By Gagandeep Ghuman
Published: March. 24, 2012
A memory John Drenka will never forget rests right behind his chair at the Squamish Mills office on Pemberton Street in downtown Squamish.
Enclosed in a photo frame, it’s a commendation letter by the Royal Canadian Air Force marked September 24, 1959.
“There is no doubt that your prompt and courageous action in response to this emergency was instrumental in saving a life…I wish to thank you sincerely for having placed your own life in jeopardy to save one of our members,” the letter reads.
The day is still fresh in John Drenka’s mind. Drenka had taken Liberal MLA Gordon Gibson and Andrew Freitas, a police officer from the Hawaii Island of Maui, on a walk around Alice Lake when they heard cries of help.
They saw a canoe flipped upside down and two men struggling to stay afloat. The “prompt and courageous action” came from Drenka as Gibson prepared to jump in the water.
“I said hold on, hold on, and I pulled a big plank of the dock and then he went out there and used it to bring the guy back to shore,” Drenka says.
The commendation letter is one of the several snippets in the room that tell the story of the life and times of John Drenka. The images in the room compendiate a life lived in Squamish for over seven decades.
There’s the young John Drenka posing with his newly acquired steel spar, here a middle-aged Drenka at the Loggers Sports Ground, and then there he is, hair greying, with Dr. Laverne Kindree.
The Squamish Mills itself office has an old, unmanicured feel to it: Step inside and the first thing you see is a grey and white picture of Squamish on the wall.
Walk down the hallway and at the end is a room, where, well past the dinner time, you still might find John Drenka, 94, hard at work.
Nearly 75 years ago, he came to Squamish, all of 22, alone, on the early morning Union Steamship Company boat that carried passengers from Vancouver to Squamish.
‘AND SO WE STARTED THIS COMPANY’
The fourth among nine siblings, John Drenka was born in 1916 to Joe and Anne Drenka. The family lived on a farm in Steelhead, north of Mission.
Raising pigs on the farm is one of Drenka’s earliest memories.
“The earliest I can remember is working on a pig as a kid. We used to have a smoke house, we smoked the hams and bacons and what not,” he reminiscences.
With no employment around the homestead farms where the family lived, Drenka’s father, an iron worker and a fisherman, would be away for a long stretch of time. Drenka quit school after Grade 7 and the family moved to Burnaby where he got a job working at a butcher shop.
Not long after, he took to logging with his brother. After a few years of logging up and down the coast in B.C., he found his skill in the “dangerous job” of a rigger, a highly specialized job of cutting the tree from the top.
Jobs, Drenka says, were awful hard to get, so when a contractor working in Squamish offered him a job with Empire Mills, Drenka agreed.
“He said you meet me at the steam boat at 8 in the morning and I will be there with a ticket,” Drenka recalls.
A few hours later of boarding the boat, Drenka was at the Newport Hotel in downtown Squamish. His first impressions of Squamish weren’t all positive.
“It was a hell hole,” he laughs, “I thought what the hell I’m doing here. Steelhead was nothing, and Mission was a city, and then I came to here and it was quite a change.”
But there wasn’t a moment to reflect on the surroundings. By eight in the morning, the loggers were in the wood and they would rarely return back before five in the evening.
As time passed, he started contracting for logging companies, finally setting up a company called Howe Sound Timber, which he worked for several years until one day he met Pat Brennan.
Newport Hotel’s was a favourite stomping ground of loggers and it was here that Drenka met his future business partner and Squamish’s legendary Mayor, Pat Brennan.
“He said he wanted to start a business with me. I said Holy Christ, but he was very persuasive. And so we started this company, Squamish Mills. It was a success from the very beginning. It’s still here now.”
‘YOU HAD TO WORK HARD’
As he set about to expand his logging operations, Drenka also took giant leaps of faith, brining in new technologies to quicken the work of logging.
Drenka’s company, Howe Sound Timber, then a contractor for Empire Mills Ltd., pioneered the use of Sky-Hook and Steel Spar, reducing a day’s worth of work to just a few hours.
The sky hook, a cable car that transported logs between two locations, was brought to Squamish by John Drenka in 1948.
The sky-hook garnered considerable industry and media attention and was one of the two logging operators using this particular system in British Columbia. Visitors came from as far away as South America to observe the sky hook logging show in Squamish.
“The skyhook was given to us for a trial period and it was a little bit nuts!,” he says.
When his company brought the steel spar to Squamish logging, nobody, Drenka says, wanted to take a chance on a machine that cost $65,000 in 1961, easily today’s equivalent of half a million dollars. It reduced the work load, but the investment was on a loan, and it meant more hard work.
