The month of May, 2015, marked a significant date in time for Barriere resident Elli Kohnert. That month marked the 25th anniversary of Elli being a contributing journalist to the North Thompson Star/Journal.
I sat down with Elli last week over lunch to find out just how a young German immigrant who had very little English could end up being a reporter and columnist for this newspaper for over 25 years.
Elli immigrated to Canada in 1954 to be with her fiance, Otto Kohnert, who came to Darfield from Germany to homestead.
Elli says she had three months of English classes before the trip to Canada, and when I asked if she was able to speak English when she came her answer was, “Not much!” However, she was determined to fit into her new home as quickly as possible, and says a great assist in learning the English language was working as a nanny for Dr. Wallace’s family and three children who resided in Kamloops. “The family very kindly taught me to speak English. It was good, there were no German people there and I had to learn English – I had to be able to communicate.”
Elli says once she was conversing comfortably she taught herself to read English by using the children’s books.
“It took me one year and two months before I could speak and read English pretty good – but not writing,” stated Elli; who by that time was married to Otto and now residing with him in Darfield.
The only work she could get was cleaning, but the work was always after hours which she did not like. However, one cleaning job was at the Barriere High School. “One day when I was grumbling about not being able to get better employment due to my lack of English skills a teacher at the school, Gai Conan, said to me, “For heaven’s sake Elli, get to school and get your grade 12”!, which is exactly what I did.”
Elli says she went to the principal first, but he stated she would have to go to Kamloops for schooling which was impossible for her because she now had three young children and no transportation.. However, Elli wasn’t one to go away quietly, and after awhile she finally convinced the principal to give her at try at the high school in Barriere where she became a student in 1969/70. “You realize you will have no privileges,” the principal told her, “You will be just like any other student.”
“I got very good marks,” tells Elli.
”In fact I eventually wrote quite a few of my daughters essays,” she says with a smile, “I even wrote some of the speeches for Principal Anderson.
A proud day for Elli was graduating English, social studies, bookkeeping and business letters with her class. “I remember that Lynn Wright (who still lives in the community) was a young lady at the time and graduated with me. As well as some other adults that had been able to join the course as well, one being Mickey Anderson.”
She notes, “There was no cap and gown back then, “But I graduated with the class! We even had some fun and kidnapped our grade 12 English teacher, demanded a privilege, and wouldn’t let her go until she met our demand.”
“I remember Glen Andrews was my Social Studies teacher. He had us write long essays, and even had us study the drivers licence manual and then write a long summary about that. Making a long story short, for some reason he snapped at me and told me to sit down (which actually had nothing to do with me at the time but I didn’t see it that way). So on Halloween night I took that drivers manual, tore out the pages and taped every last one of them onto Glen’s mobile home. The only thing I forgot about was that the cover had my number on it! I thought I would really be in trouble, but when he confronted me he just laughed and we have been wonderful friends to this day.”
Elli says she enjoyed school as much for the learning as for the interaction with the young students. “They accepted me, even though I was a 35-year-old when I graduated. I learned a lot about school and about kids, and back then the grade 11 students looked after the grad ceremonies and did the cooking for the dinner.”
Once she had graduated Elli found the employment world began to open up for her. “I was the first teacher’s aid to be hired at the high school. I applied and I got the job. In those days you didn’t need all of the special classes required today. I had typing, and that was a big requirement. However, because I am so short I had to put two Vancouver phone books on my chair so I could reach the typewriter. I did find typing math documents was horrendous, and when I was a teacher’s aid in a science class I mixed something up and made the biggest smell you could imagine, so I never got to do that again. Of course I have no sense of smell so had no idea I was making a stink!”
Elli says she eventually moved into the job of library aid at the school, where she remained until retiring in 1994.
She tells that a big perk for her was that during school holidays she was able to take the school computer home “to do papers”.
“I started with a manual typewriter, then an electric one, and then a computer. I always loved to write and once I could write in English I became obsessed with writing letters to the editor of the Star/Journal, who was Ann Piper at the time. I wrote about all the things I was passionate about and wanted to change or make a difference with – forestry, pesticides, animals – I wrote weekly. I guess I wrote the paper so many letters that one day the owner/publisher, Tim Francis, called me and said, “Hope you don’t mind, but you are now a columnist for the paper – but be careful!”, and that is where my 25 years with the newspaper began.”
“I always remember that Ann Piper told me “You can write”, and that meant a lot to me,” said Elli, noting at that time the newspaper was in a little store behind where the Interior Saving Credit Union is today.
“I also took a lot of photographs for the newspaper, and back then they were all developed by a photographer in a darkroom in the basement of the old Star/Journal building that was on Borthwick Avenue.”
Elli says she worked more and more assignments for the newspaper, with one of her biggest assignments being gathering and writing the information for the North Thompson Summer Guide. “Otto and I would travel to all the places mentioned in the guide, and I would write about them, record the directions and mileage, and take photographs. I think we did that at least three times over the years as well as annually helping to update the information. It was a lot of fun.”
Asked what she was paid back then, Elli answered, “Not much! At first I was writing as a volunteer and then I was paid $1 per column inch of writing. I was also paid $5 per photograph that was published and it was absolutely the best; because I was an actual employee! I could follow my interests of being involved with people, the community and having something completely different to do than physical work. It was another part of myself and I could do it alone.”
She has always been known as a fighter for what she believes is right; for the planet, the environment, the people and the animals. Many can remember her Green Theme columns that were one of the first voices in the area to talk about food sustainability, recycling, reusing, pollution, pesticides and animal advocacy. She is well remembered for picketing and protesting on the steps of the B.C. Legislature Building in an effort to stop grizzly bear hunting in the province.
Elli says she has “mellowed out” over the past 25 years. “I especially find that I am now old, and I have learned that no matter how mad I get or how hard I try I cannot make a difference by myself.”
She produced a column called Creature Feature which was an informative and proactive look at pets and animals in general.
“I have come to understand that what I believe in must be made stronger and more acceptable by working with other people who have the same ideas.”
Elli’s 25 year stint with the newspaper proved to be a huge benefit for pets and companion animals in need. She formed the North Thompson Animal Advocacy group and also posted an animal adoption ad each week in the newspaper.
“The two meshed very well, helping my animal advocacy and making a great difference to those who cannot speak for themselves,” said Elli.
She also chuckles while telling about her struggles with the digital age; the world wide web, email, cell phones. “I spent so much time lost in cyberspace while I was trying to email my stories and photos to the newspaper they gave me a Lost in Cyberspace Award. Everyone at the newspaper used to get together for lunch every Friday and we had nice parties for birthdays and Christmas.”
She tells that over the years most of the small wage she earned went into a bank account for her animal advocacy projects, and then into an account to cover any vet bills that her own pets might require at a future date. In some ways the journalism job has come full circle as she is now a “volunteer” reporter once again.
“Now, at 81, I still enjoy being a reporter, but I am frustrated that my capabilities are no longer what they used to be,” says Elli, “I still enjoy the people who are the heart of the community, and I never seem to be able to stop seeing a photo for the newspaper! It’s a part of my life. I never bemoan having to cover a story or write it up, but it is such a good feeling to have it finished. I will keep writing and stay involved with the Star/Journal as long as they can make use of me.”