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Nick's still kicking

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It's not his legs Nick Ternette misses most.

After twice beating cancer, Ternette lost them two years ago to flesh-eating disease. He still gets around, thanks to a motorized wheelchair.

"The wheelchair saved me," said Ternette. "It's my legs."

To combat infection, doctors also pulled all his teeth. His trademark German accent remains, something he never lost despite more than 50 years in Canada, but the strength and timbre of his voice is diminished, a loss Ternette seems to mourn more than his legs.

"I had a nice loud voice at city hall," he says wistfully. "Boy, I can't yell the way I used to."

Now 66, Ternette's frail, skinny torso doesn't match his legendary mouth. He's still the city's best-known left-leaning activist, he's still angry about the same things, still attends protests and sits on committees and still speaks with his narrow eyes closed in concentration, gesturing as broadly as he did when haranguing city councillors for four decades.

"That's one of my regrets," he said of his time as city hall's conscience. "I haven't seen anyone come forward to take my place."

This weekend marks two years since Ternette lost his legs. The Free Press spent a day with him to see how his life had changed. It was an uncommonly busy day that included a shopping trip to Harry's Foods, lunch with lawyer and former city councillor Lawrie Cherniak, a much-needed haircut, an hour volunteering for West Broadway's good food club and an evening brainstorming session on civic politics hosted by former mayoral candidate Judy Wasylycia-Leis.

Ternette was baching it that day. His wife, Emily, herself a longtime disability activist, was away at a conference in Ottawa. A few days later, Ternette was readmitted to hospital, suffering from an annoying cough that turned out to be pneumonia. He's still in hospital. There is the constant threat his cancer will return, something Ternette's been told to expect at some point. He says he'll be happy to make it to 70.

But he wants no pity. In fact, he chafes at it, recalling how people he's known for years didn't know what to say when he lost his legs, how to show empathy without sympathy.

"You can feel it when someone feels sorry for you. It just bugs me," he said. "You have to come to terms with it. You can't just say 'why me?' You live with it, you fight it and you don't give up."

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 23, 2011 J1

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