Keith Turner first set eyes on the world 106 years ago today in a small town in rural Manitoba located south of Brandon and “right on the American border,” he says.
He knits his brow as he sifts through a hundred years’ worth of memories for a name, but comes up with nothing; his powers of recall aren’t as hardy as they once were, he admits.
The day of Turner’s birth — May 7, 1907 — happened to be a particularly busy day in an eventful and chaotic year. The headline story in that day’s edition of the Edmonton Bulletin lauds then Deputy Minister of Labour William Lyon Mackenzie King for saving the West from a “serious coal famine” by helping settle a dispute between miners and operators at B.C. and Alberta coal mines. In San Francisco, meanwhile, strikebreakers opened fire on trolley operators vying for an eight-hour day, killing two and wounding 20 on a day now known as “Bloody Tuesday.”
Elsewhere, 1907 unfolded under a cloud of uncertainty. Strikes clogged ports in New York in May. The “worst race riot in [the] history of [the] west” rocked Vancouver in September. And in October, the Panic of 1907 set the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbling as New Yorkers lined up around the block to cash out their accounts before their banks went bust.
These were uncertain times, and farm families like Turner’s unearthed little in the way of security as they tilled their prairie fields.
His family moved from southern Manitoba to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in 1912, he says, and it was there that his father would try in vain to force Turner to follow in his footsteps.
“My dad tried to make a farmer out of me,” he says, “and I never could see working like hell all year round and getting damn little for it.”
He turned his back on farming to work on road and rail building contracts in central Saskatchewan in the mid-1920s. Then, in 1929, Turner ventured west, travelling first to Prince Rupert, B.C. before settling for a time in Terrace.
“And then they had that big stock bust” Turner recalls, “and everything shut down up in that country. It was pretty dead country.”
As a “Jack of all trades and master of none,” Turner worked his way through the Great Depression.
“I was on the go all the time, working all the time,” he adds. “You could get something to do if you wanted to, really.”
Turner’s willingness to relocate led him next to Anyox, B.C., a mining town built by Granby Consolidated on Observatory Inlet north of Prince Rupert.
When Granby closed the mine in 1935 in response to plunging copper prices, Turner and his fellow labourers abandoned Anyox. He accepted a job offer from the departing mine superintendent and followed him south to the Okanagan to work on a new project: the Mascot Gold Mine near Hedley, B.C.
Turner’s assignment was to help construct an aerial tramway linking the mine buildings — perched precariously on the steep, rocky slopes of Nickel Plate Mountain — with the valley below, but his first impressions of rugged and remote Hedley stopped him in his tracks.
“I got up there and looked at the bloody place and thought that if there was a job anyplace else in the world, I would’ve took off,” Turner says. “But in those days, there wasn’t very much doing because it was 1935. Things were pretty quiet.”
Turner stayed on in Hedley — “it wasn’t too bad a job,” he says — which set the stage for a chance encounter that would set the course of his life for the next 60 years.
Turner met Elizabeth Tomson as she was passing through Hedley on her way back from picking fruit in the Okanagan and he and “Betty” were married in Omak, Washington, shortly thereafter, he says.
Keith and Betty built their family while on the move. Their oldest son, Graham, was born while they were stationed in Hedley, Keith’s son Terry tells me.
When the Second World War broke out, Keith decided he wanted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force.
He attempted to enlist in Vancouver, but was deemed “too old and too unhealthy,” he says, and he wound up being conscripted as a labourer instead.
Keith worked in a shipyard in North Vancouver, he says, and it was during this time that their second son Terry was born.
The family moved to Vancouver Island in 1944, Terry says, settling in Cedar long enough for their youngest son, Rod, to join the family ranks before they moved, yet again, to Nanaimo.
Turner signed on with Madill’s Machinery, a manufacturer of grapple yarders and heavy logging equipment. Over the next 30 years, Turner travelled to New Zealand, Australia, Borneo, Brazil and the Philippines to teach workers how to operate the company’s machinery.
“I had some kind of a knack for getting along with the foreigners,” he says, “but I was the foreigner, of course.”
Keith retired at 67 but life on the sidelines left him feeling restless, Terry says. He returned to work and it wasn’t until he turned 73 that he retired once and for all.
In the end, Keith and Betty would spend more than 60 years together, parting ways when Betty passed away in 1997 at the age of 84, Terry says.
Donna Moulson, activities director at Ladysmith’s La Rosa Gardens, says the home’s residents plan on sharing cake and a card with Keith in celebration of his 106th birthday today, but nothing more extravagant than that as Keith is a “relatively private person.”
Turner shared a birthday cake with family members and Ladysmith councillors at city hall last night (May 6).
When asked by Mayor Rob Hutchins if he had any wisdom to impart on those present, Turner laughed and replied: “Don’t get me started.”
Werner Grundlingh, an analyst with BC Stats, estimates the number of B.C. residents aged 106 or higher at no more than 30 based on data collected during the 2011 census. Grundlingh couldn’t be more specific than that because “nobody keeps track of the oldest person’s age in B.C. until they step forward themselves.”