A Life's Story

November 10, 2018

'Legend of The Pas'

Walter Krivda was eccentric and encyclopedic; a nature lover and lifelong teacher who never lost his thirst for learning

By: Melissa Martin

At night, when darkness fell over The Pas and moths swarmed the lights, that’s where you’d find Walter Krivda.

For years, residents of the northern Manitoba town knew Krivda by those evening excursions. On regular visits to The Pas, nephew Greg Krivda used to watch him, staking out lights to catch the little winged insects that had gathered.

Matt Dean photo</p><p>Walter Krivda taught college prep and other courses for three decades at Keewatin Community College, now known as University College of the North.</p></p>

Matt Dean photo

Walter Krivda taught college prep and other courses for three decades at Keewatin Community College, now known as University College of the North.

That was one thing about Walter. He was fascinated by butterflies and moths. He knew all the species, could recognize them by shape and colour. Over the years, his insect collection swelled to the thousands.

One of Walter’s favourites, Greg says, was a butterfly he traded for from Asia, with a wingspan of nearly 30 centimetres.

“He was always so proud of that one,” Greg says over the phone from his Yellowknife home.

Eventually, framed insect specimens covered Walter’s bed. Rather than move them, he took to sleeping in his armchair instead.

This was not unusual, as far as things Walter did: he never did quite what others expected.

So when Walter died Sept. 17 at age 86, northern Manitoba lost one of its most unique residents. The obituary that followed called him a “legend of The Pas,” which invites some explanation. But how to describe a true original?

Let’s start at the beginning, which is simple: there was no one quite like Walter Krivda.

“How do I explain the guy?” Greg muses. “He was so complicated sometimes.”

Walter was born at home in Fingerville, a Ukrainian enclave in The Pas, the first of Annie and John Krivda’s two sons. His brother Arnold died in 2004. He spoke only Ukrainian, until he learned English at school.

From an early age, he was transfixed by the wildness of the world, and everything that lived in it. As a child, he spent long days exploring the forests around The Pas, picking flowers to press and observing its many insects.

That early passion would become Walter’s life’s work. After studying at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg, he took a job with Parks Canada as a naturalist at Riding Mountain National Park.

But he would soon return to The Pas, where in 1966 he took a job at Keewatin Community College — now called University College of the North — as a professor. For three decades, he taught college prep and other subjects.

Walter loved teaching. He developed evening programs that took students out into nature, where they hunted for wild mushrooms, went bird-watching and tasted wild tea. And he taught inmates at The Pas Correctional Centre.

In 1970, the Manitoba Historical Society awarded him with a centennial medal, in honour of his efforts.

When Gene Germain met Walter at the college in 1975, his first impression of the man was of an “absent-minded professor.”

But Walter, he quickly learned, had many more layers; the two soon became lifelong friends.

“He had a tremendous curiosity,” Germain says. “He was a man who could get a lot done in several diverse areas.”

And Walter was, in his way, fearless. Once, the men were hunting for morels in the woods, when police officers caught up with them, suspicious that the men sneaking about with bags and knives were escapees from the nearby prison.

“There are mushrooms in the bags,” Walter told them. “Do you want to try some? They are delicious.”

The cops were skeptical. “Why the knives?” they asked.

Walter was unruffled. “Obviously, you have never picked mushrooms,” he replied.

The remarkable thing about Walter was that his knowledge didn’t stop at the boundaries of nature. He devoured books on all subjects, sometimes breezing through a 600-page tome in a night. He became a living encyclopedia.

“Anything you asked him, he knew,” nephew Greg says. “He was like a computer. I work with kids, so sometimes I’d ask him questions about fetal alcohol syndrome, and he’d explain everything about it to me.”

Walter never married and had no children. He lived with his mother, Annie, in the house his father built, until she died in 2012 at the age of 106. After that he lived alone — but surrounded by his interests, and that seemed to suit him.

There were so many of those interests. Walter loved art. He spent long days in his garden. He often gave talks about local flora and fauna and sometimes consulted at the hospital on possible mushroom or plant poisonings.

Over the years, he took on a vigorous role as a grassroots historian of The Pas. He submitted articles to the local newspaper, the Opasquia Times. He consulted with academics, and contributed time to the Sam Waller Museum.

Above all, he told stories, to anyone who’d listen. His later years were filled with that. He’d spend mornings at the library, gathering more knowledge, then meet friends for coffee to regale them with the many tales he’d collected.

In the months before his death, he was writing a book capturing some of the colourful stories of the north. He composed it on paper, writing it out in his distinctive scrawl; he’d give the pages to a friend to type up.

To the end, Walter wasn’t really like anyone else. He diligently saved what he earned and spent little; he wore clothes from the thrift store, his nephew says, sometimes for days on end. He was frugal, even to unusual lengths.

“He was the kind of guy where, if you went to a restaurant with him, he’d ask for a cup of hot water and give you a tea bag so you wouldn’t have to buy tea,” Greg says.

He never owned a car, preferring to walk to his destination. He never had a bank card: right to the end, he used cheques. He never even owned a computer: “Always tried to get him one, but he never wanted one,” Greg says.

So that was Walter: a brilliant thinker, a character, an eccentric. But this was Walter too; he was caring and, in his unique way, generous. Some days, he would fill his pockets with hard-boiled eggs and hand them to folks in need.

Several years ago, his nephew says, Walter was hit by a truck and suffered serious injuries. Although he recovered, the collision seemed to change him. He struggled with his memory; after he broke his hip this year, it grew worse.

He is survived by seven nephews and one niece, as well as his many friends in The Pas. This much is certain: Manitoba never saw anyone else quite like Walter Krivda, and his community will not forget him.

“Walter was truly unique,” Germain says. “(He) could connect with a lot of society, from scientists to ordinary people.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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