Q&A with Evelyn Lewchuk, Longtime Volunteer Curator, Spirit River and District Museum

Editor’s Note: Evelyn Lewchuk, the de facto curator of the Spirit River and District Museum, is set to leave town on Thursday, May 19, 2022, and start a new life in the City of Fort Saskatchewan, about 500 kilometres southeast of the Town of Spirit River. This Q&A is a tribute to her and her husband, George, for their lifetime of volunteer service to the museum.

Evelyn Lewchuk

Were you born and raised in Spirit River?
No. I was born and raised on a farm in New Fish Creek near the Town of Valleyview. As a teen-ager, I worked at a drugstore in High Prairie, and that’s where I met George, who became my husband in 1956. George was born in High Prairie, but his family moved to Spirit River when he was about one year old. We settled in Fort St. John for six years after we got married then moved to Edmonton and Spirit River after that.

You are known in the community as the de facto curator of the Spirit River and District Museum. What drew you and George to the museum?
We first got involved in the museum sometime in the mid-1980s. By then, we were retired, and the main caretakers of the museum at that time – Gerry Dufour and Marion and Ken Imes, to name just a few – were in the transition phase as they got older. We just started coming and volunteering. Over the course of time, the responsibility of running the museum just, sort of, fell on our lap.

What was life like before the museum and before retirement?
George had a very successful career in the oil and gas industry. He loved working in the oilfield, and he spent a lot of time working on Ellesmere Island in the Arctic as a drilling technician. His career took us to places. One day we were at a barbecue get-together in Fort St. John, and he met a man who basically asked him, “Do you want to go overseas?” At that point, George was getting tired of the extreme Arctic cold, and our two girls were also all grown up and in the early stage of building a career and starting their own lives in Edmonton. So, we decided to give it a go. Three weeks later, we were on our way to our first overseas posting in Singapore. The year was 1976. As we didn’t have the kids with us overseas, we were easy to move. Over a span of eight years, the company had moved us from Singapore, to Indonesia, to the Philippines, to the Middle East and then to Australia. Back then, there was some upheaval where we were in the Middle East, resulting in us getting shuffled away for brief periods of time to other countries. But the company really took good care of us, and we enjoyed our life overseas.

It sounds like George had an incredible adventurous spirit. Please describe to us what George was like.
His adventurous spirit was unquenchable. He hand-fed Arctic wolves, flew small aircraft and parachuted out of a few. He and I rode across Canada on a 500cc motorcycle. He did just about anything interesting, some death-defying, travelling to almost every continent. He was a vibrant, strong man who lived a good life, loved and was loved.

So, when did you guys get back to Canada from working overseas?
We returned to Canada sometime in 1984 after eight years of living abroad.

What triggered the move back to Canada?
We were in Australia in our final two years of living abroad. While we were there, the Australian economy unfortunately floundered, resulting in the Australian dollar losing its value against the Canadian dollar. That had serious impact on our chequebook, and we suffered income loss as George was compensated in the Australian currency.

Where did you return to in Canada?
George and I had built a big house up on a hill about two kilometres south of the Town of Spirit River before we left for overseas. We rented that house while we were away. After two years, George and I decided to downsize. The house was too big for only the two of us with our kids gone. So, we sold the house and bought a trailer home.

So, now you’re back in Spirit River. When did you first start going to the museum as volunteers?
Not long after our return, we were invited to help in the museum as volunteers. George loved history, and he committed his life to volunteering at the museum. He would come in at 9 in the morning and would not come home until 4-5 in the afternoon. He was always doing something: painting, refurbishing something.

And the support of the community was simply amazing. We had yard sales that went on for 10 days and brought in $20,000-$25,000. Through the community’s support, the museum grew into a small-town treasure it is today, and its collection of buildings and structures greatly expanded. Now we have more than a dozen buildings. People just came and helped. At one point, we had 40 volunteers. The museum became our life, and we were happy doing it. George passed away more than five years ago – on January 12, 2017 – and I’m happy to honour him through my volunteer work at the museum, the journey we embarked on together about 30 years ago.

What was that day like when George passed on?
That morning, we headed in separate cars to the hospital to pick up empty bottles as a fund-raiser for the museum. He said he wasn’t feeling too well. So, I said to him he should go home and get some rest then kissed him before we went our separate ways: he drove home while I headed off to the museum. That was the last time I saw him alive. At past 3pm, something in my spirit that I could not explain told me I needed to go home. I arrived home, hollered, “Hello, George” then went straight to our bedroom. There was George lying on the bed. Instinctively, I knew he was gone. I called the ambulance, and parademics arrived and worked on him for about 30 minutes. Efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. After reflecting on that, it dawned on me it was a blessing that parademics were unable to revive him. I think that, at that point, brain damage had occurred, and there was higher risk of him falling into a vegetative state if he had been revived.

As they say, all good things come to an end. What was the turning point in your decision to leave town?
I’ve been living alone for more than five years now after George’s passing. And I’m 84 years old. Last February, I tested positive for COVID-19. As I was sick with COVID-19 and lying in bed wondering if I would make it from day to day I thought it was unfair for my kids to have to drive at least six hours to come and visit me. I was told I would feel better after five days of being COVID-19 positive. But then I’m also dealing with COPD. It wasn’t until after six weeks that I felt I’ve regained my full strength. However, on some days, even to this day, I would get up and would feel really, really weak.

I’m moving close to my kids for their sake and for their own peace of mind. One of my daughters is in Fort Saskatchewan. The other is in Saskatchewan. Considering my personal circumstances, I thought it would be fair to my kids that I stay close to them and spare them from a lot of inconvenience if they want to see me. My friends have asked me, “Aren’t you sad?” And I replied to them, “No, it’s time.”

As you are about to leave, what is your hope for the museum?
We have a caring community, so my greatest hope is that someone would pick up the torch and carry on the great work of building our museum.

Contact for Spirit River and District Museum

  • Address: 4403 48 Street, Spirit River, AB T0H 3G0
  • Phone: (780) 864-2180