A man called Stan
Concentration camp survivor flourished in the Arctic

Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Feb 21/00) - You wouldn't see it in his smile or friendly manner, or in the thing for which he was known best -- gardening -- but Stan Hutyra was as tough as nails.

Through his regular television appearances and numerous newspaper and magazine stories, Hutyra put Yellowknife on the world gardening map and gained a reputation as a master gardener.

Overflowing with flowers and vegetables during each short sub-arctic summer, Hutyra's yard each served as a testament to his self-taught gardening skills.

If bringing horticultural beauty to a cold place was all Hutyra did, it would have been more than most.

But by then he had already grown up the third child of a poor Polish family, survived the German concentration camps of the Second World War, made a new life for himself in a new land, survived bouts with cancer, worked for more than a quarter century in the Con mine mill and supported a family.

Hutyra's long and full life came to an end Feb. 6 in Yellowknife, a place he called home since 1953. He was 77 years old.

He was predeceased by his beloved wife of 40 years, Mollie.

Scratching out a beginning

Esther Braden was Hutyra's neighbour during her first few years in Yellowknife.

Braden recalled Hutyra's first steps toward transforming a barren yard into a beautiful garden, something she witnessed shortly after arriving in Yellowknife in 1964.

"There really was nothing on the property," recalled Braden. "They must have moved in shortly before that, because the yard was just a mess of gravel and clay. He dug a v-shaped trench and filled it in with soil he must have scrounged from between the rocks. He grew strawberries there that year."

Braden, who traded her home-made bread for Hutyra's vegetables, remembers him coming home from his shift at Con mine at 3 p.m. and working late into the long Arctic days in his yard.

Hutyra grew all of his plants from seed, starting them in the greenhouse he built in his backyard.

During the last stretch of the walk home, Hutyra was often accompanied by another of his neighbour's dogs.

"Snoopy just loved him," said Mabel Collinson, Snoopy's owner. "He'd go up the street to meet him every day.

"I remember one day Stan put his coat up over his head and surprised Snoopy, who didn't know what to make of it. He never quite forgave Stan for that one."

Collinson, Hutyra's neighbour for 30 years, delivered the eulogy at his funeral.

Hutyra's reputation as a gardener spread when he began doing regular appearances on the weekly CBC television show The Canadian Gardener. His yard became a tourist attraction.

"He left his mark, not only in Yellowknife, but nationally," said Braden.

She remembers during a visit to Prince Edward Island, after mentioning her home town a man exclaiming "That's where the gardener lives!"

But Collinson said his appearances were also a source of anxiety for Mollie.

Mollie feared her husband would let slip some of the colourful language more acceptable in the Con mine mill than in televised discussions of gardening.

"His language was sometimes a bit rough, but he could get away with it," said Braden.

Surviving the nightmare

Hutyra's passion for gardening began in a place that produced far more death than life.

Born in 1922 in Ciecinie, Poland, Stanislaw was the third child of Anielie and Michala Hutyra. He was almost one of millions of souls destroyed by the tide of hatred that swept Europe when he was a young man.

Hutyra spent World War II in a Nazi concentration camp. During that horrific time, his job was to grow vegetables for the guards and officers who staffed the camp.

Collinson said she knew Hutyra for two or three years before she even heard of this part of his life. Magrum said her father spoke little of it.

"Sometimes he would make jokes about it. I remember telling him about performance appraisals I was doing at that time. He said in the concentration camps the performance appraisals were very easy. If you were alive you were doing good and if you were dead you were not."

There were, however, occasional hints of the horrors he had witnessed.

"Sometimes he would say little things that were really scary," said Magrum. "I remember asking him what he thought about all the time he was there. He said 'You don't think about anything, you don't think about your family, your God, anything. You exist, like an animal.'"

While working in camp, he got appendicitis, a sure death sentence for prisoners in a camp where life was measured by usefulness to the camp.

But Hutyra's gregarious charm helped him survive even the horrors of the camp. While tending the camp garden, he was befriended by one of the officers' wives. She made sure he had surgery.

"He said gardening saved his life," said Magrum.

For the rest of his life the crude scar on his belly served as a reminder of his close brush with death.

Working man

Hutyra's main role in his family's life was as a provider.

Following the tradition of family life in his day, Hutyra's job was to put the bacon on the table and Mollie's was to raise daughters Jane and Joy.

Magrum spoke of her father's work ethic and the sacrifice he made to give his children a better life than he had.

"He worked for years and years, without vacations, without fail, without complaining. He believed you had to earn what you got, that you can't expect anything for nothing."

He supported his family and also sent money back to Poland to help his two sisters get by. The Hutyra family, like most in Yellowknife in those days, lived a very frugal life by today's standards.

Though there was a division of family labour, there was no division between Hutyra and Mollie. As Collinson said, "She was everything to him."

Hutyra maintained the machinery in the Con mill from 1960 until his retirement in the mid-80s. During his first years in the city he worked as a bartender at the notorious Old Stope Hotel and at the Yk Inn.

He followed an uncle's footsteps to Canada following the war, and first worked as a coal miner in Crow's Nest Pass, B.C. He moved to Yellowknife in 1953.

During his time at Con he was hampered by several bouts with cancer.

"It didn't stop him from doing anything, but it was a scary time for him," said Magrum. "He was always so physical. He wasn't an educated man, he made a living from his body."

In his final years, that independence was undermined by Lou Gehrig's disease, which attacked the tools that had served him so reliably all his life, his hands.

Collinson remembers Hutyra confiding his fears to her three weeks before his death.

"The last time I saw him he held up his hands and said, 'Mabel, how am I going to do my seeds?'" she recalled.

It was more than Collinson could bear. She still scolds herself for not being closer during his final days --"I never saw him (after that), because I'm basically a coward."

Hutyra's fierce independence did not allow him to accept his daughter's invitations to move in with her and her family.

"I think he knew he wouldn't be able to garden this summer," said Magrum. She said the prospect of living as an invalid and the anguish of facing another anniversary of Mollie's death, undermined the will to live that had allowed him to survive the concentration camps.

A lasting legacy

The thriftiness that allowed the Hutyra family to prosper in Yellowknife was not applied to others.

"He was very generous," said Collinson. "He would give you the shirt off his back."

"If anybody ever wanted flowers or anything, all they had to do was ask," said Magrum.

At the end of the growing season, with the first hint of frost, he would bundle his profusion of flowers into bouquets that were distributed to the seniors' home and hospital.

Hutyra's sense of humour also left a lasting impression. He shared his gardening secrets and many ribald jokes freely with those who visited.

"Another memory I have is of one of those perfect fall days, which we don't have in Yellowknife too often," recalled Collinson. "He had heaped up this big pile of leaves in his yard and he and his dog (George) would hide in the leaves and jump out and surprise the kids. He enjoyed it as much as they did."

Braden said there are moves afoot to honour Hutyra's contribution to city life by transplanting the perennial flowers that bloomed each year near the hospital.