Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Origin of one man's tireless passion

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Nick Ternette was the model citizen of a not-so-model city.

Passionate, purposeful and relentlessly persevering in his political pursuits, a hippie-like character who kept running for mayor the way Don Quixote tilted at windmills; an Everyman whose politics weren't for everyone, even though they were; a Rebel Without a Pause.

Actually, that's what Nick titled himself in an autobiography he finished just two months ago, on the kind of deadline he knew was closer than he cared to imagine.

Nick Ternette died just after midnight Monday at St. Boniface General Hospital, only four days after being admitted to palliative care.

"He has been fighting different infections since October," said Emily Ternette, his widow and passionate partner in all things politically pinko.

Emily was shocked at being besieged by media, yet I sensed she was grateful for the chance to share her feelings about the man she married 20 years ago this May, after first meeting him when she applied for a volunteer position on Nick's cable-access political talk show.

The reporters all seemed to have the same question.

"What do you think he'll be most remembered for?"

And what did you say? I asked her.

"I say, 'his passion and love for the city."

I had another question.

Where did that passion come from?

The passion and love not just for the city, but more obviously the city's disadvantaged people. What compelled him to dedicate his adult life to standing up for those who had trouble standing up for themselves -- even after his legs were amputated in 2009? He almost died back then from the flesh-eating disease that would leave him in a wheelchair, like Emily.

That near-death experience, and walking tall through the pain and depression that were part of it, may have been Nick Ternette's finest hour. I say that because, for a change, Nick had to concentrate on helping himself.

He and Emily were the ones who needed help. And the people of the city -- people of every political stripe -- responded because of their respect and admiration for the man, if not his politics. A trust fund at a bank soon collected $25,000 in donations. A denturist, after learning all of Nick's teeth had been pulled for fear they were the source of the infection that was threatening to kill him, donated his services and gave Nick back his big smile.

And when Nick could no longer serve as Emily's legs, and they couldn't manage the two-storey Wolseley neighbourhood house in which they lived, University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy stepped forward and found his former U of W student an apartment in a student residence.

But back to that question I had for Emily. Where did Nick's passion for Winnipeg and its most underserved people come from? Emily said they had discussed that and she believes it goes back to his childhood when, with his German immigrant family, 10-year-old Nick arrived in 1955 and was bullied for being one of the enemy. It was postwar Canada. And young Nick the innocent child who spoke only German was being forced to feel guilty for the sins of the Fatherland.

"He always felt he didn't fit," Emily said. "That he didn't belong."

Later, as a teenager, he would launch his life as a rebel without a pause. While his parents saw Canada as a land of wonder, Nick identified with and championed the underclass that had little opportunity.

"I really think that must have sat with him right inside his belly," Emily said. "He just didn't want anyone else to suffer like he had."

It all makes sense.

What doesn't though -- notwithstanding the obvious politics involved -- is Nick never received the Order of Canada. One would have thought that, given how close he came to dying four years ago, someone would have nominated him for the Order of Manitoba at least.

Actually, Emily said someone did.

"A Conservative friend."

It never happened, though.

What did happen, when he lost his legs and the people of Winnipeg responded with such an outpouring of affection, was even better.

"He was so moved he actually cried," Emily said.

They both did.

"He said he had no idea how people felt about him. That they cared that he cared."

As it turned out, Nick Ternette's recognition didn't come with a distinguished title from the government; it came, as it should have, from the people who loved and respected him.

What makes it all the sweeter is Nick, the man of the people, lived long enough to know and feel it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2013 B1

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