John and Edie Borkowski were married for 70 years, and for most of those years they lived in Williams Lake. They arrived in the village in 1946 and they played an important role in the development of the city. In 1950 they established Walk-Rite Shoe Store, the first independent shoe store in the village, and they ran the business for 25 years. The store has had different owners since, but it is the second oldest retail business in Williams Lake and one of the largest independently owner-operated shoe stores in western Canada.
John Borkowski was one of eight children born at Portage La Prairie, Manitoba. Around 1920, the family moved to the smaller community of Ethelbert where they farmed. John was the youngest of the Borkowski brothers who made their mark in Williams Lake. Joe, the oldest, arrived in 1936. He leased the Maple Leaf Hotel cafe for five years, then opened Borkowski’s Menswear. Tony came next, and is best remembered as the proprietor of Tony’s Leather Goods. Brother Frank worked at the menswear store.
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John served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1941-45. He flew with the Elephant Squadron, based in India and Burma. Poor eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot, so he trained as an aircraft mechanic. However, he did spend time in the air, although not in combat. His squadron was part of a group of unsung heroes who supported ground troops in the Burma campaign.
In 1944, the allies were engaged in getting the Japanese army out of Burma. John’s squadron, along with British and USA transport aircraft, supplied the allied troops with food and goods by dropping the items by parachute into small jungle clearings, or by perilous landings in small primitive airstrips hacked out of the jungle. While doing this, the unarmed aircraft had to outmaneuver Japanese fighters. John’s outfit delivered supplies to more than 20,000 army personnel. He rose to the rank of sergeant and was awarded numerous medals.
Edith Fiest was raised in Alan, Saskatchewan. She was a talented musician with an incredibly keen ear for music. She had a beautiful singing voice, and began playing the organ (self taught) in church when she was 12. She also played the guitar. Over her lifetime she was the organist for thousands of weddings and funerals as well as lending her voice to many celebrations. At a very young age she joined Alberta Slim, a well-known and popular Canadian western singer and entertainer, performing with him on the radio. During the war she played the organ and sang with a band entertaining troops.
John heard her singing on radio CFQC in Saskatoon before he ever met her. The two met in 1943 at the Saskatoon Exhibition. Edie and her sister were too short to see over the crowd around a sideshow until two air force men came along and lifted them high enough. One of the airmen was John. He and Edie were married in Saskatoon on January 22, 1944, seven months to the day before he went overseas. The temperature was -30C on their wedding day and the ceremony took place at 7:30 a.m. because the church had a funeral that afternoon. John often joked he didn’t remember saying “I do.”
When the couple came to Williams Lake after the war, the population was about 350. Edie wasn’t happy with the move, she said she cried for a year. John worked for brother Tony before starting Walk-Rite Shoe Store. In the beginning they sold clothing as well as shoes. John knew nothing about footwear, but Edie did, she’d worked in the shoe department at a Hudsons Bay store. John often gave shoes away if the customer couldn’t pay. Walk-Rite moved to the present site in 1975.
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Both John and Edie were active in the community. They belonged to Sacred Heart Church and John was a fourth degree Knight of Columbus. He was an active member of the local Legion for some 70 years, was a Kinsman, and a Charter member of the Kiwanis Club. In 1971, he went into the real estate business and worked in both Kamloops and the Williams Lake area for more than a decade selling properties. One of his developments was a large piece of land which he subdivided at the end of Pigeon Road at 150 Mile House. John enjoyed gardening, fishing, and was an accomplished carpenter.
Edie was a lifetime member of the Catholic Women’s League and she provided the music, both organ and voice, for Sacred Heart Church for years. She was also a member of the Legion Ladies Auxiliary.
As a youngster, she dreamed of becoming a pharmacist but that wasn’t meant to be. She was sometimes referred to as Dr. Borkowski because of her ability to diagnose symptoms. She also had a knack of knowing who was calling her on the phone (before call display). Her secret to cure the blues was “Retail Therapy” — when times get tough the tough go shopping. As a result she had an extensive wardrobe and shoe collection.
John and Edie retired in the late 1970s and became snowbirds, flying south to Sun Lakes, Arizona. They later returned to the Cariboo, enjoying time at Lac La Hache.
Edie continued to play the organ and sing with the church choir. In 1994 they bought a condo at Terra Ridge and lived there until September, 2013 when they moved to Williams Lake Senior’s Village. Edie started a choir group at the village and enjoyed passing her time playing crib and visiting with friends.
The Borkowskis had four adopted children, Donald, Donna, Kenneth and Debbie. Donna died as an infant, and Kenneth passed away in 2009. Donald and Debbie Lahey (Ken) and their families live in Williams Lake, Kenneth’s family at 150 Mile House.
John and Edie spent and enjoyed as much time as possible with their family that includes six grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
John passed away December 4, 2014, at age 95, Edie on December 30, 2017, at age 95.