An Interview with Ken Gaetz
We recently said goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021. But for the foreseeable future, it appears that we will be working in a world where we have to live with uncertainty, fulfil extra roles or take on new tasks, and cope with a measure of continued isolation.
And that’s good news for those buying stock in resilience.
Resilience is the ability to withstand, adapt and grow in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy and stress. It’s the ability to transcend despite all the odds. Resilience is the single quality we all need now to go where no one has gone before.
Ken Gaetz knows a thing or two about transcending despite the odds.
At age 93, Ken is in the most COVID-vulnerable group of Canadians. When asked how he is coping, he simply replies, “It hasn’t affected me much. I watch church online. I miss being with people. Isolation is not that big a problem for me.”
Ken, now a widower in Kelowna, B.C., pioneered the first Pentecostal Chapel in the Northwest Territories; organized the Pentecostal Sub-Arctic Mission; served as a volunteer firefighter, town councillor, deputy mayor, and justice of the peace; assisted in relocating the entire town following the devastating flood of ’63; planted multiple Dene and Inuit churches; was the first administrator of the first hospital north of the 60th parallel; and even had a street named after him in Hay River—Gaetz Drive.
How did Ken accomplish so much? He kept saying yes to what the Lord prompted him to do. As Jesus described it, Ken was “abiding” in Him. Where he saw needs, he filled them. He was durable, likable, hardy, and possessed a healthy sense of humour. Ken refused to take himself seriously and was blessed with a wife who was his biggest fan.
The first time Sarah Solmonson noticed Ken was when he threw a snowball in her face on a young adult sleigh ride. She couldn’t stay mad at him. Even on their first date, when he realized he had no money to pay the bill or for his bus fare home and she had to cover for him, Sarah’s love for Ken knew no bounds.
Seventy-three years ago, postwar Canada was starting to look to the North for resources and wealth. The first all-season road was nearing completion from Grimshaw, Alta., to Hay River on the southern shore of Great Slave Lake, N.W.T. In 1948 the Mackenzie Highway would make Hay River the Hub of the North and open up explosive development, enterprise and immigration. Four thousand miles away in Winnipeg, Man., a 20-year-old Bible college student was praying about his future. More than anything else, Ken Gaetz felt called to take the gospel where no one else had gone in Canada. God’s call, a willing heart, and providential opportunity came together to create historic outcomes.
Ken was adaptable. He learned how to fell trees, use the wood to build a cabin, survive Arctic winters, drive a dogsled team, operate a river scow, build a church, start a nursing station, administer a hospital, rebuild a town, survive a flood, and host the Governor General’s wife, Madame Vanier.
Resilience is not something that some people have and others simply don’t. Resilience is in all of us and can be learned and developed.
Learning Resilience From Godly Giants
Ken was an eight-year-old when his family moved to Edmonton in 1936. The Gaetzes attended the newly built Edmonton Pentecostal Tabernacle on 108th Street. In 1945, when D. N. Buntain became the pastor, Ken became friends with Buntain’s sons, Mark and Fulton, and spent many an hour in their home. When Ken sensed God’s call on his life, he sought out his trusted pastor for advice.
Pastor Buntain was of the opinion that Dr. J. E. Purdie, founder of Winnipeg Bible College (WBC), had done more to mould the character and shape the destiny of the Pentecostal movement than any other person. Ken took his pastor’s advice and, together with his sister, Doris, enrolled in WBC.
Dr. Purdie left an indelible impression on young Ken, teaching his students to look for nothing more than being spoken to by God and being led to do something in particular by God.
Resilience, as Ken came to understand, is not something that can be mustered in a moment of rising to the occasion. It is formed over a long period before the crisis of testing.
The Strength of Resilience Is in the Call of God
Following graduation, Ken had the opportunity to go to Fort McMurray along with a classmate, Merv Smith, where they planted a Pentecostal church. But Ken knew this was a temporary development.
The big news in Alberta was the completion of the Mackenzie Highway into Hay River, the end of the road. Hay River was just a dot on the shore of Great Slave Lake, but the “end of the road” sounded like the perfect place to Ken. He informed his family and Sarah that God was calling him to take the message of salvation to the people in the North.
On January 10, 1949, Ken’s dad and his friend, Clarence McAlister, drove him to Peace River. From there, Ken hitched a 400-mile ride with a trucker on what was simply a gravel road. The pair pulled into Hay River at 10 p.m. on January 12 in -40 F weather, only to find there was no lodging available. They slept in the cab of the truck. The next day Ken helped the driver unload his lumber and bid him Godspeed. Suddenly he was alone.
It was suppertime, so Ken dropped in to the only café and introduced himself to the men one by one. The proprietor inquired as to his purpose in Hay River.
“I’m here to start a church.”
Without losing a beat, the proprietor laughed and said, “A church? Who here wants a church?” He asked each one, and to a man they made it clear that church was not for them.
The proprietor advised Ken, “Son, you better head home to your mother. No one wants a church around here.”
Ken testifies that the Lord sustained him in that moment. “I was supposed to be there. I knew that God had called me there, so it didn't matter what anyone else said. I wasn’t in the least dissuaded.”
One of the critical attributes of a leader is persistence in the face of resistance.
