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MEMORY LANE: Optical industry brings couple together

“Growing up in Edgemont Village was idyllic,” says Elaine Kriz (née Hutchings). “I remember vaulting over backyard fences and running in the forest with my friends.” It was also an insulated childhood.
Elaine and Libor Kriz

“Growing up in Edgemont Village was idyllic,” says Elaine Kriz (née Hutchings). “I remember vaulting over backyard fences and running in the forest with my friends.”

It was also an insulated childhood.

“I wasn’t really aware of other North Vancouver neighbourhoods until I got to high school. Except for Lynn Valley. It was like a different world to Edgemont. Lynn Valley has a suspension bridge too, but for me even the bridge was different, more exotic than the Capilano bridge. My dream was to live in Lynn Valley,” says Elaine.

A world away in Czechoslovakia, life for Libor Kriz was very different. “Our situation at home was not desperate. Our standard of living was OK, but there was no freedom.”

Czechoslovakia at that time was part of the Soviet Bloc and under communist rule. Libor’s aunt, Jana Spur, proved that freedom was possible. In 1968 Jana was permitted to go to France on holiday and she didn’t return.

Instead, she made her way to Canada, to Lynn Valley in fact, where she opened Westlynn Optical. Around the time of Jana’s escape to freedom, Libor watched a travelogue about Canada.

“The film started in Vancouver and went over the Rockies and the prairies. I saw lakes with moose in them. Everything was green and beautiful. My aunt and that film planted a dream of freedom in me.”

Like his aunt, Libor trained as an optician and, in 1979, he was allowed to go on holiday to Yugoslavia. “First and last time that was permitted,” he says with a laugh. “I phoned my aunt from the post office, the first time I had talked freely on the telephone. It took six hours to get through.

“I said ‘I don’t want to go back’ and she said, ‘I’m coming.’”

Jana travelled to Europe to meet her nephew.

“I waited for her in the town square, worrying. I was only 15 when she left. What if I didn’t recognize her? But I did. I can remember (it) as if it was today. She pulled up in a little sports car and I jumped in.”

They drove to the Italian border. “The car before us went through and then the phone rang in the booth. As the guard turned away to answer it, Jana stepped on the gas and we banged right through the border. The gates to the Italy side were closed, but open coming the other way. Jana slalomed through the traffic cones and then those gates and we were in Italy. The Italians granted me asylum and a big stone fell off my chest. I was in the free world.”

Seven months, two detention camps and a brisk conversation with Canadian immigration later, Libor arrived in Canada Jan. 30, 1980. He found a place to live in Jana’s building and she helped him find work. In those days, the Vancouver optical community was growing. Around the same time Libor was hired at Tru-Valu Optical on Broadway, Elaine Hutchings walked into the shop with a pair of broken eyeglasses. The manager offered to replace them if she would start work there the next day. Elaine agreed.

To a sheltered young woman from North Vancouver, Libor Kriz, with his trench coat and briefcase (lunch inside) resembled a spy. To Libor, North Vancouver, where Elaine lived and Jana worked, was “far away, exotic.”

Their courtship began with English practice on the bus to North Vancouver, blossomed with late-night skates at the Robson Square ice rink and led to marriage in 1984.

Since 1991, Elaine and Libor have been fitting people with eyewear at North Shore Optical, only the second owners of this Lonsdale institution. They live in Lynn Valley.

“Optical opportunities brought us together in marriage and in business and made our dreams come true,” says Elaine with a smile.

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. Contact 778-279-2275 or lander1@shaw.ca.