put him in the hospital last time, and offer to shake hands and be friends.”

Beanie went out and cleaned Pete’s clock again. One of Pete’s friends took him to the hospital once again. What was surprising was that Beanie told Dave McGinnis, his ex-con friend: “Ken was the only guy who worried about me. The other bastards were all hoping I’d lose.” I wasn’t about to tell Beanie that he had it all wrong about where my heart lay. Anyway, Beanie and Dave McGinnis offered Phil and me a ride home. A month later those same two saved Phil’s and my life.

There was a group of six or seven young girls 15-17 in Vanderhoof that attracted not only us, but a bunch of guys 19 and 20 from Prince George. So, on this one day half a dozen guys from Prince George were in town and got into a bit of a rumble with some of our guys, and one local fellow, Knobby Clarke, apparently hit Kenny Boyd from PG with a two by four and knocked a couple of his teeth out.

Now, I was 19 and with Phil and his friend Ian Eastman, both 15, in the Green Parrot Cafe. The only other patron in there was a kid, about 19, named Sadler. I didn’t know him, but knew he never lived in town, never ran with any of the local teens, and had apparently been in jail. Getting on with the story, Sadler looked quite a bit like Knobby Clarke, so when five Prince George guys came into the restaurant, they did so because they had spotted Sadler through the window. They pulled Sadler out of his seat, scaring the hell out of him, and calling him a Knobby shit. I told them that he wasn’t Knobby, and they decided they wanted all four of us. They released Saddler, and he sat down. He wasn’t going outside for anything. Besides, the guys had turned on us now.

“Come out or we’ll drag you out,” they said. I looked at Ian and Phil who were only 15, and was trying to figure out how we could get out of this. These guys were all my age. We had no chances. We couldn’t out run them. We certainly couldn’t fight with them. If we stayed in the restaurant they’d either drag us out or beat on us inside. We slowly went outside still trying to figure out how we could talk our way out of this dilemma. As we got out the door, there was a loud noise and screech of tires as this big 50’s car slid to halt beside us. Out of the car jumped Beanie Zelke and Dave McGinnis. Not a word was spoken. All five of those Prince George toughies were running up the street as fast as their legs would carry them.

“I told Dave that looked like trouble,” Beanie said.

“You saved our lives, Beanie,” I said. “Thanks, man.”

“Hey,” he said. “The five of us could have walked all over them. No sweat.”

Around the time that Beanie was just 21, my brother Jim and his own little family came to visit us in Vanderhoof. I told him of Beanie’s many escapades and he said that Beanie probably wouldn’t live to see 30. And he was right. Jerry Ploughman, and his brother, and Beanie were apparently playfighting in a fellow’s house and broke a lot of his furniture. When they were leaving, the man shot Beanie dead as he was getting into the Ploughman’s pickup. Beanie was 28. I don’t know why the fellow shot him, but it’s not that hard to speculate.

Now that you’ve heard of Beanie and Dave McGinnis, can you imagine them in a teenage church youth group? In Vanderhoof we had 76 members in the United Church Youth Group. How did we do it? I was the President and Roy Ferrier, a young RCMP member was the vice president. How we did it was to first interest that group of six or seven girls into joining. Bubbles, Sally, Nina, Judy, Bonnie, Patsy, once we got them to join the core of about twenty that we already had, then we got guys and girls you’d never expect to join a church group. I’m not just talking about Beanie and Dave McGinnis. I’m talking Ken McGinnis,Larry Johnson, Ron and Jerry Swanson, the Ploughman boys. Some of those guys brought their guitars and added lots of fun to the meetings. Thanks to Cliff Weeks, the practising minister, we were allowed lots of parties. At one point we had 76 members, and they were showing up.

In the dead of winter 1958, J.E. surprised us all by buying a beautiful used 1957 yellow and black Ford Fairlane convertible. It was forty below the day we got it, but there we were driving around Vanderhoof with the top down. It was the best car we ever owned. Carol and I, Vic and Lenore had great times in it. There’s nothing like a convertible, especially a gorgeous one. And most of the ’50s cars had classic lines.

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50 year reunion. Look how good the girls look 50 years after graduating – Photo by Ken Warren (ISN)


This next pair of pictures below are sports pictures. The first one is Ronnie Swanson and me. This is a funny story and shows what happens to one’s memory over the years. Ronnie Swanson shook my hand and remembered me as a pitcher whom he had caught in many games. Wrong, Ronnie. I only saw Ronnie on a ball diamond once. I was playing for Prince Rupert. Swanson was the bat catcher for Terrace. We were surprised to see one another. I told Ronnie that I would be pitching. He told me he was terrace’s catcher and he offered to warm me up. So, I let him warm me up. I swear on a stack of Bibles that Ronnie Swanson, who I never knew had ever played a game of baseball, is the only person who has ever hit a homerun off me. I suspect, since I’m a left-handed pitcher with good speed and an awesome curve ball, that his warming me up was the reason he was able to crush my offering. It’s also likely that I didn’t take him seriously in his first at bat because I had never thought baseball was part of his repertoire. Vanderhoof didn’t even have A BALL DIAMOND. Anyway, I never told Ronnie that he homered off me. I tried to correct him that we had never played on the same team, but he insisted that he was my catcher on several occasions, so I stopped trying to correct him. Under the picture of Ronnie and me is the players from our old basketball team. My brother Phil was at the reunion and was on the basketball team but was busy somewhere else. There were more than 500 Nechako Valley High grads from all years at the 3-day reunion.

