Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/3/2019 (704 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As one of the original homeowners in Rivercrest, a subdivision north of Winnipeg set aside for war veterans in 1946, and the very last of them to leave at age 101, Art Christensen embodied neighbourhood-building.
He volunteered with the construction of the Rivercrest United Church, Rivercrest Community Club, West St. Paul Curling Club, and West St. Paul Fire Hall.
He went on to serve as West St. Paul councillor for 10 years, and then as reeve for 11.
Christensen was even a bit of a social convener.
"When someone new moved in (to Rivercrest), he always made sure there was a greeting for them," said long-time friend Cliff Gow. "It was an excuse for a party."
Arthur Edward Christensen died Dec. 30 at age 102.
"He was obliging on everything," said Gow, 93, a veteran who settled in Rivercrest in 1958.
Rivercrest was the first residential subdivision in West St. Paul and was made up entirely of military personnel and their families. Fifty-six couples — a number of the women were war brides from England — moved into homes under favourable finances.
Some received grants of up to one-third of the home’s cost plus preferential interest rates. It was the government’s way of trying to make amends for chronically low military pay. But there were few services available, so folks had to roll up their sleeves.
Their military training prepared them for team-building. Whether you were fixing a window, paving steps or a driveway, or building a deck, you could count on your neighbours to lend a hand.
"We were all veterans. Whenever you went to do something, you had anywhere from eight to 12 people on hand to help," said Gow. "It’s a little different life than it is now."
Christensen was born in 1916 to immigrants Niels and Mathilda from Hobro, Denmark, and grew up on Pritchard Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End. His early work history includes being part of stooking gangs that helped farmers harvest.
He joined the army’s artillery division in 1932, and had attained the rank of sergeant when war broke out in 1939. After two years overseas as battery sergeant-major, he contracted tuberculosis and was sent back to Canada.
In an interview with the Free Press in 2016, he recalled how a German submarine, occasionally breaking the ocean’s surface, followed the ship home for many hours, trying to determine if it was indeed a hospital ship. It made for a tense voyage until the German sub finally veered off.
At home, he spent 18 months in a sanitarium and left there with a collapsed lung. Then, he got in with the Veterans’ Land Act program set up to provide small land holdings for returning veterans on the edges of cities. Three were set up around Winnipeg, in St. Vital, Charleswood and West St. Paul. Homes were generally in the 800-square-foot range.
Few of the families had cars in those days. In Rivercrest, the commute to work — it was virtually all men — involved walking a kilometre along a muddy road to reach Highway 9, the northern extension of Winnipeg’s Main Street.
The ex-military personnel and their families were very close, said Diane Christensen, one of Art’s three children. People never locked their doors either, she said.
Christensen and wife Irene (née Rolfe) also had another daughter, Linda, and a son, Niels.
Christensen worked for Canada Manpower and eventually moved up to a management position. If approached by panhandlers on his way to work, he was known to promise them work if they followed him. (Diane didn’t know if anyone ever took up the offer.)
Immigration was then part of the Manpower department, and Christensen helped facilitate the arrival of the first wave of Filipinos to Winnipeg to work as garment workers in 1968. "The needle trade in Winnipeg was huge back then and they wanted seamstresses and sewing machine operators," said Diane.
On the home front, Christensen was devoted to Irene, his daughter said.
His wife suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and it became impossible for her to use the stairs of their 1 1/2-storey house.
Christensen applied and got permission to build a bungalow on an adjacent half-acre lot in Rivercrest. When she became nearly bedridden, he took early retirement so he could be her caregiver.
"He did the washing. He cooked all the meals. He did everything for her. He was an amazing, loving man," said Diane.
Irene died in 1988. Christensen never remarried. In later years, Diane moved back home and helped support him.
As for home life growing up, Christensen ran a tight ship. "He was a very strict father," said Diane. "We toed the line. He just had to raise his voice and we were all, ‘Whoa, Dad just spoke.’"
He was 6-2, but most people thought he was taller because he had such presence. He was thoughtful in his discourse and commanded respect.
Christensen was a member of the Royal Canadian Legion, West Kildonan Branch 30, for 76 years. He held a driver’s licence until age 97. A park in West St. Paul is named for him.
"Rivercrest was really the turning point for West St. Paul," said former mayor Bruce Henley, who will deliver a eulogy for Christensen on April 6 at Cropo Funeral Chapel (1442 Main St.).
West St. Paul was all large rural residential lots and farms back then. First, came Rivercrest, then other residential neighbourhoods began to sprout up.
Christensen was a bit of a mentor for Henley, someone he consulted occasionally on council matters. Henley helped usher in sewer and water lines into West St. Paul in recent years.
"Art said to me: unless sewage is backing up into people’s living rooms, they won’t think anything’s wrong with the sewage system," Henley said. "He knew it was a tough sell to bring sewer into a community."
The council Christensen headed was responsible for many of the services West St. Paul enjoys today, including telephones, road construction, garbage collection, and street lights.
The veterans also planted all the trees in Rivercrest. It was bald prairie when they moved in.