The steel spar, a giant 127,000-lbs machine, supported and driven on four wheels, also reduced the work load considerably, helping to do more work in less time.
Drenka drove the sky hook, did the rigging, before going to the office to work late at night.
“You had to work hard. I didn’t work hard to beat the Jonesses if you want to put it that way but I worked hard for economic security, for this company” Drenka says.
Tom Bruusgaard, who has had the “honour” of driving Drenka around, says as a new economic development officer in town, he once started a casual conversation with Drenka about bringing the stone industry in Squamish.
“He was just so curious. He wanted to know every little detail about it,” Bruusgaard says, “I often say that if there’s someone who could move mountains in Squamish, it’s this guy.”
Norm Barr, Drenka’s neighbour and friend, has seen Drenka build his company from scratch.
“He started out real jippo logger, but he built his company from just nothing. He was very hard working and he pushed things and he pushed his employees to work hard. But he was also generous in giving back to the community,” Barr says.
If you want to hear more stories about John Drenka, knock on the first door at your right as you enter the Squamish Mills office. There you will see John Lowe, the wearer of many hats.
John Lowe is not merely an accountant in the company: He is a friend, a confidante, a raconteur of John Drenka stories. He joined the company not long after he graduated from high school.
And, more than once, he has seen Drenka upset. He puts it rather mildly.
“If he doesn’t like something, he will let you know right away,” Lowe says.
He has seen Drenka expand his business empire and he has seen him donate money, time, and men to the projects that build the community.
When Pat Brennan decided to build the dikes, Lowe says, Drenka pitched in with material and men.
“In the old days, everything was done by the community and Drenka was one among those who wanted to build the community,” Lowe says.
‘MATCH WHATEVER KINDREE PUT IN’
As his business and friendships grew, Drenka, along with Pat Brennan, struck a friendship with Dr. LaVerne Kindree. Later, when Kindree started work on building the hospital, Drenka contributed generously.
Once he was away and when he called home, his daughter told him about another fundraiser happening for the hospital.
“I said alright, match whatever Kindree is put in,” Drenka told her. The figure was $25,000.
Giving money or time to build a community project, Drenka says, was a forceful motivation for many Squamish citizens.
“At that time everyone got behind anything that seemed any good for the community. These two bankers, Jim Klymchuck and Jim Kilburn, were good curlers and they were pushing it to be hell. Now, I knew nothing about curling, but I supported it,” Drenka says.
The curling club also provided a fulfilled a much needed winter recreation to town.
“There was hardly any recreation here in the winter,” he says, “and then we had both curling and golf club.”
He was also instrumental in building a swimming pool in town, between the Howe Sound Secondary School and the old Logger Sports grounds (today’s Capilano University campus).
The spur for the swimming pool came from a drowning incident in the Howe Sound in which six people were drowned. Drenka contacted a engineer, Cy Keyes who put him in touch with Slim Galbraith, a swimming pool builder.
Drenka supplied building material and organised the construction work, while Dr.Laverne Kindree canvassed community support for the project.
“Johnny Drenka goes feet first,” is the caption of an iconic picture published in the local paper as Drenka is held and pushed in the water by Pat Brennan, George Lyons, and Cy Keyes.
While his contributions to the building of curling, swimming pool, and golf club are well known, what is lesser known is his generosity towards his employees. His son, John Drenka, remembers an incident about an employee who was hurt on the job.
“Rather than firing him, he rejigged one of his equipments so he could operate it, even though he was disabled. Dad is a very practical guy, but if he knew someone was in trouble, he would help out,” he says.
Another son, Jay Drenka, who works in the forestry industry in Pemberton, says he often meets people who offer something free when they find out he is Drenka’s son.
From talking to his kids, a portrait emerges of a father who was a good provider, but emotionally distant.
“He was never a very affectionate kind of person and at times he could be rough and gruff but that doesn’t matter because I know if the chips are down, he would do anything for us,” says John Drenka.
Of all the gifts that he gave them, one has been the most precious. It came in the form of a valuable lesson Jay Drenka learned one Christmas as he returned home from a backpacking tour of Australia.
“My Christmas present was gloves, alarm clock, and a rain gear,” Jay says, “He said it was time to go back to work. It was drilled into us ever since we were kids. It was the most important thing for him.”
Jeff Drenka started as a junior worker with the company in the 1980s and has since moved up the ranks to become a vice-president.
“I was just another worker and he demanded a lot from those who worked for him. He used to put in long hours and he is still very addicted to his work,” says Jeff Drenka.
He still is.
At age 94, heart attack and a bypass behind him, John Drenka is in no mood to retire. Ask him about retirement and he lets out a long roar of laughter.
“I’ll retire,” he begins, and then laughs heartily again, “I will retire when they put me in a box.”