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Ken and Ronnie Swanson, and the basketball team 50 years later. – Photo courtesy of Ken Warren (ISN)

With school over and exams all passed with high marks, I had my mom to thank for dragging me off the street early evenings to get my homework done, and for forcing me to complete several correspondence papers and tests before I’d be allowed to accompany my basketball team for away games. After working the summer with the Dept. of Highways, the next project was to attend UBC for a Bachelor of Arts. After that, probably Law.

My sister-in-law, Joan, found Bruce Forsythe and me room and board in a Kerrisdale home in Vancouver with Mrs. Leek and her two children and a black graduate student, Sam Akintobi, from Nigeria. There were probably 2,000 freshmen at UBC and everybody had to write an essay the very first day of classes because they were going to take the top 40 essays and make a special class of that group. The top group wouldn’t have to take the first year curriculum. Instead, they’d make up their own curriculum with the instructor. Damned if I didn’t make the top group. It was no surprise to me, I enjoyed writing.

What was a surprise to me is how I hated my new English class. First off, there was no organization because we were creating a curriculum. Secondly, the vast majority of the class talked in an English that suggested they were critics rather than creators. In addition, they used lofty language that looked down on lumber lugs from Vanderhoof and hayseeds from Saskatchewan. The very mention of sports received a cold shoulder. I felt no affinity to my new class in my once favourite subject, English.

Then there was Miss Prith, my history teacher. I was taking a Canadian history course that covered the one hundred years from 1812 to 1912. I had enrolled in it because I wanted to graduate with English and History majors. After the first class, I was walking back with Miss Prith, an older woman, to get something from her office. On the way, I asked her why they had created a course for just those hundred years. “It stops just before the First World War and covers a period of Canadian history which is kind of boring and little of importance happens,” I said. “I’ll have you know, I created this course, and it is an important period in Canadian history,”she responded curtly. Wow, think fast, Kenny. She is pissed off. “That’s a relief, Miss Prith. Then my friend is wrong,” I said. “He surely is,” she retorted. “I’ll tell him so,” I lied. “Thank you,” she replied.

I joined the Thunderbirds baseball team so that I wouldn’t have to take gym. If you’re on one of the university teams, gym is waived. I aced French at Christmas, and my mark in the 90’s was supposed to count so much towards my final mark that I probably skipped a few classes and cruised in other French assignments. Math was fun. We had an albino prof who was almost blind, and one of the guys in the class was a huge tackle with the Thunderbirds, George somebody, who was drafted and signed by the New York Giants.

I had completed Chem 91 by correspondence with a 95 percent average, and yet I never understood a word that my prof was saying. By Christmas I quit going to Chem class. My other science was zoology. Thanks to Jim taking me around the Vancouver General and showing me numerous operations, I could see how it takes more than just learning the anatomy of humans and animals to make a good doctor. In operations, blood is always getting in the way of incisions and has to be continuously dabbed and cleared for each cut. In zoology there is no blood to contend with.

Anyway, one day I went in to the Emergency Dept. and Jim was putting this huge, footlong needle into a man’s back, between his ribs. The old fellow squealed loudly in pain and Jim said: “Just six more, Mr. Thompson.” I started to feel sick and headed out to the hallway. In the distance, I could see an exit, and headed for it. I never made it. I fainted. There hadn’t been a single person in that hallway when I fainted. Yet, when I awoke, two interns were talking about me as they kneeled beside me, and a crowd of about 30 others were around me. I heard one intern say to the other: “I think he’s epileptic, I saw him twitching.” Too bad I was still woozy, or I might have responded: “I think you need to look at another career choice; I heard your diagnosis.”

However, my landlady, Mrs. Leek was unhappy that I was often visiting Jim and Joan and staying past nine o’clock, and so one night my suitcase and books had been put outside, a message that my stay with the Leek household had ended. I moved onto residence at Acadia Camp. I was lying in bed one day there when an engineering student came in to visit my roommate.

“What are you doing here,” he asked me. “I thought you were writing your Chemistry exam today.”

“I haven’t gone to Chemistry since Christmas,” I said. “I didn’t understand a thing the prof. said.”

“How’d you do in Chem 91?”

“Got 95 percent,” I said.

“Then you’ll ace this,too, because that’s all the course is.”

I was too late to be allowed into the exam, but I rushed over to see Dean Gage, the best man ever to work on that campus, and lied through my teeth.

“Dean Gage, I’ve just had a car accident on the Granville Street Bridge, and I’m late for my Chemistry Exam. I’m lucky though, it’s my right arm that’s sore, but I’m left-handed.”

“Hurry,” the dean said. “Let’s see if we can get you a test paper and put you in an isolated room.”

All of that was achieved and I passed Chemistry. The engineering student was right. However, the 90 percent I made in French at Christmas wasn’t enough to save me when I let the rest of the year slide. I flunked French. It was a good lesson though. It was the only course I ever flunked at university.