A Life's Story
September 24, 2022
Curiosity, energy powered teaching career, thirst for knowledge
Casimir Peniuta, 72, ‘marched to his own tune’
By: Janine LeGal
Joie de vivre, French for an exuberant enjoyment of life, is something Casimir Peniuta had in spades.
Father, grandfather and teacher, Peniuta was a lifelong learner with an infectious desire to know just about everything.
At 10, Peniuta came to Canada from Poland with his family, settling in Gimli until he left for university, and world travel. Geography, languages and politics were among his interests when he turned to teaching, first in rural Manitoba, then the Louis Riel School Division in Winnipeg, and for a decade at St. Amant.
Joanna Blais met and married Peniuta in 1980, while working as a speech pathologist in the school system.
“It was quick,” she says. “We both worked with kids with special needs. Our son is now a psychologist in Louis Riel School Division. Our daughter lives in Montreal and does medical research. Both the kids have inherited his brain and his ability for languages. That’s been a wonderful blessing.”
Peniuta taught students with special needs, embracing the challenge of finding the best ways each student could learn. For him, learning wasn’t always confined to a classroom or bound by rules. His classrooms were filled with aquariums, mushrooms, insects and animals.
His family recalls a time when he took his St. Amant students to pick and crush berries to make a bottle of wine for each of their parents, always finding ways to make learning fun and engaging.
“He decided that it was really important that all the kids have a Halloween experience,” says Blais. “Even though we had two young kids, he picked up the class kids to do Halloween. He was just very much about the ‘what can you do,’ and not the ‘what can’t you do.’
“He went from there to working with kids who struggled, kids that were at risk. His entire philosophy was that we expect as much from you as you can do: ‘You guys are gonna learn science, math, writing, and we are just gonna do it’… Over the years we would run into them, kids who now had a job. They would say such kind things to him. Students trusted and respected him. He had such an impact.”
Peniuta’s insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to wine making, sailing, mushroom and berry picking, and collecting radioactive rocks. He was a fountain of knowledge and trivia, and could talk to anyone about anything, embracing the learning process through any obstacle or challenge.
“He was the most curious man you’ve ever met,” says Blais. “He was a real renaissance man. He had a million interests.
“He was an accomplished artist; he was a musician (guitar, harp and piano) and he spoke four languages. He was never boring.”
Peniuta spent the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic deciding he was going to expand his knowledge of algebra.
“There was always something that he was going to learn, even when retired. He could throw himself in 100 per cent, deciding that he was going to learn whatever. At one point, he decided he was going to make instruments,” says Blais, who treasures his hand-crafted musical instruments, harps and flutes.
‘His favourite saying was: ‘If you don’t know how to do it and you want to do it, you gotta learn how to do it.’ He was that way with his students, children, grandchildren… He loved being a grandpa. If they wanted to go pick frogs, for a walk, he loved that. He was kind of like permanently a five-year-old in terms of interest in adventure. He had a really severe case of ADHD; his story could have been very different if he had not had good teachers,” Blais says.
“When you’re raising a family with someone who doesn’t stick to one schedule for very long… we often joked that I had three kids. The kind of mad scientist part of him, fascinating, reading about everything. He was 65 and doing a headstand.”
Cliff Carefoot and Peniuta taught together for many years and were sailing buddies for decades.
“He asked me if I wanted to take a sailing lesson with him. We enjoyed it so much, we did another sailing lesson,” says Carefoot. “I bought a sailboat which I kept out in Gimli.”
From that point on the two men discovered hiking trails, bogs and beaches, exploring lakes, scenic sites and wilderness around Manitoba and beyond.
And there was the journey by canoe.
“He persuaded me to join him,” Carefoot says. “We paddled back from Grand Forks, N.D. We had to do it creatively. It took us 6 1/2 days… He did push people to test themselves, to think a little further than they might have on their own.”
Carefoot recalled time spent time with his friend, and Peniuta’s unique approach to life.
“He would think outside the box; guidelines were to be tested. Cas would just think up these things and want to pursue these things. He would take things to the limit. He was very supportive; he would listen to the individual, quite willing to discuss most topics from religion to the universe,” Carefoot says.
“He built three telescopes. He wanted to watch the stars, he loved the stars… I expected him to live longer. He was so energetic and so full of life. He marched to his own tune.”
Peniuta died unexpectedly of pneumonia June 12, at age 72.
“At his funeral, we had his homemade wine and everybody got to have a toast,” says Blais. “He was ahead of his time, had a brilliant mind, a kind heart, creativity and love without restriction.”
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