Thirty-first in a series of pioneer profiles
Lydia Kania got a taste of the way others see her while attending a funeral. A relative of the deceased, upon being introduced, said: “Oh, you’re the mayor of Passmore!”
“That’s what they called me behind my back,” she laughs. “I’m a bossy kind of person.”
Someone else told her: “Lydia, the trouble with you is you want everything done yesterday.”
But, she says, “That’s the only way to get anything done: push.”
Kania, 87, was a driving force behind the Passmore seniors lodge in the late 1990s. When it looked like a kitchen would be dropped from the project for lack of funding, she led a nine-day 236 km Hike for Housing — from Passmore to Nelson to Balfour to Kaslo to Fish Lake to Silverton to Slocan and back to Passmore. Many others walked with her, but she was the only one to complete the entire circuit. (Wear wool socks, she advises.) They raised $33,000.
Kania was by then used to long walks. Paralyzed with polio at 30, she recovered but was left with a bad back. A doctor recommended walking, so she took it up, her back improved, and a friend later suggested she enter the BC Senior Games.
In her first year, she came home with a gold and silver in power walking. She’s since participated most of the last 20 years, and once set a record in her age category for the 10 km. This year, she laments, she had a bad foot and only earned silver in the 5 km.
ALBERTA, THE PROMISE LAND
Born Lidia Szommer in Györköny, Hungary, Kania came to Canada with her parents as a small child and settled on a homestead near Warburg, Alberta, southwest of Edmonton, along with other Hungarian immigrants lured by the promise of 160 acres of farm land.
She attended a one-room school with 55 students, wearing rubber boots on days that required them and going barefoot the rest of the time.
Her family spoke Hungarian and German, but no English; the local school teacher taught the language to both parents and children. (This also resulted in her name being Anglicized to Lydia Sommer.)
“Then when Dad could read English, he had me bring him books from school,” Kania says. “He read all the books in that library.”
There was little prejudice in the community, as Hungarian families far outnumbered the Anglos, but something went wrong when they applied for naturalization.
“The very first year my Dad gave this Englishman money to get our papers. And he never did. Then the war came along and we’re in trouble. We were of German descent.”
In the government’s eyes, they were enemy aliens. Her father’s hunting rifle was seized, and they were fingerprinted and required to report monthly to the RCMP. But for Lydia the real hassle came after she married Ed Kania, an American building contractor, in 1943.
While Ed went overseas with the military — and was injured by an exploding shell — she tried to navigate the red tape required to let her move with him to the United States.
It took three years, and Ed actually beat her home, but finally they began raising a family on an acreage near the central New York village of Poland. But Ed, who worked on the Alaska highway, told her: “Someday, when our children don’t need us anymore, we’ll move into a cabin in the mountains of British Columbia.”
In 1961, he built a camper for their truck and they set out on an Alaska holiday with their five kids, ages three to 13. En route, they visited Lydia’s uncle in Nelson.
“Well! This was where we wanted to live,” she says. “We bought property [at Vallican] and did not wait till the kids grew up.”
Returning home, they put their house up for sale and began planning to move to BC — much to the dismay of their friends, who admonished them: “You can’t take these children into the wilderness. Leave them here if you want to move up there.”
“But you know,” Kania says, “it was the best move we ever made.”
BACK TO HUNGARY
In 1983, Kania and her mother returned to Hungary for the first time. (Her father had since died.) They only intended to visit Germany, where their relatives had since moved, but her mother suggested going to see their old hometown.
It took an hour to get across the heavily-fortified, Russian-controlled border, where “there wasn’t a smile anywhere.”
Of her childhood in Hungary, Lydia could only remember a few things, like women washing clothes on river rocks, and a pear tree near her house. The tree was still standing when they returned — although much grown.
Kania went back a decade later and tried unsuccessfully to track down her father’s relatives. Her Catholic grandfather was disowned by his family after marrying a Protestant.
Lydia is still fluent in German, but says her Hungarian is rusty because she doesn’t get much practice. Still, at point one she was alone in Hungary and found she was able to manage.
HALF A CENTURY IN THE SLOCAN
Lydia and Ed, 93, recently celebrated 50 years in the Slocan Valley. Their neighbours, Patrick Squires and Linda Smith, who live in their old house, threw them a party. The cake read: “4,000 miles to paradise: From Poland, New York to Vallican, BC.”
“It even had the Great Lakes on it,” Lydia says.
Their kids are now spread out across BC. When none came home one Christmas, she threw an orphan’s dinner that started with a single neighbour, but grew to 13 people. She kept it up for years.
She is also justly proud of a bench along the Slocan Valley Rail Trail dedicated to her by the Lions Club, with whom she fixed up the Passmore hall.
“There is more pleasure in giving than taking,” she says. “I always get a little uncomfortable when somebody does something for me. But I like doing for other people. It’s a lot easier.”
Previous installments in this series