Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time ticks, and he lives what's left very well

'Digger' Joe, 97, knows he's on 'borrowed time'

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What would you say if someone reminded you how little time you have left to live?

Not because you're dying.

But because you've already lived more years than you have left.

More importantly, what would you say about how you've lived your life so far? And how you plan to spend what precious time remains?

-- -- --

He introduced himself this way.

"I'm a 97-year-old veteran."

The voice on my newsroom phone was strong, the tone determined

"I can still think," he continued, "but I can't write."

And with that, the man I came to know as "Digger" Joe Kutcher said he wanted me to write something for him.

A letter.

Joe wanted to be reimbursed by Veterans Affairs for the more than $200 worth of acupuncture treatments he'd undergone to help manage the pain of arthritis. In the end, he managed to get the money back without my writing a letter, but before the cheque arrived, I paid "Digger" Joe a visit at his studio apartment in a St. Boniface assisted-living centre.

It is here where Joe sits each morning with the audible chiming and ticking of time as his only companion. By my count, there are 13 clocks that decorate the walls, tables and shelves, all but one of which he made himself. But then Joe has always been good mechanically, which is how, in 1935, he started his first of many loosely related careers, as a Royal Canadian Air Force aviation mechanic.

The clocks in his apartment, testaments to his gift with gadgets, are interspersed with framed photos of his family, his three children, and his once-young and so beautiful wife, Molly. Today she resides in a St. Norbert nursing home, where at 95 her heart still ticks, but her brain won't remember. When I ask Joe to remember -- to recall his favourite moment in his long life -- he answers without hesitation.

"My wedding day."

As for the favourite of his many jobs, it wasn't really a job, although he treated it like one. It came along in 1980, after he retired from his last position, as supervisor of construction and maintenance for Riding Mountain National Park. Actually, it was more of a hobby that he treated like a job, and earned him his "Digger" Joe nickname. For more than 30 years, starting with a metal detector he bought at a Main Street pawn shop, Joe has been mining for lost objects; some worthless, some semi-valuable, and some priceless to the person it belonged to.

And so Joe and his metal-detecting equipment have inched their way along boulevards, through parks, campgrounds, playgrounds and even in the shallow water along beaches. Searching and digging for what's buried just below the surface.

He says he didn't do it for money, even though he has a scrapbook full of found coins from 27 countries. In fact, much of what he's found in the ground he's sold and turned into donations for children's charities.

"It was to see what was in there," Joe explains. "To see what I could find."

And, when he found something of sentimental value, such as an engraved ring, there's nothing he enjoyed more than playing detective and tracking down the owner.

"It's sure nice, by golly, calling them to say you've found it, and then to present it to them and to see the expression on their faces."

He keeps their written expressions of gratitude, next to their photos, in another scrapbook.

"I prize that book," he says, "those thank-you notes, more than anything else I've got."

Anything, but not anyone.

Molly is the most precious of all his finds. And every afternoon he gets behind the wheel of his maroon 2006 Malibu and drives from St. Boniface to St. Norbert to find her again. The wife who can't remember him, but he won't forget.

-- -- --

Near the end of our visit, as one of his 13 clocks chimes in the background, I ask Joe if he has ever noticed the irony. How, less than three years from 100, with so little time left, he has surrounded himself with the constant chorus of time ticking down.

"I know the time is coming," he answers. "And I know I'm on borrowed time, and I'm very lucky. What comes, comes. I haven't got time to worry about it."

Finally, I ask him about the past.

"I think I did what I wanted to do," he says, quietly. "Jack of all trades, master of none."

Actually, by the sounds of it, Joe Kutcher mastered one thing many of us won't, not even if we live to be 100.

How to live a life that mattered to himself and to others.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 B1

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