Pioneer reflects on his impact

Sarah Gaetz, left, and Ken Gaetz. Ken is the founder of Pentecostal Church in Hay River, and the first administrator of the hospital. Photo by Paul Bickford Northern News Services Ltd.

Sarah Gaetz, left, and Ken Gaetz. Ken is the founder of Pentecostal Church in Hay River, and the first administrator of the hospital.
Photo by Paul Bickford
Northern News Services Ltd.

When Ken Gaetz looks around Hay River, he can see his impact from decades ago all over the town.

During his 31 years in the community, Gaetz, who is now retired in British Columbia, established the Pentecostal Church, was the first administrator of H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital, helped select the site of New Town after the flood of 1963, and even established a Boy Scout troop.

“I always felt that I wanted to become very much involved with the community,” he said during a visit to Hay River from Feb. 4 to 9.

While living in the community, he was also a volunteer firefighter, a town councillor and justice of the peace.

Gaetz arrived in Hay River in 1949 as a 21-year-old missionary with the Pentecostal Church, at a time when the church was not established in the NWT.

“I felt I’d like to pioneer a place, and I wanted to go where no one else went,” he said, noting the road from Grimshaw, Alta., to Hay River was being completed at that time.

“And so that was the end of the road. I said, ‘That’s where I’m going to go.'”

The now 88-year-old Gaetz, who is originally from Edmonton, had just spent three years studying theology in Winnipeg at the time, where he met his wife, Sarah Gaetz.

When he arrived in the North, what is now the Town of Hay River consisted of 300 to 400 people in Old Town and West Channel.

Although Gaetz was a Pentecostal missionary, his impact on the community went far beyond the church, particularly in the field of health care.

At the time, there was a nursing station run by the Anglican Church on what is now the Hay River Reserve. But there was nothing in Hay River.

So the community fixed up a house as a clinic in 1953 and hired a nurse, who left soon afterward.

Gaetz said the community then asked the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which had nursing stations throughout the North, if they would run the one in Hay River, but they didn’t have the personnel.

“And someone said, ‘Well, you know that young guy that’s running the Boy Scouts. Let’s ask him and his church,'” he said. “They didn’t know anything about our church. Well, we didn’t even have a church.”

Gaetz, who was in his mid-20s and had no experience in health care, agreed.

“I had determined in my mind that wherever I could serve the community, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
Gaetz even accepted the responsibility without consulting his church.

“I just took it upon myself that I said I would do it. Then I contacted the church and said, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to run a nursing station here. Can you get me a nurse?'” he recalled.

His church didn’t know of a nurse who wanted to work in the North, so he found one.

He took over the clinic in January 1954 and ran the two-bed clinic until 1957, when the community decided it needed a hospital.

“The town was growing and we had great hopes for Hay River,” he recalled.

Town council asked him to go to Ottawa to obtain funding. The federal government covered two-thirds of the cost and the community had to raise the other third.

“And seeing that the town turned it over to me, it was my responsibility to get it,” Gaetz said.

The original six-bed hospital on Vale Island was built for $80,000.

Gaetz raised $30,000, with half of that coming from a Pentecostal church in Toronto, which donated $15,000 from the estate of H.H. Williams.

When the facility opened in 1957, it was therefore named H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital.

Gaetz became the administrator, and he took a two-year course in hospital administration.

It was a position he retained when a new 22-bed H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital opened in New Town after the flood of 1963.

And he continued as administrator until 1980, when he and his wife retired to Kelowna, B.C.

During his recent visit to Hay River, he was given a tour of the soon-to-open Hay River Health Centre, which will replace the existing hospital.

After the tour, Gaetz called the new health centre terrific and tremendous.

“I can hardly believe it,” he said, while at the same time admitting to a little sadness at the coming end of H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital.

“It’s kind of an end of an era,” he said.

The hospital building will remain in use in a number of ways for at least two years, and Gaetz hopes some long-term use can be found for it.

Among some of his other impacts during his three decades in the community, Gaetz established a Pentecostal Bible camp in 1958 at Sandy Creek on what is now the Hay River Reserve.

The area is now the site of K’atlodeeche First Nation’s Jim Lamalice Wilderness Lodge and he was also among the town councillors who looked for a site for Hay River’s New Town after the flood of 1963 caused extensive damage in Old Town.

Even though he left in 1980, he still feels a connection to Hay River and returns occasionally for visits.

Gaetz said he is “very pleased” with how the community has developed over the years.

His recent visit to Hay River was mainly to speak at a conference of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada’s Sub-Arctic Mission, which he organized in 1958.

–Paul Bickford