Park Place Lodge

After decades of being a mainstay sporting goods retailer on Second Avenue, Ski Base owner Zuzana Simpson chose to sell the business. The new owners are continuing with the existing business and so it continues to grace the downtown core.

Ski Base was founded by Linda and Heiko Socher, previous owners of Fernie Snow Valley ski hill. When Linda decided to retire, following Heiko’s passing, she sold to long-time employee and store manager Ralph Simpson.

Zuzana Simpson is an interesting individual who I have known outwardly since her family moved to Fernie and now it appeared an appropriate time to ask if she would agree to an interview.

Born in 1962 in Ostrava, Czechoslovakia, now Czechia, Zuzana, sister Katrina, and parents Danny and Maria Zdrazila moved to Fernie in 1980 as political refugees, escaping because of repercussions to them not joining the ruling party’s ideology.

“My grandparents, parents and myself did not belong to that party, so were ostracized to the point that mom didn’t get proper medical care and almost died at 37 years old. It became serious with health issues. I really hated the unfairness of it all, and how adults were treated by the system,” Zuzana said. Adding she was 18 at that time and Katrina six years younger.

“I had lots of friends but didn’t hesitate to leave. Dad’s choice was to come to Canada because he believed it was more politically neutral. Mom’s sister was a friend of Libby Podhora who owned Libby’s Restaurant in Fernie. We stayed with them for the first two weeks, then we bought our own place, a fourplex on 9th avenue; it was large with two bedrooms.”

The family knew no English on arrival but they learned the language fairly quickly.

Her father was a millwright and her mother a hair stylist in their home country but to get business licenses here it required that Danny take courses with Nick the Plumber Danyluk, working at the Annex Park building the pond and dyke. Maria worked for Majia’s Hair Design, eventually opening her own shop.

In 2012, Danny and Maria made the decision to return home to Czechia. Zuzana says that they had much bigger roots to the country than their two daughters who chose to stay in Canada, plus life there is much easier for seniors.

For example, she says seniors get free transportation on busses and trains. When her dad had cancer an ambulance would drive him back and forth from home to hospital for treatment.

On arrival to Fernie, Zuzana immediately found work as a chambermaid at the Three Sisters Hotel. “The owners were very patient with me and very nice to me. I would turn the tv on so I could hear English and learn. Then I worked at a Chinese restaurant, the New Diamond Grill. I was told that I was learning to speak English with a Chinese accent.” When one is immersed in a language it’s easy to learn all the nuances of what you are hearing. She persevered but says it took a couple of years to feel comfortable speaking the language.

Zuzana moved to Vancouver in 1982 to 1985 to get her hair design license. She returned to Fernie and joined her mom at Majia’s shop to work.

In 1986 she met her husband Ralph Simpson, who was working at the Ski Base for the Sochers. Ralph came in for a haircut, they became friends and dated for two and half years before marrying in 1989. Three years later son Garyk was born. “He is now 30 and living in Mexico and enjoying surfing lessons. He didn’t have the passion for business otherwise I would have turned it over to him,” Zuzana said.

Ralph managed the Ski Base business they purchased from the Sochers until his untimely death in 2009 in a motorcycle accident. “It was the most horrible time in my life – bar none. When you lose someone unexpectedly it’s a huge shock. I had extreme anxiety about the business and no idea what would happen.”

To stay sane, she kept on because it meant she had to get up in the morning and go to work. “I remember every detail of the last day we spent together, where we went and what a good time we had.”

They had travelled to Calgary and she returned home a day before Ralph. She was at the Taste of Fernie event when it turned very windy, blowing some of the food tents up into the air. The thought crossed her mind that Ralph could be in a windstorm too.

At home when she saw the police come to the door, she said she knew it was bad news. Ralph had been caught in a storm and blown off the road on his new Ducati motorcycle in a huge wind gust on Highway 22. The news of Ralph’s accident shook the community, he was a very active and involved citizen and devoted family man – he will always be missed.

Perhaps this is the reason why Zuzana has an unbridled passion about what she and friends believe is happening in the world today.

“I’m very social on a limited basis, but when walking my dog instead of 40 minutes it becomes two and a half hours as I am always talking to people. I’m so sad for what communism did to people, the human soul being destroyed inside out.”

Living in a communist country and having to escape definitely is an experience that leaves a mark on the mind and colours the thinking.

Having felt force from a government leaves one feeling suspicious of any organization be it political or not that orders the individual to succumb to orders that they believe violates their personal freedom.

Zuzana has acted on those beliefs and stands firm on them. This has garnered her support and opposition and negative attention from the community that she has lived in for most of her life.

By Mary Giuliano

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