Saturday, April 28, 2018

RIP Onkel Werner

No doubt Werner Otto Packull will be well and fondly eulogised for his contributions in the field of reformation history and his lengthy career at Conrad Grebel College. I want to remember another Werner.

Not that his most popular book, Hutterite Beginnings, wasn't an authentic page-turner. It's a refreshingly accessible book by academic standards. His extended treatment of the complex relationship between technology and the spread of ideas in the post-Gutenberg era makes riveting reading, even if you're not particularly interested in the history of Christianity per se.

But long before he became a respected historian, he won my undying respect by kicking a soccer ball clear over the roof of that two and a half storey pile of yellow bricks we then called home. Man, was that impressive! And his tree-climbing prowess was truly a wonder to behold! That house was surrounded by towering maples and spruce, and I remember watching in wide-eyed amazement his clowning around forty feet off the ground.

Werner was equally at home combing through dusty European archives as he was changing engines in his various Volkswagens. He was a welder long before he became a university professor. If I'm not mistaken, he'd worked on the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver just months before its collapse. Perhaps that motivated him to seek out a more sedate line of work!

Later on, as I was kicking around various welding shops, he'd often encourage me to follow in his footsteps. Unfortunately, I never got past the welding part, but to this day I remain flattered that he thought I had that kind of brain power. Besides, dusty archives just make me sneeze.

Werner was the first in our family to get a university degree. I remember when he finished that first degree, we had a giant celebratory bonfire with all his undergrad notes. But that was barely the beginning of his adventures in higher education.

I think there was a side of him that missed "handarbeit." He suggested more than once that we open a bicycle repair business in Waterloo. While that idea was, in principle, sound, if perhaps a little ahead of its time, I knew enough to realize that two guys who know everything running a business together could only end badly.

That wasn't his only idea for a business venture. Back in the day, when the village of St. Jacobs was rapidly gentrifying, it retained an authentic old-school blacksmith shop which serviced the many old-order Mennonites in the area.

"You know, Uwe, the fellow who owns the shop is getting on in years. We should buy him out. We could keep the smithy business going, and build up a whole new business bringing tourists in to see a genuine old-fashioned blacksmith shop. We could even bring in busloads of school kids!"

So we pay the old smithy a visit. As the senior partner Werner did most of the talking. After beating around the bush for the better part of an hour, he finally gets to the point and asks the guy, would he be interested in selling?

"Oh gosh," he says, "I sold out a couple years ago. The new owners just keep me around to put on a show for the school tours they bring in." And that was the end of that.

One of the first things he did on being tenured was buy a hundred acre farm up in Mennonite country. (Or possibly Amish... those people all look the same to me.) Somewhere along the line he even came by his own horse and buggy. He'd make the rounds of the old-order folks, picking up a fresh-baked pie here or a summer sausage there.

I recall pulling into one place with him where a sign at the road offered "fence-posts, summer sausage, no Sunday sales." Werner was on a first name basis with the proprietor, of course. I don't believe Werner bought anything; it was just a social call for him, but I was in the mood for some of that old-order summer sausage. The guy asks if I'd like a whole or a half. A whole, I assure him.

A barefoot boy of nine or ten disappears. Couple of minutes later he reappears, and at first glance I thought the kid had misunderstood... but no, that really was a summer sausage... the size of a fence-post! Never mind a whole or a half; I settled for about an eighth.

It was obvious when you witnessed these interactions with Werner's old-order neighbours that they held him in high esteem. Was it the book? Or was it a mutual respect rooted in shared values? Maybe a little of both.

For a time I lived about twenty minutes from that farm. I'd often get a call to join him and his wife Karin for brunch. I drove a truck, and oddly enough, there'd as often as not be some little chore that needed doing that just happened to require a truck! What a happy coincidence! Once in awhile I'd mess with him by showing up on my bicycle.

Working with Werner you soon learned that there were two, and only two, approaches to any job; Werner's way and the wrong way. I remember an entire day spent in the hot sun digging four fence-post holes. With picks and shovels. Pretty sure I'd seen both a post-hole auger and a tractor in his shed, but there was no point bringing it up. We were doing it Werner's way.

Mostly I remember a lot of laughs and a thousand brilliant conversations. He was around the age I am now when he took a turn onto the Alzheimer highway. After that, it was just a matter of watching helplessly as he slowly vanished into the distant mists.

Mach's gut, lieber Onkel. You were a mentor, a role model, an inspiration, and most of all, a friend.

I miss you.

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