When you think of what happened a century ago, it may seem like things that have since been relegated to the history books.
On April 9, 1916, Canada was at war, the Titanic shipwreck was still a recent memory and the women of Manitoba had become the first in the country to cast their ballots in an election. But more importantly for St. Albert resident Gabriel Ehnes, that was his birthday.
Speaking to him in his spacious ground-floor suite in an assisted living facility, surrounded by photos of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, it was apparent he could easily pass for a man 20 years his junior.
He said his family doctor recently sent him for a barrage of tests, and when he went in for the results, the doctor laughed at him, wanting to know how he had spent his life.
“I worked hard,” Ehnes replied. “I was a farmer all my life.”
“It’s no damn wonder you have such good health,” came the doctor’s reply. “You had good food!”
In the small community of Faith, Alta., southeast of Lethbridge, Ehnes was born the youngest of seven children to parents who had fled Crimea after the Russian Revolution and found their way to Canada.
He recalled his early years, riding the old horse and buggy with his two brothers to school, where they would often stop here or there on their way.
“Sometimes if you stayed too long, the damn horse would take off and go to school by himself,” he said. “The old fella would just go his pace, and would know which way to go.”
Ehnes also recalled that his older brother was hired as the janitor/caretaker at the school – for the handsome sum of $1.10 per month – and would have to go get the fire started in the old school room with high ceilings that never seemed to fully heat up in the cold winter months.
“I often wonder how we went to school and never froze,” he said.
He also recalled the first car his father had was a Model T Ford, before he bought a brand-new 1928 Chevy for $1,100 – no small chunk of change at the time.
Ehnes met his would-be wife Christine in the area, and they dated for five years before they married. They moved to Fort Kent, near Bonnyville, in 1953, where he worked the land for 42 years before they retired to St. Albert.
“My wife always wanted to live in St. Albert,” he said.
They first bought a condo, but as Christine’s health began to fail he had to move. When she was transferred to a long-term-care facility, he chose an assisted-living facility close by so he could visit her every day.
His daughter Gloria Kleparchuk said her father was dedicated to her late mother with unmistakable fondness. He would regularly take over some of her favourite food, even though she was on a fairly strict doctor-imposed diet.
“My dad would make her chicken-noodle soup, and haul it over there on his little walker,” she said. “We knew mom probably shouldn’t eat this but she just loved it.”
After 72 years sharing a life, it’s perhaps not surprising to see that kind of dedication. And these days, Ehnes still doesn’t have much need for people to take care of him.
He said at one point recently, fed up with the food where he’s living, he even cooked all his own meals for about 20 days straight – but he said that ended when he would still be charged for the meals at the assisted-living facility even if he didn’t eat them.
And he still gets out and about, all over town, even making the trip from Erin Ridge down to St. Albert Farmers’ Market in the summer. He’s able to get around with the help of a walker, and he recently purchased a motorized scooter for himself – but not necessarily because he needed it.
Kleparchuk said that instead, he was worried he was causing an inconvenience to drivers as he went across St. Albert Trail with his walker.
“He said, ‘People were getting impatient with me, because it took me longer to cross the road with my walker,’ ” she said. “So that’s why he bought himself a scooter.”
Predictably, a man who has spent so many years on this earth and is still so sharp has no shortage of people looking to come help him celebrate the big day next weekend.
“It’s not just my relatives, but all the people I met,” he said, adding he even has some nieces and nephews who, in their old age, are not well enough to make the trip.
Kleparchuk said she was not surprised about the response, with family coming from as far as Alaska for the occasion, and is consistently impressed with Ehnes’ ability to keep on top of his affairs.
“I asked my father for a list of names of people he would like invited to his party,” she said. “Two hundred and ten names later, we started to proceed. And most of them had addresses, too.”
She struggled to find the words to describe the feeling of seeing her dad reach such a significant milestone.
“It’s quite an honour for us. It’s just unbelievable for us that our dad would have survived this long,” she said. “I would have to say he’s like our rock. With his keen mind yet, and everything, it’s so good to have him to talk to.”