MEMORY LANE: West Van resident draws inspiration from rural upbringing

Victor Harrison renovated his West Vancouver home using wood he milled himself.

He grinds the grain he uses in the bread he makes and serves at the breakfasts he prepares every morning, a tradition that began during his boyhood.

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Born in 1933, Victor was raised in an Alberta farming community during the Great Depression and Second World War. His mother taught all her children how to knit so that they could contribute to the Canadian war effort. At latest count, Victor has made and given away 361 Afghan throws. He gives away the pottery he makes, including, every year, a mug for every first year student in pharmacy at his alma mater, the University of Alberta.

Victor had decided on his career by the age of six, eliminating the professions of farmer, doctor and dentist in favour of pharmacy. His theory even then was that people will always need medicine. If they were unable to pay for prescriptions, barter was always an option.

Picture young Victor, planning his future while feeding the chickens and helping in the garden at his grandparents’ farm outside Edmonton. With every summerlong visit over the years Victor and his brother Marshall took on more of the daily responsibilities of the farm: stooking hay, driving tractor, milking cattle.

Victor remembers the day his father dropped a load of lumber at the family home in town and pointed his teenaged sons in its direction. “You two build a garage,” he said and walked away with no further word of instruction.

The boys did have the advice of one of their great-uncles to go by, essentially it was “make no wasted effort.” Years would pass before Victor understood that his father was demonstrating his trust in his sons’ abilities, acquired through the guidance of the family.

Like most of us, Victor learned later in life to appreciate the lessons and gifts of his forebears. “I had a great childhood, but I didn’t know enough then to thank my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my parents, for what they did for us. I learned more about what that meant when I visited their home villages, and my footsteps walked in their footsteps.”

Victor’s grandparents emigrated from Poland and from the Ukraine to Alberta in 1902 and 1903 respectively. For the first year, his maternal grandparents and the child that made the journey with them to a new world lived in a sod-roofed earthen dugout called a ‘burdéi’. Within three years, the wilderness that both sets of grandparents found on their arrival had been transformed into farms.

The Harrison surname makes a Ukrainian connection seem unlikely, however, Victor confirms seven different spellings in the Harrison family tree. And he grew up playing the fiendish Ukrainian card game known as ‘durak’ as well as rummy and eventually, bridge, which he plays to this day.

Playing cards and listening to the radio was the home entertainment of the majority of Canadians in the 1930s. In the evenings, after the day’s work and study was done, families gathered around the radio for programs like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow, and The Charlie McCarthy Show, featuring Edgar Bergen and his wooden sidekick.

In 1956, a few years after the garage was built, Victor joined Marshall in a more ambitious project. Alongside friends and family members, Victor spent the summer working “from sunrise to sunset, clearing land, trucking in gravel and sand to mix cement, laying concrete blocks” to build a shopping centre in Edmonton’s Crestwood neighbourhood. When Marshall told their father he wished he had more brothers like Victor, it was a proud moment for him. Victor opened his first pharmacy that year, married Marianne (Marney) Olesky in 1957, graduated from university in 1958, raised four children with Marney and, after selling his chain of 12 pharmacies, retired at the age of 48. Since 1985, the Harrisons have lived in West Vancouver. Their home is a cottage built in 1939 where an orchard once stood. Their renovations added a woodworking shop and a pottery studio, and opened up the house with extensions shaded by a canopy of green, thanks to the orchard’s surviving fruit and nut trees.

One of Victor’s workshop building projects called on skills he learned as a boy back in Alberta. “We used our imagination while we listened to The Lone Ranger and The Shadow on the radio. Listening to the stories taught me how to visualize their adventures.”

Victor designed new kitchens for a motel the family owned in Penticton. He measured out space to add a stove, sink and cupboards. He built the cupboards in his workshop. Although this was in the days before computers, Victor did not commit his plan to paper. He kept everything in his head, visualizing the layout and recalling the measurements from memory.

The pottery Victor creates in his home studio is functional, beautiful and free for the asking. He invites service clubs and community organizations across the North Shore to call him at 604-922-8879 for pieces to use in their fundraising endeavours.

Generosity and kindness rank high among Victor Harrison’s many abilities. Let June Melnychuk, whose connection with the Harrison and Olesky families goes back to before June and Marney and Victor’s birth, have the last word on her friend: “Victor loves people and he loves life. He brings the warmth.”

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