Ken learned to fell trees and used the logs to build a two-room, 16 x 16 foot honeymoon cottage for his new bride. Sarah arrived in November 1949 at -25 F. She described her arrival in Hay River as “city girl meets no man’s land.” Sarah caused quite the stir, being only one of a few women living in Hay River.
On Sundays their cottage was packed with upwards of 25 children for Sunday school and an adult church service in the evenings. That spring Ken cleared land next to their cottage, hauled logs, and completed a chapel with siding. The chapel was full for their inaugural service on May 6, 1950.
The Gospel is for a Community
Their first child, Earle, was born in 1951, followed by Ivan, Sharon and Sara-Lee over the next 15 years.
To provide for his family, Ken took employment with the Yellowknife Transportation Company, loading and hauling supplies to be shipped down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic communities.
Ken says, "I always felt that I wanted to become very much involved with the community." That’s why he started the first Boy Scouts and Cubs group in Hay River, an initiative that demonstrated to the townsfolk that he had community interests at heart.
In 1952 there was a general meeting of the residents of Hay River to address development in their rapidly growing community. Better medical resources were desperately needed. Leaders asked the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which had nursing stations throughout the North, if they would run one in Hay River, but they didn't have the personnel.
Then someone said, “Well, you know that young guy who’s running the Boy Scouts? Let's ask him and his church.”
Resilience Is Formed Through Saying Yes to God’s Leading
Ken, who was in his mid-20s and had no experience in health care, agreed. At that time no Pentecostal group was operating a nursing station or a hospital in Canada or the United States. Ken took the inquiry as God’s leading.
He found two nurses—Beatrice Purdy from Saskatchewan and Adeline Drisner from Edmonton—who would work for no guaranteed salary. On January 1, 1953, he opened the two-bed clinic and ran it until the community decided it needed a hospital.
In 1957, Hay River’s first small hospital opened, a six-bed operation with a handful of nurses on staff. In 1962, that hospital was expanded to fit 12 beds. Being a mission hospital, medical staff prayed with patients, before surgeries, and over newborns.
Gaetz became a prominent name in the community, shaping Hay River’s health care as the hospital’s administrator for several decades.
Partnering With Others Sustains Resilience
Ken made friends with many Dene, who taught him how to trap, live in the North, and run a dogsled team. He obtained a river scow, repaired it, and renamed it Messenger. He and Sarah travelled the Mackenzie River with elders from the Dene community, Chief Johnny Lamalice, and Jimmy Sibbeston, a guide and navigator.
They planted churches in Fort Resolution, Fort Providence, Fort Norman, Fort Good Hope, Coppermine, Pine Point and Fort Smith. Ken sensed the new North that was about to emerge and encouraged the Dene and Inuit people to take as much leadership as possible. Mission staff embraced interfaith services long before the ecumenical movement emerged.
Resilience From Doing God’s Will
The Gaetzes displayed a plaque in their home— “The will of God will not take you where the grace of God cannot keep you.”
In 1963, during the spring thaw ice breakup, the rising river overflowed its banks and nearly swept the entire town away. The Gaetzes’ house was firmly fixed to the foundational pilings, so it did not move, but their church next door floated across the street to the neighbours. The Legion Hall, a popular dance and drinking establishment in town, located on the property right behind the church, floated into the churchyard.
Typhoid became an issue. Women and children were evacuated. As a member of the town council, Ken stayed behind and oversaw the building of a new town on higher ground.
In 1980 Ken and Sarah felt led by God to conclude their work in the North and moved to Kelowna. Being out of the North didn’t mean the North was out of them. They would return many times over the succeeding years.
Every Reason to Be Useful in the Kingdom
The Gaetzes were in their 80s when asked to go to Kugluktuk (Coppermine), located on the Arctic coast, to look after the church and the mission because they were without a pastor. They said, “There was no reason we should not go.” So they packed their winter clothes, booked airfares, and travelled north to fill the gap from January to May.
Following Sarah’s passing in May 2019, Ken felt his usefulness was over. He hit a low point until a call came from Gary Taitinger, superintendent of the Alberta & Northwest Territories District, asking Ken to come to the annual ministers gathering in Banff. Ken would be the honoured guest and share his story of resilience. Since that experience, his daughter Sharon describes her dad as “getting his vigour back.”
Abiding in Jesus
Ken models the resilience of those who abide in Christ. Jesus said that anyone “who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NKJV).
When facing crises, health concerns, stress, anxiety or discouragement, resilience enables you to adapt and take any challenges in stride.
The year 2021 could be the end of the road for a lot of things, but it will be the beginning of good news for resilient followers of Jesus like Ken Gaetz.
Kenneth Gaetz now lives in Kelowna, B.C. Bob Jones writes at REVwords.com and is an effectiveness coach for the Alberta and Northwest Territories District of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
This article appeared in the April/May/June 2021 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2021 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.
Home page photo © istockphoto.com – Alexandra Falls tumble 32 meters over the Hay River, Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park, Northwest Territories, Canada. Second photo: Ken Gaetz. Third photo: Ken and Sarah Gaetz, left, with former General Superintendent Daniel N. Buntain, right, at Central Pentecostal Church in Edmonton, Alta., in 1949. The Gaetzes were being presented with a grocery shower. Photos courtesy Ken Gaetz.