Thomas (Tom) Roper is the kind of guy who doesn’t wait for things to happen, he makes them happen.
After deciding the family shoe business in Burnaby wasn’t for him and doing a semester in general arts at Langara College Tom had an itch to travel the world, so he went about trying to get a job on a ship.
He headed down to the port in Vancouver, but was stymied by a lack of access to the people who could make his dream come true.
“The gangplank’s always got a sign that says ‘no admittance’ and it’s got a gate,” he explained. “So, I just thought I’m not going to get a job, who am I going to talk to? I’ve got to find the captain. So I would go over (the gate) and then walk up the gangplank as if I own the place and I’d find someone to talk to.”
That’s how he wound up in the spring of 1970 as a bellhop on a CN tourist ship sailing the coast from Vancouver to Alaska with the goal of working his way up to waiter and eventually bedroom steward.
He said he was surprised that it turned out to be a bit of a “love boat.” Although there was a strict rule about fraternizing with the guests, he saw a lot of fraternizing going on, but was determined to follow the rules himself.
Following a confrontation with the head waiter over a tip, the waiter turned Tom in for fraternizing, although he said there was nothing going on between him and the girl the waiter had seen him with.
He was fired, but not to be deterred called his union representative.
“This is the beginning of my life, I’ve got to get my job back,” he said.
The union prevailed and Tom was back on the ship.
“Now, everybody hates me, this guy, the captain’s not happy with me, everyone.”
When it was his turn to become a waiter, they passed him over for another guy. He went back to the union and once again got his way, but he was going to pay for that too.
They threw him into the frying pan. Instead of two weeks training in the Captain’s mess, he went straight into the dining room. Nobody had taught him to do anything including how to properly carry the big melmac serving trays.
“So, I’m heading around the corner with that baby trying to make some time and off it all comes onto this poor lady and, of course, the whole dining room stops to see what’s going on and I crawl my way back into the galley and old Howie says to me, ‘get up, and get your stuff together and get out there,’ and that’s how I got trained.”
When the tourist season ended, Tom wanted to get right back on a ship, so he and a buddy decided to buy a car and head to Panama and try to get on a ship at the canal.
At the last minute, his buddy bailed following an ultimatum from his girlfriend, so Tom struck out on his own.
His first stop was California for a visit with his grandmother.
“My grandmother, being sort of a rich American, she did not like Mexico, she’d never been any further into Mexico than Tijuana and she just started crying that I was going to go and get killed and it kind of put a fear into me.”
Because of that, he drove non-stop for the first two days, but the more he mingled with rural Mexicans, the less concerned he became.
“They were just wonderful people,” he said.
He eventually ran out of money in Guatemala and decided to sell the car and try hitchhiking, but there was a law against him selling the car there.
“I was telling this gal in a coffee shop all about it and sitting in the booth was a captain in the army. ‘I’ll buy that car,’ he says. So, he ended up buying this beautiful ‘58 Chevy, fixed it all up and when I came back I saw him driving it around; he had a driver in it, it was pretty cool.”
The money from the car was gone by the time he reached Costa Rica. So, he hooked up with a couple of Peruvian guys who would get tourist brochures from the American Embassy and go around selling them in the rich areas of San Jose. Within three days he had enough money to continue to Panama.
But when he reached the docks in Panama City, he found 200 poor people ahead of him trying to get jobs on the ships.
“I thought, ‘I can’t take somebody’s job, these guys are going to die’,” he said.
So he turned around and hitchhiked the 8,000 kilometres back to Vancouver. It was a life-changing experience.
“I didn’t have any money, everybody looked after me, took me home, fed me, it was wonderful,” he explained.
“It gave me the inspiration that this world is full of good people and that everything that we see on the news, that’s not what reality is, reality is real good people out there.”
He was back in time to get back on the cruise ship for another season, which earned him not only a boost to his bank account, but a CN train pass to anywhere in the country, which he took advantage of.
In Toronto, he ran into a woman who arranged a ticket from Niagara Falls, N.Y. to Luton UK (a suburb of London). After visiting with an aunt near Manchester he bought a VW van and headed for the continent.
In Paris, he was tempted by a beautiful French woman to join a commune, but the thirst for travel was stronger. He continued on with seven other guys in the van through southern Europe eventually crossing over into Morrocco.
By then, Tom had it in his mind to get to India.
“I gave the van to a guy to drive back to England when they were done with it and I’ve never seen the van again,” he recalled.
He made his way through western Africa by various means, including at one point in a coal train.
“It was a bad decision because we got completely black and when you got there, there’s no water, so they give you a bowl of water to wash yourself in, you’re not standing in the shower for 20 minutes, so it’s tough to get it off.”
In another incident, trying to cross the river into Senegal, he paid a man in a small boat to take him over only to be extorted for more money halfway across.
He made it to Dakar (the country’s capital) but came down with hepatitis. After a week in hospital for Blacks (because it was free) he was still jaundiced and very week. Fortunately, he met a man from the British consulate, who had also had a bout with hepatitis and invited Tom to stay with him to recuperate.
It was during that time, Tom would have another life-altering experience when they visited the island of Gorée, an infamous waystation of the 15th-19th century Atlantic slave trade
“I felt the phantoms there, because they had all the chains still hanging there on the walls,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘what are we doing to people?’”
After a month, he tried to continue on, but was still too sick, so he made his way back to London. He planned to go home, but he was a little short on airfare.
“I went to the (Canadian) consulate and said, ‘I need $25 to add up to get this ticket to get back to Vancouver.’ They said no problem, but you’ve got to pay it back. I’ve still got the receipt from when I sent that money back to the consulate in London.”
