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THOMPSON: An encounter with an extraordinary person

July 08, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


As I opened my car door just outside Cobs Bread bakery in Vernon, a gentleman walked past. He was eyeing my car, and something about his halting gait - certainly not age - made me think he wanted to say something…so I acknowledged him. Nodding with a smile, I said, “Hello.”

He stopped, returned my greeting and said knowingly, “This colour…you don’t see very often on a Mercedes.”

“Yes sir, that’s right,” I agreed. “It’s special, a six-month wait.” Despite fifteen years, my deep red SL 500 hard-top convertible doesn’t look its age. I actually prefer its sleek, low-slung body style to the corresponding newer Mercedes two-seater.

“I’ve had a couple Mercedes over the years,” he said, adding with another smile, “Wonderful cars…yours is beautiful.”

“You’re a man of good taste,” he continued. “We can always spot each other.” I detected a wry smile.

I tossed my hot dog and hamburger buns for the long weekend barbecue with the grandkids in the convertible’s passenger seat, and introduced myself. 

“Hi, I’m Don,” I said, adding, “We both have accents. I’m from Florida…and you…Hungary?”

“Yes,” he said, his smile at first widening then flattening some, “But a long, long time ago. My name is Nicholas…Nicholas Rety.”

I told him that I had been to Hungary a few times…and I loved Budapest. He told me that he left his native land as a teenager. He said he was returning in September for the first time in many years.

I could see a glint in his eyes…but a slight melancholy, as well.

“It is a farewell trip of sorts,” he said. I raised my eyebrows.

“I’m 89 years old,” he explained.

“You sure don’t look it,” I laughed. “I would have said mid-70s!”

“How about you?” he asked.

“Sixty-nine,” I said.

“We’re both doing OK,” he smiled. “Men of good taste.” Another wry smile.

Our conversation could well have ended after those brief pleasantries. But, one thing I’ve learned over time is that if you engage folks - really engage them - you’ll be rewarded. More often than not, people I’ve reached out to have left me better than they found me. I hope most of them felt the same way.

“Do you know what has always impressed me about Hungarians, Nicholas?” I asked.

His eyes widened…sensing the rhetorical nature of my question.

“Their passion for music,” I said. “Some of the greatest pianists…and violinists…I’ve ever heard were Hungarian.”

I told him I listened to great pianists in the cavernous old Grand Hotel Budapest - now the Corinthia Hotel - over a couple decades. And more nights than I can remember in New York City in the 1980s at the Standhope Hotel’s Rembrandt Room and the Hideaway Room in the Waldorf-Astoria - drinks in hand - I listened to the marvellous George Feyer…a noted Hungarian pianist.

Feyer - like so many Hungarian pianists - was beyond competent…he had the touch…the feel…of a skilled surgeon. Pieces he played - whether Bartok or Gershwin - had depth and dimension you didn’t hear with most other pianists. Feyer played with the precision that composers intended…and if you were present, you couldn’t help but notice.

My new-found friend Nicholas seemed to like that I knew Hungarian musicians by name. I asked how long he had lived in Canada…and he said, “Many years.”

Actually, it was 1960, when he immigrated here, immediately joining Lord Strathcona's Horse in Calgary as medical officer for the Canadian Army’s tank regiment. Two years before he had graduated as a physician from London Hospital.

Nicholas left tumultuous Hungary in 1947 - awarded a scholarship to a Benedictine-run school in Somerset, England, where he graduated and attended night school for his undergraduate pre-med work. He paid his way through school using brain and brawn…as a delivery truck driver, a worker in a chemicals plant and as a writer in an advertising agency. 

By the late 1960s, Nicholas had become a surgeon and moved to Vernon, where he was a practicing urologist, and served a stint as president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia. He retired 20 years ago.

Like so many people I have come to know over the years simply by engaging them…Nicholas had led…and continues to lead…a rich, full life. While he practiced medicine in Vernon, he also studied and became a pilot…finding the special freedom and thrill that soaring above the clouds delivers. Also, a few years ago, Nicholas penned a book: “No Return Ticket: A Memoir” about his life. I haven’t read it…yet.

My quick run to the bakery had cost me maybe an extra fifteen minutes…an encounter with yet another extraordinary person…the latest in a long line of people who I didn’t let pass because of that inexplicable desire to engage them.

Standing by my Mercedes, we both sensed it was time to carry on. Once more, he complimented my car. I told Nicholas I envied him his return to Budapest - his first trip there since 1977 - we shook hands and I wished him safe travel.

He nodded…smiled, and as he turned, said, “Don, I’ll look for your footprints in Budapest.”

If you’re reading this…especially if you’re 30 or so…I encourage you not to pass on chances to engage people, especially someone older. Yes, they might not be on Instagram…walk around with a Smart Phone…and might not be able to find Netflix on their televisions. But what a mistake…your loss…if you don’t take the time to know them just a little. I guarantee you…their lives have been extraordinary…and you’ll be better off than you were.

You’ll be older one day if you’re lucky…and you’ll appreciate that wisdom.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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