Wihnan honoured as ‘Senior of Year’

Duane Hicks

Nick Wihnan was honoured as the 2014 “Senior of the Year” in Fort Frances during a potluck supper last Wednesday at the Sister Kennedy Centre.
“All I can say is if I could live another 35 years, I would do it again,” noted Wihnan, who has been director of the Sister Kennedy Centre for almost a quarter-century.
“I just love working with seniors,” he added.
Wihnan, who was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Town of Fort Frances in 2011, was chosen by the Senior of the Year committee, consisting of Dalton Taylor (chairman), Diane Martin, Donna McKelvie, and Cindy Noble.
That committee put out a call for nominations back in the summer.
“This award recognizes the acts of unselfish kindness, time, energy, hard work, and dedication you have presented to our group for the past 50 years, including your role as director of the Sister Kennedy Centre,” Martin told Wihnan.
“Your devotion to helping the community is greatly appreciated by all seniors at the Sister Kennedy Centre,” she added.
“Thank you and congratulations on a job well-done.”
Long-time friend Allan T. Bedard called Wihnan “a tough Ukrainian” who also has “a heart of gold that’s a soft as a marshmallow.”
The backbone of a community is its volunteers, added Bedard, noting Wihnan is “one of the most outstanding volunteers Fort Frances has ever had—not just this year but over his lifetime.”
Bedard said Wihnan has dedicated his life to Fort Frances, and that his time, resources, and skills to help those in need have advanced the Sister Kennedy Centre and this community.
“Nick has demonstrated the character and ability to accomplish difficult tasks not only in public service but private, as well,” Bedard noted.
Wihnan began working in the local mill as a teenager. By the age of 19, he already was volunteering as a union steward, then ran for union president.
He served as president and/or chief negotiator of his union until the day he retired, and previously was recognized as “Labour Person of the Year” here.
In the early 1970s, Wihnan was instrumental in helping organize the first-ever injured and disabled workers’ support group here.
This group went on to help hundreds of Fort Frances and district residents who were injured on the job receive fair compensation.
As an offshoot of this, Wihnan saw the need for—and became the driving force behind—a legal clinic in Fort Frances, with a satellite office in Atikokan.
The clinic continues to help the entire district, including First Nations’ residents, to this day.
Wihnan also is dedicated to St. George’s Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church here, whether it’s planting and maintaining the flower garden or volunteering his time as an altar person.
With regards to the Sister Kennedy Centre, Wihnan has been involved on a committee level since 1984. He also was heavily-involved in the fundraising to get it built.
When it came time to build an addition to the centre, Wihnan single-handedly raised the funds to get the games’ room built.
He has put in countless hours managing and running the centre while never hiring staff, preferring to do the work himself.
Out of the office at the Sister Kennedy Centre, Wihnan assisted people with their problems, whether they were worker compensation claims, Canada Pension claims, medical insurance plans, or any other issue involving bureaucracy.
In addition to his role in the annual Senior Games, as well as last year’s 30th anniversary celebration of the Sister Kennedy Centre, Wihnan has helped usher in programming that has made it a vital centre for seniors.
“He’s not only my friend, he’s my mentor and he’s my role model,” said an emotional Bedard.
“Nick, you deserve this. You’ve done well,” he concluded.
“And if I’ve got tears in my eyes, too damn bad.”
Mayor Roy Avis said he always referred to Sister Kennedy Centre as “Nick’s house,” adding he would stop by the centre at 7:30 a.m. and find Wihnan turning on the lights and making sure everything was in order.
“I don’t think you’ll find anybody as committed as Nick is,” he noted.
The “Senior of the Award” was instituted last year in conjunction with the Sister Kennedy Centre’s 30th anniversary, with the first honouree being the late Hubert Medhurst.
Other awards
Knowing there only could be one “Senior of the Year” each year, the committee handed out a second award—dubbed the “Snow White” Award—in recognition of those who were nominated for top senior and didn’t get it, but still deserve to be honoured for their outstanding service.
This year’s recipient was Lawrence Desserre, who has been a long-time volunteer at the Sister Kennedy Centre.
“This man has set up more tables and poured more coffee than anyone that I know of,” said Martin.
She also noted that behind every great man is a great woman, and his wife, Ella, is right behind him—and she deserves thanks, as well.
Desserre received a framed award to take home while a copy now hangs on the wall of the centre for all to see.
Mildred Bedard, a member of the Senior Games committee and who served as janitress for the seniors’ centre, also was recognized last Wednesday.
Martin noted Bedard “kept our place clean.”
“She went over and beyond,” Martin remarked. “She would play games all day and come in at night and polish up the shuffleboard table for us.
“She really made this an inviting place for all of us to come to.”
Bedard is retiring as the janitress after more than 25 years of service.
Wihnan said he never thought he’d see the day Bedard retired.
“This is one lady that’s done everything for us,” he remarked.
“She’ll scrub this floor tomorrow morning and say, ‘Them guys had dirty shoes,’” chuckled Wihnan, adding Bedard’s hard work, loyalty, friendship, and service is appreciated and admired by every patron of the centre.
“You’re one-in-a-million, Mildred,” he lauded.
“I was going to clean this floor last weekend and it’s a good thing I didn’t . . . it’s filthy,” said Bedard as the room burst into laughter.
Last Wednesday’s supper also was an occasion to show appreciation for businesses that have donated to and sponsored events at the Sister Kennedy Centre over the years.
Businesses and groups personally represented last Wednesday included West End Motors, La Place Rendez-Vous, Lowey’s Greenhouse and Market Gardens, The Place, and the Town of Fort Frances.
Mayor Avis, owner of West End Motors, said that over the years, it has been a privilege to be asked to help out the Sister Kennedy Centre.
“It is something that truly assists the citizens,” he noted.
“I have a passion for seniors—mind you, I’m one myself—because they’ve done so much for this community over the years,” added Mayor Avis.
He said when a business such as West End Motors supports the centre, it is a way “to give back to them.”
Other businesses honoured included A&W, Canada Safeway, Canadian Tire, CIBC, Copper River Inn, District Mental Health Services for Older Adults, Fort Floral, Green’s Brandsource Home Furnishings, Leon’s, Munn Construction, Northwoods Gallery & Gifts, Pharmasave, Royal Bank, Dennis Robinson Ltd., Shoppers Drug Mart, Sunset Country Ford, TD Canada Trust, Tim Hortons, and Wilson’s Business Solutions.
Businesses were given certificates of appreciation for their help and support for the Sister Kennedy Centre.
Guest then were treated to a delicious potluck supper. Music and dancing followed.