Gregory Chmara was known, but not known, by hundreds of Kingsville residents. He’d sit in front of the downtown Bank of Montreal branch watching the world go by, smiling, exchanging a nod and a few words with anyone who stopped and said hello.
He was a recluse, but his funeral in 2004 at St. John de Brebeuf Church was packed with mourners.
He was a compulsive walker, who would walk to Leamington to do his shopping and, when in the mood, he’d travel on foot to Blenheim and back, a distance of more than 160 km.
Recently David Bull, a photographer with roots in Windsor-Essex County, posted a picture of Greg on Facebook sitting in his favourite spot in front of the bank and wondered if anyone knew more about the person everyone called Smiley or The Walker.
That post set off a flood of comments and responses on Facebook. Many posters had warm memories of Greg Chmara and suggested a statue be erected of him sitting on the bench. Others suggested a plaque.
Part of the urban myth surrounding his compulsive walking was that he refused to drive because his wife and child had been killed in a car accident.
Orest Beztilny, Greg’s nephew, confirmed in an interview last week that his uncle never married and was childless.
“It didn’t happen. He was never married,” he said.
Harry Gregory Chmara grew up in Thorhild near Edmonton. His parents were immigrants from Ukraine who came to Alberta at the turn of the last century to homestead on a small farm.
The farm was small by modern standards, a quarter section (160 acres), and Greg’s father grew grain and raised cattle.
Beztilny said his uncle’s love of walking was established at an early age. He said Greg would routinely walk five miles from the Chmara farm in Thorhild to the Beztilny’s place to help his father with farm chores
.“He was a great help to my father on the farm. He was a big strong boy and got along well with my mother, his sister. He was just a great guy,” Beztilny said.
He said he had two brothers close in age and the three siblings all viewed Greg as their favourite uncle, always willing to play and chat.
Beztilny said things began to unravel for Greg when he went to Yellowknife in the early ‘50s to work in a gold mine. He invested a lot of his money in the mine and lost everything.
“There was a bit of a gold rush going on at the time. He invested quite heavily in the gold thing and unfortunately he lost a large sum of money. When that happened he went downhill from there,” Beztilny said.
Greg left Alberta for British Columbia, returned to Alberta and entered a seminary near Edmonton with plans to become a Ukrainian Roman Catholic Basilian priest. He eventually left the seminary but remained a devout Roman Catholic.
Beztilny said the family lost track of Greg in 1955. He said Greg attended the funeral of one of his sisters who was killed in a car accident, then disappeared, only to re-emerge many years later when he was in Kingsville. He said the family has no idea what happened in those years between leaving Alberta and coming to Kingsville.
Former Kingsville mayor Jim Gaffan, who cut Greg’s hair at the local barbershop and probably knew him better than anyone in town, said Greg worked various jobs on his eastward journey to Southwestern Ontario.
He said Greg landed a job at Freedland Industries, a Kingsville stamping plant. The job ended when the Wigle Avenue plant closed.
Jim’s son Tony, who also cuts hair at the Gaffan barbershop, said he remembers those conversations between his dad and Greg.
He said Greg talked knowledgeably about local affairs and current events.
“He was different, but I learned a valuable lesson listening to those conversations — never judge a book by its cover,” Tony Gaffan said.
The outpouring of comments after the Facebook post included Fern Henry-Pearsons, a recent arrival to Kingsville who never meet Greg, but who knew similar personalities growing up in Germantown, Ohio — a brother wounded in Vietnam and damaged mentally, but who had extensive knowledge of music and musicians, a mentally challenged man who saved abandoned animals and was an excellent animal trainer and a blind man who operated a newsstand and always knew the denominations of the bills he was handed.
All eccentrics. All accepted by the community.
“These folks made small town life interesting,” she said. “They encouraged people to be inclusive and engendered real affection. Of course, there will always be those bigoted idiots, where difference means a threat … but generally, people are kind and don’t allow abuse to continue.
“I have come across a few people in Kingsville that are different, by the world’s definition. I adore that which is less mundane and not cookie cutter, it adds … richness to our community.”
Orest Beztilny said Greg’s family in Alberta was always thankful he settled in Kingsville.
“If he had gone to a big city like Vancouver or Toronto he would have been swallowed up,” he said .
Greg’s sister Helen Beztilny and her daughter Liz visited Kingsville in 1986. Other relatives had visited but his sister and niece were the last Alberta relatives to see Greg before his death at the age of 80 in early 2004.
Liz Beztilny said it was an important visit for her mother. She hadn’t seen her brother since he left Alberta in the mid-1950s.
“You know for my mum it was always a sad part of her life that they had no contact for so many years when they were so close as children,” she said. “After we saw him she felt good about the fact he seemed settled there and was happy and content.“
That was a good thing for her to find out, instead of worrying about him.
”She said when her mother and uncle were reunited the 30-plus year separation dropped away as if it was 30 minutes. We’d be sitting, talking, having lunch and it was if they picked up from the old times which is often the case with siblings who have been separated for a long time. It’s not like they are strangers, they are connected again and that’s how it was with my mother and uncle.”
Liz Beztilny rented a car and remembers visits to the Jack Miner Bird Sanctuary, Point Pelee National Park, the Heinz plant in Leamington and the Ruthven Apple Festival. They also visited Niagara Falls.
Liz took a picture of Greg standing in front of the falls wearing attire that would be familiar to many Kingsville residents — shorts with suspenders and no shirt.Liz also remembered walking down Main Street in Kingsville with her mother and uncle and how many passersby would stop and say hello. She said she felt it made her uncle happy to walk down the street and be able to introduce his visiting Alberta relatives.
Liz and her brother, Orest, were touched to learn how many people attended their uncle’s funeral at St. John de Brebeuf Church.
“That’s really nice to know,” Liz said. “Often when people are away from their family as he was, when they pass away no one notices. So that’s really nice that people came to pay their last respects to him.”
Liz Beztilny now lives in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. She said Qualicum also has a town eccentric named Phil, who, like her uncle, is always smiling.
“It’s a small town so he manages to fit in, just the way my uncle did in Kingsville.”
Out for a Sunday walk — to Blenheim
KINGSVILLE — Greg Chmara could often be seen walking back from Leamington bare-chested, carrying grocery bags in both hands.
Drivers coming from Leamington, knowing where Greg was going, would often stop and ask if he wanted a lift.
Greg would most times say no and continue his slow walk west toward town.
But Kingsville resident Bob Cranston had better luck.
“We were driving home from work and we see him walking down the road with two grocery bags. We had always heard he refused rides and I thought, you know what, let’s find out. Well, heck no, he was happy to have a ride.” Cranston said he and his wife dropped Greg off downtown where he had an apartment.
He said aside from a few pleasantries there was little conversation.
“He really didn’t say too much. He was just a quiet, happy man. He’d say it’s a nice day, how’s it going, stuff like that. He never was a big conversationalist as I remember.”
Jim Gaffan, of Gaffan’s Barbershop, said he and his family were returning from Tillsonburg when they stopped at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Blenheim and saw Greg having a meal.
“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’” Gaffan said. “He said, ‘I’m out for a Sunday walk.’”
Gaffan offered Greg a ride home — Greg had a 80 km walk ahead of him — but the offer was declined.
Gaffan said Greg told him he took up long distance walking after being laid off from his janitorial job at Freedland, a Kingsville stamping plant. “He was looking for something to do to fill his time.”