A Life's Story

May 04, 2019

Building relationships, community, structures

Vern Koop, 76, was Habitat for Humanity Manitoba linchpin.

By: Melissa Martin

Vern Koop and Agnes Thiessen. The couple had three sons and a daughter.

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Vern Koop and Agnes Thiessen. The couple had three sons and a daughter.

To this day, Sandy Hopkins is still amazed by how Vern Koop's mind worked.

He never could quite explain it. To the Habitat for Humanity Manitoba chief executive officer, it always seemed like Koop was one step ahead of everything, never forgetting what needed to be done, never losing sight of the little details that make any job happen.

Werner Koop was in the middle of eight siblings born to Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

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Werner Koop was in the middle of eight siblings born to Mennonite immigrants from Russia.

So if Habitat needed a contractor on short notice, Koop would go to his mental Rolodex and come back with several. If a house design needed to be changed on the fly, Koop eyed the blueprints and showed them how to do it. All that knowledge stored in his mind, along with endless lists of materials to buy, key dates, meeting times...

"He was maybe the most organized person I’ve ever known," Hopkins says. "Some people are organized because they’ve got lists or charts, but this was all in his head. He had the most amazing capacity to remember things and keep track of things."

Those unique skills, along with a tireless work ethic and a quiet and boundless compassion, led Koop to a career as Habitat Manitoba's beloved director of construction. When he died Feb. 26, at age 76, the Habitat he left behind will never quite be the same.

Werner Koop was in the middle of eight siblings born to his parents, Mennonite immigrants from Russia, on a farm west of Winnipeg. It was a hard-working life; Koop would later recount how, before he was even 10, he'd drive into town to pick up supplies. It's just how things were at that time.

The family eventually moved into Winnipeg, where Koop went to school at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute and took a shine to a girl named Agnes Thiessen. He accidentally stabbed her finger with a compass once, while trying to impress her. But from that rocky start, young romance soon bloomed.

The couple married in 1965, and were together the rest of Koop's life.

They had three rambunctious sons — Byron, Warren and Mark — and a daughter, Audra. When the boys were young, the family moved to Ontario, where they served as house parents at a group home for at-risk youth. When they moved back to Manitoba in 1972, two of the young men who had aged out of that program came with them.

Agnes and Vern married in 1965.

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Agnes and Vern married in 1965.

Together, the Koops helped get those youths on their feet. By then, Koop was already a volunteer at Camp Arnes, where he would serve nearly six decades. For the last 35 of those years, he was a fixture on the inter-denominational Christian camp's board, and had a hand in raising all of its current buildings.

"He always had a real passion for helping other people," Byron says. "That was part of why he and my mom did what they did, right from my earliest memories onward."

In a way, Koop was always about building something: relationships, community, structures. He was a self-taught carpenter, and parlayed that into a career with a local homebuilder and then with Palliser Furniture, where he became a construction supervisor in 1980.

After school, the children would come home and find piles of stairs Koop had built sitting in the driveway, ready to be brought to some waiting home and installed. He often brought his sons with him to jobs, showing them how to build from the ground up; one summer, when Byron was about 17, they framed a whole house.

"His idea of even being on holiday was working," Byron says. "In the summer, we'd be at a cottage somewhere, but it was usually somebody who had something they needed done on the cottage. So we’d be out enjoying the beach and dad would be building a deck. He didn’t do a lot of laying around."

Vern Koop was Habitat Manitoba's director of construction.

SUPPLIED

Vern Koop was Habitat Manitoba's director of construction.

In 1993, that work ethic would bring him to a pivotal place. For the first time, Habitat Manitoba was set to host the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. It was slated to be a whirlwind build, with 18 homes raised and finished within a single week; to help out, Palliser loaned Koop to Habitat for a six-month stint to manage construction.

It wasn't the first Habitat build Koop had done, but it was one of the most meaningful. Over the ensuing years, he became a fixture with Habitat, even travelling to contribute to other Carter builds in Hungary, North Dakota and the U.S. state of Georgia. The organization's mantra — a hand up, not a handout — resonated with him.

"He really believed in that idea," Byron says. "It wasn’t about building a house so much as it was about building a home, and providing the opportunity for families to flourish."

In 2005, Koop retired from Palliser. Days later, he signed on with Habitat Manitoba as its new construction director, where staff soon came to rely on his exhaustive knowledge of the field. For the next 12 years, he would be at the heart of Habitat's local builds, often putting in 60-hour weeks.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with cancer; though he had a number of good years after that, his health began to change.

Koop travelled to contribute to other builds in Hungary, North Dakota and the U.S. state of Georgia.

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Koop travelled to contribute to other builds in Hungary, North Dakota and the U.S. state of Georgia.

By 2015, Koop had set a goal: he wanted to remain with Habitat at least until the second Carter build in Winnipeg, which was set for July 2017. In an interview for Habitat's website, he explained his career with the organization had started with a Carter work build, so it felt right to end it with one, too.

He made it. That summer, when former U.S. president Carter came to town, Koop was right there on site with him, rolling around in a golf cart supervising construction on 25 new homes. Agnes and their sons Byron and Warren joined him on the build, and Koop told Habitat the success of the week gave him "tremendous satisfaction."

In September 2017, Vern officially retired. Sometimes, it hardly felt like it: when he wasn't in hospital, Koop would still make regular visits to the Habitat office, where staff eagerly availed themselves of the vast wealth of institutional knowledge stored in his mind. Koop was always happy to oblige them.

He leaves behind his wife, children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren (who he helped build playhouses for). He also left behind his tools, which his family will put to good use; boxes of Habitat and Camp Arnes memorabilia; and a well-worn Bible, with a few passages underlined.

One of those passages, from Matthew 22:37 seems to capture his life's work best of all. "‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'"

In his memory, the family asks donations be made to Camp Arnes or Habitat for Humanity Manitoba, the two organizations to which he had devoted so much of his life. This summer, Habitat will hold a build named in his honour.

"He really was the spirit of the organization," Hopkins says. "As long as there's a Habitat Manitoba, Vern will be there with us. He embodied so much of what the organization was about, and provided so much inspiration and leadership to so many of us over the years, that we always want to have that spirit with us. And it will be there."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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