John Irvin Doerksen
June 10, 1924 – January 13, 2021
Dad’s story begins in the little town of Herbert, Saskatchewan. He was born to Elizabeth and her husband, Jacob, a country store merchant on June 10th, 1924. So humble were John’s beginnings, that not a single herald angel woke up even one sleepy shepherd on that fateful night so long ago. But it was okay anyway. Sam had a brother, and his sisters Rosella and Lillian had a new baby brother to introduce to their dollies. More sisters, May, Orlean, Viola and Sylvia were to come later, but their stories have already been told elsewhere.
Many years later, when asked what he enjoyed most about his Saskatchewan years, Dad was quick to mention a couple of things. When old enough to drive, but not necessarily old enough to have a license, Grandpa Jake gave Dad a few dollars and the keys to the truck, told him to round up two or three of his friends and head on over to Swift Current and pick up a load of screenings from the mill. Screenings were unwanted seeds from weeds or other plants not fit for flour or seed, but okay for feeding livestock. Grandpa had found a buyer for the screenings, and so Dad and his friends bumped their way into Swift Current for adventure and profit. After picking up the load and a few treats, the boys would head back to Herbert, but keep going until they reached the broad valley of the South Saskatchewan River, now Lake Diefenbaker. There a successful cattle rancher, after showing the boys where to deliver their load, offered them a meal and the company of real live cowboys before sending them home to their mothers, their heads filled with visions of growing up cattle barons, or cowboys, or worse.
Across Main Street Herbert were the grain elevators that loomed over every town along the railroad. In Herbert, the elevator manager, a non-local (or English as the Mennonites would say whether they were or not) had a tidy house beside the elevators that belonged to the railroad. Here, the manager, an ex-boxer, took it upon himself to teach the local boys how to fight, something that would come in handy later on. Whether the elevator manager could hear the distant beat of war drums in Europe or not is unknown, but in any case for German-speaking boys going to school with “the English” knowing how to defend yourself from bullies with an axe to grind would earn you grudging respect if nothing else. Many years later, we boys, rummaging through some of Dad’s things came across an old high school trophy. He had been runner-up in his weight class in the B.C. Provincial Games for boxing. How he was able to keep this a secret from his pacifist parents I couldn’t say. He kept it a secret from us, too.
Dad’s Saskatchewan years came to an end like it did for so many during the Great Depression. Grandpa packed up the family and headed West and didn’t stop until he reached paradise, beautiful Abbotsford, B.C. Sadly, paradise was to be put on hold. War broke out in Europe, and Dad went to work in the shipyards on the coast building Liberty ships for the war effort. When he was eligible to enlist, that’s what he did along with several friends. Dad signed on with the Royal Canadian Air Force and was off to Ontario for basic training. After basic training he was assigned to a medical unit where he trained with Dr. Ross Tilley an early pioneer in the emerging field of plastic surgery. London was nothing like any place Dad had ever been, but it was where Dad spent the war repairing the faces of badly injured airmen, and treating their burns as well as anyone knew how. In his letters home, it would seem that Dad spent most of his war going to church, attending Young People’s and having dinner with grateful Londoners who shared their meager rations with the foreign soldiers who had come to help them. The related experiences of the wounded men who were helped tell a different story of Dr. Tilley and the hard work of his dedicated medical corpsmen. So did the hundreds of pictures Dad took of the progress of the unit’s patients as he documented each and every step of what were at the time pretty experimental processes. Operation Guinea Pig they called it, perhaps not the most dignified of names, but for the many men whose lives were saved, who were given back their skin, faces and occasionally working fingers, it did not matter.
The war didn’t end for Dad with the shooting and bombing. The military was interested in getting married men with families’ home first, along with those who had served the longest. That put Dad near the end of a long list. While waiting his turn to go home, Dad was assigned to an RAF unit involved in the pacification of Germany. There Dad saw how badly ravaged Germany had become in the closing months of the war, how hungry the people were, and how desperate mothers were to feed their little ones. Because Dad knew how to use a camera, the RAF had him document everything they witnessed. He saw first-hand some of the worst atrocities of the war, and it took a toll on him, the extent of which did not become fully evident until many years later.
Eventually, Dad’s war did come to a close, and he was shipped home to be reunited with his family and his lovely teenage sweetheart, Erna. Soon after it was marriage, off to U.B.C. for a degree and kids: first Dennis, followed by Donna, Douglas, David all in quick succession, and then by Deborah years later in a cold and snowy place. While Mom was busy with feeding and diapering us, Dad started a furniture store in Vancouver. Once it was up and running smoothly, Dad grew restless for something more, perhaps something like mission work or some other ministry. With that in mind, Dad left the business in the care of his brother Sam, and moved the family to Winnipeg so he could attend the Mennonite Brethren Bible College in pursuit of a degree in theology.
