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Wladyslaw Rzeszowski.

Courtesy of family

Wladyslaw Rzeszowski: Carpenter. Family man. Adventurer. Optimist. Born Dec. 8, 1949, in Poland; died Oct. 6, 2020, in Mississauga, from pancreatic cancer; aged 70.

Wladyslaw Rzeszowski could never sit still. Even when he visited a Caribbean beach resort, he looked for the local cooks and gardeners. He asked about their lives and families. Sometimes he went to their homes and gave them tips on how to renovate a barn or hang a door, and before heading back to the airport, he would always leave behind a bag full of coins, clothing and a coveted pair of sneakers or sandals. He enjoyed the sun and sand, but also the opportunity to meet with locals and to hear their stories.

Walter, or Wladzio as he was known to most, was one of eight children raised in rural Poland, among the rolling hills north of Zakopane. He began working at 14 while helping a local cabinet maker, eventually becoming a carpenter.

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He enjoyed attending Saturday night dances throughout the local villages, and met Alina at one of them. Within a week he was eager to get engaged, while she was still debating a second date. He was adventurous and persistent; quite opposite from Alina. But they were married within 12 months and spent the next 45 years together.

With no English language skills and no local contacts, Walter’s appetite for risk and adventure was clear when he made the brave decision to immigrate to Canada in the 1980s, via Austria. He left Poland with a friend, not knowing when or where he’d be able to reunite with Alina and Marta, his young daughter.

Walter landed in Toronto and immediately took on menial jobs, from washing windows to putting his handyman skills to use. It proved difficult to bring Alina and Marta to Canada, and in 1983, Walter and nine other men went on a hunger strike in front of the Polish Embassy in Toronto. They eventually succeeded in reuniting their families in Canada and their experience was turned into a documentary entitled Ten Hungry Men.

Walter was strong, with a dash of stubbornness. He rarely took no for an answer and often saw it as an invitation to debate a topic or to brainstorm alternate ideas; whether it related to a big decision or what would be served for a family dinner. He loved to ask people questions in his broken English, often with the caveat, “I just have a small question.”

Walter’s work ethic was legendary. No job was ever beneath him and no problem was too tough to resolve. Once he retired from carpentry, he continued to stay busy by fixing up apartments and helping out neighbours and acquaintances at the drop of a hat. His inability to rest and relax drove his family crazy at times. It’s one of the reasons for visiting Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The only way to get Walter to rest was to take him out of the country.

He loved to dole out advice to family, friends and even strangers. His only limitation was his language skills and his one regret was that he hadn’t fully mastered English when he first arrived to Canada (as he had been too busy working three jobs).

Walter got sick quite suddenly at the end of summer 2020 and his health declined rapidly. The final diagnosis was pancreatic cancer, with a dash of liver disease, a dose of jaundice, all masked by an aggressive case of shingles. It all accelerated quickly and aggressively. His one wish was not to be a burden to anyone. He never was, since leaving home at 14 years old, he’d stayed independent, persistent and endlessly optimistic.

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Walter was unable to enjoy the much-deserved retirement he had been planning to start “very soon.” Hopefully, he’s somewhere on a sandy beach, sharing a story with a local and smiling. He was always smiling, no matter what life threw his way.

Marta Rzeszowska Chavent is Wladyslaw’s daughter.

To submit a Lives Lived: lives@globeandmail.com

Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide

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