What began as a thought ended as a beautiful afternoon where 100 people gathered to honor Mary Menduk and show appreciation and love to one of Fernie’s premier citizens.
Organizer Sharon Switzer said she thought “wouldn’t it be wonderful to honor someone who is still alive and thriving.” Friends Cheryl Sherry and Leslie Graham agreed and the three came up with a plan to honor local artist and educator Mary Menduk.
Mary is well known for her many interests and most of all for her ability to see the best in people and to always provide words of encouragement in whatever their interests lie.
The occasion was held at the Senior’s Center on October 28,2023 and was by invitation only. When it became obvious that the building was at capacity the organizers thought it best to tell her that a few friends were gathering on Saturday and she was invited.
Mary’s cry of surprise as she walked in to see a room full of people standing applauding her proved how shocked she was. Especially when she spotted nieces and nephews that came from points as far away as Vancouver, Kamloops, Salmon Arm and Castlegar.
The Center looked lovely with tables covered in deep blue linens and centerpieces of fresh cedar branches. Painted runners and cards with poetry excerpts graced the tables. One such poem was titled Not Night with the lines, “Wandering in softness, absent of mind and logic, hearing silence, snow language, the silken pull.”
A podium was set up for Mary and author and narrator Keith Liggett who asked Mary various questions about her life in Fernie as she was born and raised here. In between the various speakers he asked her to read some of the poems from her published book of poetry.
Mary told of her grandfather who went to Pennsylvania to make money to purchase land at home and how her father wanted to come to Canada to do the same. Her mother’s family had money and Mary said, “Mom had the money and dad had the brains, so mom replied, “If I have one fork, one knife and one spoon and live on top of mountains as long as I am with you that is what I need.” And so, they came to Canada.
The program began with Jean Lloyd singing and drumming beautifully and I followed with a brief history of Mary’s life.
Mary is the 5th child of Anna and George Kusnir who immigrated to Canada from Czechoslovakia with their three children. In Fernie they had four more, of which Mary is one.
Mary was raised in the Annex on the last row of houses facing open fields.
The family had a cow, pig and chickens and spoke their native tongue, so English was her second language.
She attended Catholic school and said the nuns made a tremendous difference in her life. She recalls them saying, “Now remember you are all children of God so you must play with everybody. You must not be selective”. Growing up Mary recalls Slovakian traditions such as taking Easter bread to church to get blessed, special holiday meals and her mother making cheeses.
The family was very musical and so there was lots of singing in the home. A talented and accomplished artist, Mary also sewed and made her own clothes.
Mary met Tippy Menduk and they married in 1956.
Tippy had served five years in the Navy and was home on leave when he and a buddy were driving down the street and noticed two attractive young women walking in the pouring rain. The two gals were Mary Kusnir and Curly Bossio.
Unbeknown to the guys the two women had made a bet with one another to take the first ride offered to them.
So, when Tippy asked them if they needed a ride, it wasn’t just his charms that made Mary capitulate and take the offer. She wanted to win the bet.
The next week Tippy called on Mary, he knocked on a door that turned out to be the wrong house.
The neighbour directed him to the right residence where an imposing man answered that door. “If I hadn’t had a couple of beer, I would have run away”, Tippy told me when I interviewed him for a profile.
Mary and Tippy had a five-year courtship as Mary’s father expected her to finish teacher education before they were married.
Mary has been recognized provincially for her contribution to the Arts in the Kootenays, has been awarded the Order of Canada, and received other medals for her work in the community.
She ended a long career school teacher by working in the school board office creating innovative teaching techniques that she passed on to other educators.
Mary is a founding member of the Station Strings, longtime member of the Arts Station and a founding member of the Health Coalition in the valley. The coalition fought to keep health services in the Elk Valley when Interior Health began cutting services.
Much can be said about Mary regarding all aspects of life. She is generous personally with family, friends, community, and organizations. She gives of time and knowledge, of her talents and her wisdom.
Mary has also suffered great pain, she has grieved the loss of Lorne, her only child, in a vehicle accident that happened at his high school graduation.
She supported Tippy during a chronic health issue that ended his life prematurely, she has lost siblings and other loved family members and close friends.
She rarely complains, just faces life and the world with open arms, doing, giving, and always seeking to learn.
Other speakers followed my brief history.
Christa Moffat who said Mary was instrumental in her finding her strength in teaching. “Mary is a profound spiritual teacher, showing how it is to grow old fearlessly and graciously, imagine how the world would be if it was more like Mary”.
Mayor Nic Milligan said he was happy to be there to honor her and recalled how supportive she was of him running for mayor. Adding that in the Ridgemont school he was in an open concept room with different grades, on one side it was calm, Mary never raised her voice, never made a kid feel less than, on the other side with the other teacher it was more disordered.
Sylvia Ayers spoke about her friendship with Mary and how it began when she first moved to Fernie.
Stephanie Fleming recalled being in Keith’s writing class and hearing Mary say “Tonight we drink tequila and dance”, saying, “I felt as if Mary had always has been in my life, she is like a child, filled with hope, surprise, always looking for solutions”.
Frank Lento, handed her his grade four report card from when he was in her class, stating “You never know how many lives you have touched, all are blessed that you have served this community, God Bless you Mary” and handed her a bouquet of pink carnations.
Dorothy-Ann Hubry said her auntie Mary shared goods and methods, “we are so blessed, a thousand words are not enough to explain how”. She recalled being in the yard with her aunty Joanne when Mary and Tippy were dating, she then read a beautiful poem about love, and the golden thread that binds their family.
Donna Miller said she met Mary in 1979 and there was an art community connection formed. She asked Mary to find board members for the Arts Council, which Mary did. She added the “painting continues, cherish the paintings”.
Mike Delich remembered when entertainers Sharon, Lois and Bram came to Fernie, Mary invited them to a dinner at home that they never forgot. In 1998 Mary was asked to produce art to place in new homes to welcome everyone entering, “she is renowned for her water colour medium. You’re an inspiration to everyone”. Mike then showed a beautiful painting of fish underwater that Mary had painted years ago.
Cathy Hopland said she has only lived in Fernie four years but has found Mary interested in why she had moved here. Saying Mary listened with delight, curiosity, and a love of learning.
Lynda Bird met Mary in 1975. She became a member of the arts council, and said Mary was a great supporter of all arts, was a born leader and mentor to all primary teachers, expressing encouragement to everyone, “I’m blessed to know you”.
Jean Marchi said, “I crave precious moments with Mary, I asked for a gift this morning and here you are, thank you for being my friend and teacher in life.”
Her nephew Gary Gawyletz, said his aunty Mary had a special attribute, extreme patience and understanding, “you make everyone feel important, valued, you listen. You have quality time for everyone. Success came, but family is important to you, you get what you give, and today you are getting back”.
Sonia Roy ended the program singing a hauntingly beautiful Czech song “Lullaby to a Close Space” that Mary joined in.
From all the speakers there was a common thread that described Mary as a living embodiment and definition of a good person.
Mary, we are grateful to you for sharing that goodness with so many. We are all better for knowing you. Thank you, we love you.
By Mary Giuliano
Mary arrived in Fernie in May of 1953 and has lived here ever since, by choice, because she loves the Elk Valley and everything it stands for. Read more from Mary here.