(Contributed) Jim and Tula 12 years ago, looking through photo albums, soon after she was diagnosed with dementia.

B.C. man known as ‘Papa Jimmy’ dies making daily trek to his wife

Maple Ridge 85-year-old made visits to New West for 12 years

For the past 12 years, Jim Gonczol, 85, travelled from Maple Ridge to New Westminster every day, rain or shine, to visit his wife in a care home.

He was on his way to see her again Tuesday around 6:30 a.m., when he was hit and killed by a van while walking on 228th Street to the bus loop in downtown Maple Ridge while it was snowing.

Dave Forstved called his late stepfather ‘Papa Jimmy.’ Gonczol moved to Maple Ridge to live with Forstved’s mother, Tula, in the 1980s. Papa Jimmy never had a family of his own, and embraced his new wife’s two sons and two daughters.

He was mostly a welder who retired on time 20 years ago.

Papa Jimmy worked on aircraft in Hungary after the Second World War, during the 1950s. His work launched a lifelong love of aircraft, and “head in the clouds” dreams about space exploration, said Forstved.

He was still as sharp as his old cutting torch, Forstved added, right to the end.

“He was on the ball. There was no cognitive deficit there.”

Forstved said everyone who knew his step dad knew him as a fun person with a way of getting people to lower their guard.

He got acquainted with people on the bus, which he travelled daily.

“A lot of people knew him.”

Twenty six years ago, Papa Jimmy married Tula.

They had a happy life together.

But 14 years ago, Tula is believed to have suffered a stroke, followed by dementia.

Papa Jimmy looked after her for two years at their home on 228th St.

Eventually, her needs demanded professional care, and they found her a place to stay in the Salvation Army Buchanan Lodge in New Westminster.

He travelled to be with her every day.

“Every single day.”

At first, he was able to drive. But failing eyesight made him surrender his driver’s licence about six years ago. So he would trek up 228th St., walking about a kilometre to Haney Place bus loop.

In the past two years, Papa Jimmy took a HandyDART – a door-to-door service provided by TransLink – on weekdays. But it wasn’t available on Monday and Tuesday because of the weather.

Lately, he needed a cane or walker, to steady himself. On Monday, his walker filled with snow, so he turned around to go fetch his cane.

On a good day, the trip to New West would take him about 90 minutes to two hours each way.

“He was determined to be there – I think the word is ‘driven.’” said Forstved. “He was driven to be there every day.”

Forstved tracked down his step dad at the care home on Monday. They stopped at a White Spot on the way home and he bought Papa Jimmy one of his favourite meals.

“He loved a large chocolate milkshake and fish and chips.”

He told Papa Jimmy not to walk to the bus stop the next day, adding his health was not great. A couple of months earlier, he had a fall while making his daily trek.

Getting medical attention, his doctor found his heart rate at only 30 beats per minute, below the 60-100 in a normal adult.

Papa Jimmy got a pacemaker placed in his chest to regulate his heartbeat.

Forstved took his step dad home. It had been a long day. He put him to bed. He gave him a kiss on his head.

The next day, Tuesday, as the worst winter storm of the year was blowing itself out, Papa Jimmy was up early.

He was out the door before dawn.

It was dark and snowing.

He was walking south down 228th St. in the vehicle lane. There was snow on the sidewalks.

Just before he reached Dewdney Trunk Road, he was struck by a panel van.

Witnesses told police it was a slow-speed collision.

Ridge Meadows RCMP said speed and alcohol were ruled out factors.

“Obviously, weather and road conditions were a factor in all this,” said Sgt. Brenda Gresiuk, and added police were considering a pre-existing medical condition as a possible cause of death.

“It was just a really tragic crash,” Gresiuk added.

Everyone who knew ‘Papa Jimmy’ knew where he was going.

That will be the memory of ‘Papa Jimmy,’ said Forstved.

“He was a dedicated husband, and an example to everyone who knew him.”

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