A personal tribute to Jan Furst
Jan Furst never stopped telling everyone what a lucky man he was, especially having had a good marriage that lasted nearly 60 years. Jan and Nenna Furst moved to Bowen Bay over 20 years ago. Too soon, Nenna’s eyesight began failing, yet she taught Jan to cook and bake all those Norwegian salmon meals that he shared with many of us in last decade. He always started with a thankful prayer as we held hands around the table, then ended with many liquid toasts.
Many islanders remember Jan’s 80th or 85th birthday bashes at Tunstall Bay or the Legion hall where stories, songs, good cheer, even Black Sheep dances were shared. Jan was beaming as usual.
Yet quiet personal relationships were also central to Jan’s life. In hospice in August, Jan told me about one of his drunken ship welders whom he advised to “lose your family and job or lose your whiskey habit.” The man went sober, becoming another of Jan’s many fans. Jan was a life saver who believed in nurturing the best in everyone. He took in waifs of all ages for a few hours or days, providing a loving home, not just housing. In early 2001, he rented me his home for the summer months when he paid his annual visit to his seaside cabin, south of Oslo. Jan sensed I needed a healing place.
Jan and I met in January, 2001, at a Vancouver meeting of the Canadian Authors Association, when I bought his book, Thorfinn Thorhallson’s Saga. This past summer, while in hospice, Jan was still researching and writing his sequel Viking adventure. He has also written memoir pieces, early Norse myths and his famous poems for special days and events. His poetry earned him a Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Poetry Society in Vancouver.
In 2005, Jan published Ultimate Downsizing, a novel concerning humanity’s choice between fighting or sharing. This was his plea for world peace. Jan kept up with local and world news, always ready to discuss politics or beliefs with a clear, wise mind.
His first book was published in Oslo in 1931, about the sport and construction of kayaks. In his Bowen workshop, Jan made and instructed others to make fibreglass kayaks. For 70 years, he kept his skills and interests in sea vessels, making his granddaughter a boat as a wedding present. One of his lesser known consultations was aiding the Disabled Sailing Association to create systems so people in wheelchairs can now sail.
Jan often spoke of his family’s achievements. He was very proud of his two “good sons,” Per and Dag, his fine daughter-in-laws, Ramona and Barbara; his 4 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.
Jan wanted to study engineering and boat building in England, but, during the Depression, his family couldn’t afford that. Then a few relatives donated some krones each pay, and Jan went to the University of Danzig (then Germany, now Gdansk, Poland). Once when I complained of hard times, he laughingly explained that he had to bath outdoors when he returned from holidays via cargo ships and seamen’s flea filled bunks. Jan knew how to give one perspective. He enjoyed a full life as a marine engineer and naval architect.
Jan loved to tell stories, my favourite was how he understood German voices on the wireless planning to invade Norway. Jan ran from his dockyard to his fiancee’s home, telling Nenna, “We marry tomorrow.” And a priest, family and friends all gathered quickly. Within hours, Jan joined the resistance fighters, blowing up bridges and roads, holding the invaders to the narrow coastline.
Jan had a lifetime interest in old Norse sagas and pre-Columbian North American history and culture. Jan did brag that the Viking beat Columbus to the Americas! In recent years, Jan was an active Toastmaster, winning ribbons, and taking part in storytelling events. Yet with all his accomplishments, Jan’s focus was always on the other.
Even this year, he told tales as a “grandfriend” at BICS. Jan’s eyes twinkled when he listened to toddlers, children and teens. He laughed aloud at Sunday school kid’s asides. Many Bowen teens learned to respect his fencing skills when he led classes at BICS. He sang French songs at the annual Island Pacific School dinners.
Jan tried to interact with people daily to keep living fully. He became known for his Bowen salmon dinners, auctioned for charity causes of groups he supported: United Church food bank, Rotary causes, African water wells, and many already listed. Jan liked to sing and if not for his hearing aids, I am sure he would have joined the community choir. He loved parties, dances and parades. For years, he joined SKY (Seniors Keeping Young), marching down Trunk Road in costume at Bowfest. He enjoyed dressing up, appearing at one Legion Halloween dance in ‘drag’ and did a strip. He also enjoyed the annual Firefighters’ Dock Dance. Recently he joked, “I don’t need my canes when I can hold unto a woman.” All who visited Jan this summer in nursing care came away cheered, ready to face their lives with hope.
As a longtime family friend, Patricia Sanne, said, “His joy of life was contagious.”
A celebration of life will be held on Sunday, October 2 at 1 p.m. at the Little Red Church, 1120 Miller Road. The Legion will be open from 3 p.m. Come and share your stories about Jan.