Back home, Tom did another term at Langara with the intention of going on to university, but got it in his mind he wanted to build a house and settle down. He felt the north was the place to do that.
“That was it, I needed to build a house and become part of the great movement of the early ’70s, the back to landers.”
He headed to Prince George where he hoped to get work at a mill, but there was no work. He set off north again to go to Yukon, but was unsuccessful in hitching a ride, so it was back to Prince George. At the employment office, he found out about opportunities at the Endako mine.
He started out in the shop doing general labour, washing windows, cleaning dipsticks, shovels, etc. But when the entire crew quit to go work at the startup mine in Granisle, he basically had his pick of apprenticeships.
He chose heavy-duty mechanic.
“The reason I chose mechanic was I just hated when my car was broke down, going to a shop and the guy would give you a big spiel and then he’d do something, you didn’t know what he was doing, and then he’d give you a big bill.”
Tom never looked, back, although there were times he questioned the choice.
“When I got my trade as a heavy-duty mechanic, I’d be lying out there, it’d be 35-below, oil’s dripping in my face and I’d be thinking, ‘man, I should have sold shoes’.”
Endako, he said, was a great job, but plagued with labour issues. When picketers sabotaged the road into the mine with a nail bed to puncture the tires of people trying to enter, he had had enough.
Tom was married by this time and he and his first wife were having kids, but the 1970s were very good and he easily found work, first with Northwood in Houston (now Canfor) and then Madigan Equipment in Smithers.
Then the 1980s arrived and it all dried up.
“It was our depression, it was like the people who lived in the 1920s, we all lost our jobs, everybody was out of work, I struggled and then I split up with my wife,” he said.
The only job he could find was at a coal mine in Tumbler Ridge. He had four days off every 10 weeks, but he was grateful for the work.
“It was a pretty heavy-duty job, but I had a job, I had a mortgage, I had kids going to school, I couldn’t be without work, so I had to hang in there.”
He did hang in until the 1983 “Swiss Fire” claimed approximately 18,000 hectares of forest near Houston. It burned so fast, Tom said, the timber remained viable for sawlogs and there was soon work again at the mill.
Only he was told they didn’t need a heavy-duty mechanic, they needed a millwright.
“‘Well, I’m a millwright, then,’ I told them,” Tom recounted.
“The difference is very slim, but with the apprenticeship board, no way, you are going to get the time in to be a millwright, we’re not giving you any credit for being a mechanic.”
So he worked as an apprentice millwright for five years bouncing around to various companies eventually getting that ticket too and ultimately landing back at Canfor.
In 1993, while working there and living in Telkwa, he met Sara Tomlinson, a Smithers accountant, who would also go on to become president of the Northwest Animal Shelter.
They soon decided to marry and wanted a farm. They bought 150 acres on Coalmine Road.
While discussing wedding plans, they realized they didn’t want people getting them gifts as they already had everything they needed. Everything, that is, except a fence for their horses. They decided to make the wedding a “post party.”
“Everybody brought the posts and they carved their names in them and burnt them with a torch and it was the coolest thing going,” Tom reminisced. “We had this huge bonfire and Mark Perry came out. We’re kind of Mark Perry groupies, so, that was great.”
Tom was with Canfor 12 years, then took on a couple of other odd jobs, such as dismantling a mill in the Hazelton area.
Then Hollywood came to town. It was during filming of the movie Eight Below on which he worked as a welder, that he met someone from the Huckleberry mine who told him they needed a heavy-duty mechanic.
But when he contacted HR, he was told they were not hiring.
Typically undeterred by roadblocks, Tom decided he was once again going over the gate, so to speak.
“I knew they were looking, so I thought I’m going up there to see what’s going on. So I drive in and I go walking in and the foreman’s there and he says, ‘finally, you’re here, let’s get to work’.”
It would be the last job Tom would take.
“It was a fantastic job because it’s in the middle of nowhere and so after work you can go out and play,” he said. “We were canoeing and hiking and skiing all this kind of stuff.”
He still had a hankering to go north and try his hand at gold mining, though, so he took a leave of absence for five months.
“I really wanted to mine gold, but after I’d done it, I could see it was too much work and I just wanted to talk about it with the miners, so that’s what I did,” he said. “It was a fantastic experience.”
Within eight months of returning to Huckleberry, the mine shut down in 2016. But the timing was perfect for Tom.
“They shut down on my 65th birthday, so it couldn’t get any easier. So, that was it, boom, I’m done, I don’t need to work anymore and I’m retired.”
Last year, Tom and Sara decided they wanted to slow down a bit. They sold the farm and bought a house in Smithers and a smaller acreage up the ski hill road.
“We’d done enough on the farm, we cut hay out there, we had five horses, we got involved in the horse club and now we’re just having a little swing, taking a step back.”
While happy to reminisce and share his adventures, Tom reflected that the real source of happiness in his life has been Sara and his three boys, Michael (45) in Virginia, David (43) in Vancouver and Daniel (35) in Victoria.
There were still a couple of things on the old bucket list for Tom, though.
The first was getting more involved with the Bulkley Valley Credit Union.
“I just love those guys and I just wanted to give back because they’ve been so good to me,” he explained.
“Each time I’ve needed them, and same with Sara needing them with the animal shelter, they’ve been there. The banks, they’re not interested in Sara’s animal shelter, there’s no money in that shelter.”
Last month, Tom was elected to the board of directors.
The second thing was doing more writing.
You can find Tom’s new weekly column, “A Point of View” under Opinion/Columnists on this website.
Perhaps in the coming years, he will share many more stories that did not make it into this profile, such as competing in skijoring races and running a pool hall.