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Looking back at a lifetime in Kamloops

The death of Norman Kopec serves as a reminder of the stories and history that precede us

Eighty-five-year-old Norman Kopec died last week and took with him a lifetime of stories about Kamloops.

Norman — a community-minded-senior who grew up in Brocklehurst orchards, involved himself in the hockey community and had the gumption needed to date a gal on the opposite side of the Thompson River — died in Vancouver General Hospital on Jan. 5.

His death serves as a reminder of the stories and history that precede us.

“The legends, the historians, the people that built this province, really,” daughter Karen Kopec-Repka said.

The son of Polish immigrants, Norman was raised on a family farm in Brocklehurst. The 11-acre farm has since been cut up into smaller lots split by Ollek Street.

Norman grew up skating on the McArthur Island slough, which used to be flooded by the fire department.

At Kam High, he met his future wife, Diana, daughter of former alderman Tony Andrew and two years his junior.

Diana said boys from the south side of the Thompson River told boys from north that they couldn’t date girls from their side.

They got married anyway — twice.

Norman, a Catholic who attended Sunday mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help until the pandemic hit, first married Diana in the Anglican church.

However, it bothered Norman, who was known for staying true to his values.

So he married her again in the Catholic church. Norman’s Kam High buddies — with whom he stayed in touch more than 70 years after graduation, often going for coffee together in North Kamloops — used to needle Norman about how Diana was out of his league.

However, the couple had three kids, several grandkids and stayed married for 63 years.

“Perseverance,” Diana said when asked for the key to a long marriage.

For nearly five decades, Norman lived across the street from McArthur Island, near the site of his family’s old farm.

He shared the home with Diana and he pulled out Junipers to accommodate tomato plants, watched a recreation mecca unfold and enjoyed Hawkins Cheezies with a beer and Clam.

The house offered ample space for kids to visit and was often the subject of Norman’s projects.

Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi, the legendary highways minister for B.C., gave handyman Norman his first job out of school, surveying, before he worked for the railroad and eventually spent 30 years working at Kopec Tire, started by his brother, Ralph.

At one time, the tire shop had 16 locations. During a stint in Merritt, Norman became general manager of the Merritt Centennials. He was an original shareholder in the Kamloops Blazers and the family billeted players for Kamloops International Bantam Ice Hockey Tournament.

Hockey eventually revealed Norman had lung issues when he found he couldn’t skate for as long as he once could.

Growing up working on the farm, Norman and his brothers, bare-chested and under the Kamloops sun, used to spray each other with the liquid pesticide used to treat fruit trees in the orchard.

UBC researchers would later attribute that, in part, to Norman’s lung failure.

Twenty-one years ago, he received a lung transplant at Vancouver General Hospital, which is where he eventually asked to be transported to, via rough, flood-ravaged highways to receive medical care.

It is also where he died, holding the hand of his son, Mike.

Norman had 27 different bottles of pills in all shapes and sizes to keep his one lung going.

Diana, whose house was filled with the smell of fresh-made chocolate chip cookies when KTW visited, annually sends thank-you cards through the transplant clinic to the donor’s family and the Kopecs raised money for the cause over the years.

Diana still doesn’t know who gave Norman his lung — but she has her suspicions.

“I thought he got a woman’s lung because he started vacuuming,” Diana said with a laugh.

Karen described her dad as a “fighter.” In recent years, Norman wore a protest shirt to a city public budget meeting.

Having once campaigned for Bill Sarai, Norman wasn’t afraid to tell the councillor what he thought about his vote on McArthur Island’s new disc golf course.

Sarai voted for it; Norman was opposed to the plan.

Sarai said he had the “utmost respect” for Norman, who regularly contacted Kamloops This Week when he was bothered by an issue of some kind or another.

“Pioneer Brocklehurst icon,” Sarai told KTW.

“He knew every family, every race and he was proud of being a Kamloopsian. That was his thing — and even prouder Brock resident. It’s a great loss to the city, it really is.”