When I reflect on my life, my thoughts keep returning to my parents and what life with them had taught me. My grandparents (Baba and Dziadek) on my mother Sophie’s side immigrated to Canada from Poland and operated a farm in Candiac, Saskatchewan. My father Nick, had a Ukrainian up-bringing and came from a small farming area west of Winnipeg, called MacGregor Manitoba. I was born and raised in Fort William, Ontario, known today as Thunder Bay.
At about age 5, I recall living with my grandparents in a rooming house which was owned by them. My mother ran the rooming house portion and my father worked. A few years later, my parents purchased their first home.
The first 13 years of my life with my mother and father were a huge influence on me. My clear understanding of the benefits of hard work and living with frugality came from my parents. Even though our family was considered poor, there was always love in the house and food on the table. I was about 8 years old when I realized that my father had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Every day, he worked long hours as a milkman at a dairy and at night as a bartender at “The Adanac Grill”. Sunday was his only day of rest.
I have fond memories of my young life and having fun. I was a hard working kid, always had a job and was always trying to make money. I remember asking Dad for money when I was about 10. He gave me 40 cents. The next time I asked, I got 30 cents. When I asked a third time, he looked at me calmly and said “no”. That taught me that my parents’ resources were limited and that I would have to earn my own money. Those lessons were part of my upbringing and I have no regrets. Frugality and the hardship of it did have an impact on me. In the back of my mind I said “I love my parents but I am going to do better than this”.
From the age of 12 while going to school, I had small jobs and saved my own money. I was self sufficient and became virtually independent. I found out that it wasn’t difficult to get work and that “connecting with people” was very important. These traits and a strong work ethic still guide me today.
At 16, I recognized that my parents could not afford the cost of University for me. I was adventurous and in grade 13, I quit school with a friend and we hitchhiked to California. It was something I wanted to do and this experience had an impact on my future. While in California, I saw the extremes between wealth and poverty, success and failure. I quickly realized that my adventure would end as I ran out of money. I hitched back to Canada with plans to return to school.
I took out a loan and I enrolled in the Confederation College engineering technology program. As I studied, I learned that the job prospects involved “shift work” which didn’t appeal to me. By chance, an opportunity came up for me to work in a municipal property assessment office. This appealed to me since I was interested in real estate. Coincidently, my interview was with the Commissioner, Mr. Blundell, a person who I had helped many times when I worked part-time at Loblaws. I was hired for my first full time job as a property assessor with the Regional Assessment Office. This job prompted me to take courses in Real Property Appraisal for about 7 years as I was working and I became an “Accredited Appraiser”.
The lessons learned in my youth about frugality, being trustworthy, keeping high moral standards, having a strong work ethic, and the value of “connecting with people” led to other opportunities. At age 25, I was offered a job with Royal Trust in Sault Ste. Marie as a mortgage manager and appraiser which I accepted. I loved the job and in addition, I was lecturing part-time for the Appraisal Institute on real estate valuation. While lecturing, I was made aware of a business opportunity to acquire an interest in an appraisal firm in Thunder Bay. I flew up that weekend, met the owner, made an offer and became a partner in the business. After 2 years at Doggett & Kowalchuk Appraisals Inc. I bought the firm outright. Over the next 20 years our firm was very successful in appraisal and other ventures and became a trustworthy name over all of Ontario.
At 31, I was very saddened when my father passed away from a heart condition at the young age 54. It was a difficult period in my life and a time of reflection. I thought about what inspired and shaped my life. It wasn’t the poverty. It was more the effect of “living on a fine line” and the intense labour that my Dad put forth in order to provide for us.
Over the course of my diversified career I was offered many opportunities and for some of them, I was just at the right place at the right time.
Around age 48, and into the 21st year in my business, another opportunity came my way. Primarily to assist me with my own investments, I enrolled in and successfully completed the Canadian Securities Course. Following completion, several National brokerage firms pursued me with job offers. I was interested and, after due diligence, I sold my business interest, changed my career path and became an Investment Advisor for Midland Walwyn Capital in 1996. While with this firm and its successors, I continued to use the skills I had learned from my own business, in working with other people’s money. The service I provided my clients was based on three guiding principles” Trust, Objectivity and Value- Added Advice”.
At 60, I officially retired and agreed to work part time for a few years, to bridge my departure from the business with several large clients. At age 63, I fully retired since it was my desire to leave while still at the “top of my game”. I left with the knowledge that had I maintained my clients trust and that I had been as frugal with their money as I had been with my own. Frugality was my mantra and it still guides me today.
Even though I had a very successful career, my wife Lise and I still live modestly. We don’t spend a lot of money; we eat healthy home cooked meals and love spending time at our homes in Tucson, Arizona and Niagara-on- the-Lake, Ontario. When I was working, I didn’t have time to think about life… I just lived it. These days, I have more time to reflect and I realize that I live a very fortunate life and for that I am truly grateful.
Today, when I look at what is happening around me, I see how difficult it is for some people. It is not the poor, like my Mom and Dad were, but the middle class people who are struggling. In most middle class families today, both parents have to work and still find it hard to make ends meet. Ironically they are defined as the “working poor”.
Lise and I knew we wanted to make a difference and decided on “random acts of kindness” as a way of giving back. It started with a friend of my daughter who was suffering from cancer. My daughter explained that her friend was struggling financially and she wanted her husband to have custody of her children if she died, but she couldn’t afford a lawyer. My wife and I sent money to help her with the legal fees. This was our first of many random acts of kindness.
The motivation behind my need to give something back is two fold. It began with the realization that I have been blessed with a very good life and it also has to do with my family. I get very emotional when I think about my family relationships. I am very close to my mother Sophie. She now lives close by me in Niagara-on-the-Lake, so that I can take better care of her. I have a brother Kory in Calgary and two daughters, Chandi in Edmonton and Jill with her family in Ottawa, all of whom I love dearly. Taking care of my own family has always been a top priority of mine. However, life is not predictable and my efforts to direct my wealth towards their futures didn’t quite work out the way I had planned. So I took some time to think about my situation and I decided to allocate part of my financial estate to a charitable endowment fund with the Niagara Community Foundation and include this foundation in my will.
I have always believed that it is not appropriate to award something of value gratuitously to people who are not deserving of it. As a result, the mandate of the “Gerald Kowalchuk Family Fund” is to help underprivileged children or people who are worthy and who are likely to succeed, but lack the financial resources to move forward. I have included my daughter Chandi in the management of this fund. I hope that she gains an understanding of the impact our fund will have on the underprivileged and that she will grow personally by being involved. I also hope that after I am gone, she will continue to run it with the pride and integrity that is a testament to the history of our family.
For me, the greatest gift is to know that my family can now look back in time and say that Gerald Kowalchuk gave something back “unconditionally” to Society and his Community.
Story as told to Maureen McRae in 2015.