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Family remembers Johnny Rocher
Old Town businessman, alderman, father, grandfather to be laid to rest Friday

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Wednesday, April 20, 2016

He was a Yellowknife pioneer, a businessman, a municipal politician - but the family of the late Johnny Rocher said he should mostly be remembered for his generosity.

NNSL photo/graphic

Johnny Rocher gets a hug from his daughter Jeannie Rocher in this undated photo. Johnny Rocher, one of Yellowknife's most colourful, long time residents, died on April 12. - Photo courtesy of Rocher family

Rocher, one of the city's best-known old timers, died at age 87 on April 12. After listening to his family, it was easy to be left with the impression that there are just not many people left in the world quite like Johnny Rocher.

He was only 14 when he left the family farm in northern Saskatchewan and hopped a freight train to seek his fortune. His travels eventually took him to B.C in the 1950s where he went to a dance and met Mary, the woman who would follow him North and eventually become his wife and lifelong partner. They tied the knot in 1956 in Hay River and would be married for 59 years. They had three kids, nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Mary, daughter Jeannie and son Les reminisced about Johnny on Monday as they sat on the deck of the family home beside the shack the children grew up in on Bretzlaff Drive in Old Town. The only one missing from the immediate family was another son - Larry.

"We were spoiled," Jeannie, the youngest of the three children said - her voice choked with emotion. "But not with material things - with a man."

"Sweetheart spoiled," Mary chimed in. "She was the only girl."

"He was kind to everyone - never said a bad word about anybody. He had a twinkle in his eye - mischievous - you never quite knew what he was going to say or do next."

"We came up with nothing. We didn't have two pennies to rub together," Mary said. "We lived in a fisherman's caboose that they put out on the lake for fishing in Hay River. He even baked our wedding cake because he was cooking on the dredge in between fishing seasons at the time."

The family said Johnny had a tremendous work ethic and never let things go to waste. Whether it was spare car parts or nuts and bolts from a washing machine, Johnny knew how important it was, how somebody in town could use it and how difficult it was to ship things to the NWT.

"One man's junk is another man's treasure was the philosophy he lived by," said Jeannie.

Rocher was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2005. On Oct 31, 2006 he was operated on but the tumor had spread and he had a stroke during surgery. That left him unable to speak, Jeannie said. He lived with Jeannie and her husband from 2004 until they were no longer able to care for him. He was one of the very first patients at the Avens Centre, Mary said.

"If he wanted to have tea at 2 a.m. - he could at Avens. They (Avens) have been amazing. They have been so strong, loving, kind and respectful to my father. We could not have asked for better care.

"I don't want to rant about this but we so need more beds. All these elders who have built our community and there are no rooms for them. They are our founders yet they are not able to be looked after," Jeannie said.

Les said that his father was equally comfortable spending time with other Yellowknife land owners as he was with the indigenous people in the area who mostly lived off the land.

"He would drive (aboriginal people) to Rae because they didn't have vehicles. There were very few people with cars and trucks up here back then," Les said. When a musher had come in from Snowdrift (now Lutsel K'e) he would give them fish, both for themselves and their dogs. He was friendly with them because he knew what it was like to struggle."

Rocher's popularity was seen when he won his seat on city council in 1971. He garnered 830 votes, by far the most of any of the 10 people running for council. In fact, his vote total was higher than the 733 votes that Fred Henne received when he ran for mayor against only one other challenger.

The family was not anxious to talk about all the property he owned and his actual worth.

"He gave half his money away," said Les.

The founder of Yellowknifer Jack "Sig" Sigvaldason said that the paper might not exist today if it hadn't been for Rocher.

"We didn't have any money. I approached Johnny who owned about half of Old Town," Sigvaldason said. "He said 'Can you pay the taxes?' (on a building in Old Town). We drafted up a letter that said it sold to Northern News Services for $1,500. He looked at it and said, 'Hell, that's no good.' So he tore it up and made the bill of sale out for $3,000, marked it paid, and he said, 'Now take that to the bank and borrow some money, which we did.'"

A celebration of Johnny Rocher's life is set for Friday at St. Patrick's Catholic Church at 11 a.m.

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