Hymie Smith left Ottawa to serve overseas in the Second World War and then spent more than 60 years in Western and Northern Canada. Now back in his hometown, he has ensured his legacy will be used to help people and support Jewish causes important to him. Benita Baker reports.
‘Hi ya honey,’ says Hymie Smith, who greets me with a twinkle in his eye and then immediately bursts into song. “Have I told you lately that I love you,” he croons. Clearly the 94-year-old has not lost his sense of humour or his love of life.
Born into Ottawa’s legendary Smith family, he grew up one of 13 children – nine boys and four girls – which included philanthropist and Nate’s Deli restaurateur Dave, the late kosher caterer Jack, and the late Freda, also of Nate’s Deli fame.
Hymie joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War and was stationed in England where he learned to maintain aircraft, a skill that became his profession, but forced him out to western Canada after the war because that’s where the jobs were.
“We helped him pack his bags,” declares younger brother Dave about saying goodbye to one of the clan. “Now there would be two more slices of bread for the rest of us to eat.”
And so began a life of adventure. This was the heyday of the oil industry and for 30 years, Hymie worked for Mobil Oil, mostly based in Calgary. It was a rewarding job although there was a downside.
“Every time there was a promotion, the little Jewish boy was bypassed,” he recalls.
During his time out west, Hymie spent five years working four-month stints on the C.D. Howe icebreaker on the Arctic Ocean. His vital responsibility was maintaining the one helicopter that flew food and supplies into the northern communities in the region.
Hymie met his wife, Erika, in Ottawa through his sister Molly. She did not hesitate to move to Calgary with him, and later to Dawson City, Yukon, when the oil company transferred him there.
“She didn’t want to get rid of a great little boy like me,” he says smiling.
Dawson City, a mining town, could get cold – 60 below zero cold – but you get used to it, Hymie says. One of the hardest parts of living there was the lack of fresh food. The closest store was 200 miles away in Whitehorse. So Hymie and Erika, along with a partner, opened Dawson City Grocery, a store they built completely by hand.
The miners, who were only paid at the end of the season, bought everything on credit. They were pretty good at honouring their debts recalls Hymie, who sums up his approach to life by saying, “If I can’t do a man any good, I won’t do him any harm.”
Unfortunately, the gas deliveryman fell asleep in his truck one day while filling the store’s tank. The overflowing gas reached the furnace pilot light and exploded. Not only was the store gone, but also all the credit records.
“Suddenly, no one owed me any money,” Hymie laughs.
Although he says Alberta was the best part of his life, Hymie decided to move back to Ottawa after Erika died.
“That’s where I was born and that’s where I want to die,” he says.
Now a resident of the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre, Hymie is thinking about his legacy.
“I stopped drinking so I have some money,” says the serial wise-cracker, before becoming more serious. “I didn’t live my life as a Jew, but I am a Jew, so that’s where I want my money to go.”
To that end, he established the Hymie and Erika Smith Fund at the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation.
“When I visited Hymie at the Perley, I was impressed with his warmth, his wonderful sense of humour and his strong desire to give back,” said Lynne Oreck-Wener, who was chair of the Ottawa Jewish Community Foundation when Hymie established the fund. “We were touched by Hymie’s generosity to our community and his demonstration of the highest ideals of the concept of tzedakah. He’s an example for all of us.”
Hymie has also contributed to a number of Jewish organizations, including Jewish Family Services and Tamir in Ottawa, and Beit Halochem and Magen David Adom in Israel. He is proud that his family is “doing alright” and that he is able to give his money to “the needy and not the greedy.”
When asked how he wants to be remembered, Hymie pauses as if he doesn’t understand the question.
“What do you want people to say about you?” I ask again.
“He’s a good fella, that’s all,” Hymie replies. “I had a good life and a good wife.”
With files from Nicola Hamer of Jewish Family Services.