Monday, November 1, 2010

In Tofino, thousands will remember two who helped many

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 1, 2010


In the end, we pay homage as best we can — by donating, by remembering, by learning about the fullness of lives ended in tragic fashion.

Tofino, a village whose permanent population is less than 2,000, is preparing for twice as many visitors for a memorial service for two paramedics. It will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Wickaninnish Community School.

Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, and Ivan Polivka, 65, died when their ambulance careened off Highway 4 before plummeting down a cliff into Kennedy Lake.

Tofino mayor John Fraser calls these “dark days” for his “close-knit town.”

In so small a place, connections abound.

The school is where a bereaved husband has taught elementary students.

Poignancies, too, are plentiful.

All the out-of-town mourners driving to Tofino will travel a winding, treacherous road, passing the site of the fatal accident where, at dawn on Oct. 19, the ambulance crashed.

For Mr. Polivka’s family, it was a second loss following the death of his wife, Chris Webber, by cancer a year ago.

His own tragic death ends a remarkable journey for a man born in the ashes of a world war who later fled his homeland to create a new life on the West Coast.

He was a 23-year-old journalist in his native Czechoslovakia when Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops invaded to crush a reform movement that heralded a period remembered as Prague Spring. A critic of hardline Communists, he left, arriving in Canada in November, 1968.

He found kitchen work at the resort hotel at Harrison Hot Springs, washing dishes “which was good for him,” his family writes in a memorial, “because a lot of young Doukhobor girls worked there and he could speak Russian with them and they were teaching him better English.”

He became a busboy and then a waiter, moving up as he mastered his fifth language.

“While working at the Harrison hotel,” his family wrote, “he would get off his shift at midnight and paddle up the lake stopping at some spot where he would sleep on a simple blanket under the stars.”

He became a citizen, got married, moved to Tofino in 1989, where he became a popular waiter at the original Wickaninnish Inn. With his wife, he hand-built a home on the beach.

Those who live in the sleepy village at the end of the road find the setting conducive to exploring one’s creativity. It is also a place where passions are indulged.

Mr. Polivka was a poet and diarist, a carver and a hunter, a kayaker and canoeist, a photographer and a watercolourist, a mountain climber and a scuba diver.

At home, he baked rye bread and cinnamon buns. But he felt most at home in the wilderness and planned to retire to an isolated cabin on a Yukon lake.

In 1996, he became a paramedic, “a strong man with a gentle touch who helped many patients over the years and saved some lives.”

A memorial fund to honour the two paramedics has been started by the Justice Institute of B.C., which trains students in justice and public safety. The JIBC Foundation launched the fund with a $10,000 contribution towards a permanent endowment. As well, Lane and John D’Eathe, a Vancouver developer and chair of the foundation’s board, donated another $5,000.

Both paramedics graduated from the institute.

Ivan Polivka leaves two stepsons, five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and two brothers in the Czech Republic.

Jo-Ann Fuller leaves her husband, Brian; three daughters; a grandson; and, a brother. She served with the B.C. Ambulance Service for 23 years and was the unit chief of the station in Tofino.

“If anyone needed help in any way,” her family wrote, “whether saving a life or just giving a hug, Jo-Ann was always the first one there.”

The memorial service at the school is being held four days before what would have been Ms. Fuller’s 60th birthday.

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