A flip of a coin brought Steve Kormendy to the Yukon more than six decades ago.
After being discharged from the Canadian Forces in 1945, Kormendy and a friend decided to try their hand at mining. They had it narrowed down between two places, the Yukon and South Africa.
The coin landed on tails, so they made their way north.
Kormendy landed in Atlin and mined in Elsa and Keno, on the Stewart River, Clinton Creek, and Dawson City.
It was in Dawson where he finally settled down and met the woman who would become his wife, Peggy Semple.
The pair were married in 1962, and together they raised six children.
Kormendy passed away last week, a little more than a month shy of his 91st birthday.
Born in the city of Prague, in what was then Czechoslovakia, Kormendy immigrated to Canada with his family when he was six years old.
They built their homestead in Westlock, Alberta.
During the lean years of the Great Depression, Kormendy enlisted with the Calgary Highlanders. He was only 15 at the time.
The military life was not something his parents approved of. Both his mother and his father served as enlisted soldiers in the First World War.
Kormendy’s mother had been a sniper, which was a talent that apparently ran in the family.
When Kormendy joined the army he trained as a sniper as well. Eventually, becoming a corporal, he was a member of the Highlander Scouts Platoon Section, an elite unit trained to operate behind enemy lines.
Kormendy landed in France on D-Day for the invasion of Normandy. He fought in the liberation of Holland and was later wounded during an air raid in Belgium.
Kormendy ended his career as a highly decorated soldier, but it wasn’t something that he talked much about.
“He picked the people to talk to about it,” said his daughter, Debbie Nagano, “Sometime it would be a complete stranger and I would find out later.”
She heard a lot of the war stories when she started helping her father with his trapline later in his life.
“He trapped until right up into his 60s but then all the wounds surfaced from the war like arthritis and the shrapnel that came out of his back and things like that,” said Nagano. “He couldn’t do the stuff that he wanted to do, so when he did trap I was the person that did go out with him.”
Out on the land he would tell her some of his stories.
“You’d just have to listen,” she said. “You couldn’t comment on it, some of it was just like you couldn’t believe that human beings would do that to each other.”
Though he was a tough man who led a tough life, “he always made us laugh,” said Nagano.
“He always made individuals feel good about themselves and it didn’t matter who that individual was, he never ever judged people,” said Nagano. “I think it was part of the war thing too … Because he’d seen so much devastation, so much hatred that he would never be that kind of an individual.”
Although he didn’t talk much about his war record, Remembrance Day was an important occasion for him.
Kormendy would always make sure that the whole family was there for the ceremony and looking their best.
“The special day for everyone else was Christmas. For us, that day was Remembrance Day,” said Nagano.
Family was also very important. A typical family dinner could see 30 or more people in attendance.
“Dad always made sure of that there was enough that no one was left out,” said Nagano.
He was also fiercely independent, an attitude that Nagano chalks up to his wartime experience.
“When you’re in the war you’re told what to do and how to do it, and when he was discharged, he never wanted to be under someone else again,” she said.
For most of the years he spent in the Yukon, Kormendy was self-employed and lived off the land, mining or fishing.
It was Peggy’s family, who were of Tr’ondek Hwech’in descent, that taught him how to fish.
Even mining was a family affair.
“We were lucky we had our dad 24/7,” said Nagano. “He was self-employed by mining, fishing and trapping, so we were always around and learning off him and he was always teaching us in his little special way.”
It was a hands-on kind of education.
“He didn’t tell us, it was trial and error, and in a lot of it you got hurt, so how many times are you going to get hurt before you do it right,” she said.
Nagano has many fond memories of the whole family out in the bush.
“Every season, every month, there was always something to do out on the land,” she said.
He also taught his family to respect nature.
“My father always said, ‘Don’t take it all, make sure you leave some for the next generation,’” said his son, Ed Kormendy.
“He was married to a First Nations woman and he was very much a farmer of the land, so it really disappointed him when he saw people taking, what in his mind, was way too much,” he said.
Although he slowed down in the last few years of his life, Kormendy was active well into his twilight years.
“Kids these days in some parts of the family, they couldn’t even keep up with Dad when he was in his 80s,” said Nagano. “He constantly moved, there was always something to do.”
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