While attending MBBC, one of Dad’s student projects, a Daily Vacation Bible School, led to the formation of a small fellowship group that eventually grew into River East Mennonite Brethren Church. While all this was happening, the furniture business back in Vancouver was suffering setbacks, so Dad applied for his Real Estate license and worked in sales while studying full-time to feed his shivering family.
Real Estate sales became Dad’s unintended career. He started his own office, hired some sales people, and went to work selling mostly rural farms and businesses. During that time, farming in Manitoba was going through turbulent times characterized by several boom and bust cycles, and as farming went, so did Dad’s business. While his business never reached the pinnacle of success he had hoped for, none of us ever went hungry or barefoot, a testament to Dad’s work ethic and dedication to family. Besides his four growing kids, Dad also managed to feed and care for 2 horses, (helping fulfill Dennis’ dream of becoming a horseman,) a pony, and occasional small flocks of ducks and chickens. During this time, much to Donna’s delight, Debbie wheedled her way into our family. Eventually, she won all our hearts and grew into the fine, still young, woman she has become today. Dad was proud of her, as are we all.
During his Winnipeg years, Dad became interested in Young Life, an organization that he became familiar with back in Vancouver. Young Life exposes high school age kids to the Christian message in an atmosphere of fun and challenge. This became an ongoing ministry for Dad as he and Mom opened their home and hearts to teenage kids and their leaders. Their love for this work followed them to Edmonton and back to “the coast” in their retirement years. Many lives have been affected directly or indirectly through this work, and I think our Dad found what he was looking for when he decided to move the family to Winnipeg all those years ago.
Looking for a change of scenery and better winter weather, Dad pulled up stakes in Winnipeg after a short stint as an adult education teacher, and moved Mom and Debbie to Edmonton. Here Dad resumed teaching in the adult system until he reached retirement age. With help from us kids, they started up an artistic blown glass business, and while Mom did most of the work, Dad offered his moral support and business acumen. It turned out to be an important part of their income, and with the proceeds of that and Dad’s teaching pension, they finally made the move back to where things began, “the coast,” where they built themselves a beautiful home on Sumas Mountain and were able to comfortably retire.
When looking after home and yard became too much for them, Mom and Dad moved to the lovely Garden Park Towers where they enjoyed living until Mom became sick, and Dad lost his wife and life companion of 58 years. Dad continued on at Garden Park until moving to Menno Home where his life came to an end after 96 years.
All his life, Dad loved a party. He had a great sense of humour and never shied away from the spotlight. Underneath that jovial exterior, however, was a man of steely resolve. As children, we always knew where he stood, and if he needed to clarify that, he could do so energetically. That said, he always loved us, and although we didn’t always agree, we loved him. None of us, except the girls, of course, turned out exactly as Dad would have liked, but in the final years of his life he came to be okay with that. Most of all, Dad wanted us all to be with Mom and himself in eternity, and he lived it convincingly. What more can be said.
John Irvin Doerksen
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January 26, 2021
John and Erna were unbelievably committed to Young Life, to me and to prayer. I was moved to see their stickies all over the wall - of what they prayed for. They gave me far more than I deserved in love, care and good food. One night we overstuffed the Triple E motor home with kids. John’s joy and laughter in the midst of it all was a memory.
The First day I came to explore the idea of moving to Edmonton we met at the Convention Inn on Saturday for breakfast. I said I would need to be accepted to the U of A in education as a transfer student. He got up, made a phone call and took me to Abe Conrad’s house - the Associate Dean. “Abe (still in Pajamas & housecoat) we need some help.” Without that interaction I may never have moved to Edmonton - by my thorough research U of A did not accept U-Vic education transfers. Abe gave me assurances of my acceptance. On a Saturday! John and Erna became my friends. Their Debbie and I were good friends and she was a phenomenal YoungLife leader and tree planter.
John and Erna’s faithful love, support and prayer-disciplines inspired me - especially on the harder days. John Doerksen was a very special man. My condolences to all who grieve and especially to the family. One day, our reunion will come. Love to you all - John.
January 24, 2021
It was my privilege to know John for almost 40 years. He was a man of prayer and encouragement. Young Life in Edmonton was built on his shoulders. Literally thousands have been blessed by his service.