Just as he’d lived his life, Gustav “Gus” Herder left on his own terms.
The 90-year-old Gibsons resident was reported missing from the Christenson Village assisted living residences on the evening of Nov. 8. It was dark, with heavy rain and winds but, in the last few weeks of his life, Gus was adamant about going home. His daughters, Luci and Carole Herder, believe he was trying to go to Edmonton the night he went missing.
Luci and Carole said it’s not the first time their father braved a difficult journey. Growing up in a small border town in Poland during the Second World War, he lived through German and Russian occupations before his family made the months-long trek by foot, boat and train to Edmonton. It was there he met a young Polish woman, Frieda, who would become his wife of 67 years. Together, they had two daughters, three grandchildren and a great-grandson.
After raising their family in Edmonton, the couple were persuaded to join their two daughters on the Sunshine Coast about 10 years ago, and later moved into Christenson Village. In 2013, even before moving into the assisted living facility, the Herders donated a bench located between the Village and the nearby mall so that the seniors would have a place to stop. It was engraved with a message: “Rest in joy and gratitude.”
“We found it quite ironic the way he went out in the end, after surviving all that hardship,” Luci said, as it reminded them of how he had to hide in the woods as a young child, on the run from occupying forces and trying to reach a place that would become home.
“The fortitude and the strength and the courage that it took and right to the end… He went out his way, on his own terms.”
Now, the Herder family is thanking the Sunshine Coast community for coming out in force to look for missing senior.
The weather hampered search efforts, with winds up to 72 kilometres the next day.
Luci, a well-known pianist who has lived on the Coast for 30 years, used her Facebook following to spread the word and received an outpouring of support. She and her sister Carole were both out looking for their father when a volunteer dog team found him late the next morning, less than a kilometre from his residence.
Paramedics took Herder to the hospital in an ambulance, where he was treated for hypothermia. After two heart attacks, his family chose not to continue resuscitation.
“He had been in the elements for quite some time. We were surprised to find that he was alive,” Carole said. “We just all assumed he would get to the hospital and get warmed up, and he would be fine.”
The hospital staff were amazing, the daughters said. One of the RCMP officers on the case visited the hospital to check in on Gus – one of the many community members who showed the family that they cared about his outcome, too.
Search efforts included the RCMP, Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers and dog team, as well as many community members.
Dave Steers, the SAR manager on the call, said the team of 13 volunteers searched until 3 a.m., when two trees fell close to the volunteers and it was too dangerous to stay out.
A few hours later, 17 SAR volunteers headed back out, many of them from the first search party. They canvassed the area, going door to door, when one of the searchers found Herder’s wheelchair on private property.
The SAR team wishes to offer their condolences to the family, Steers said.
Gus was known for his humour, and love of the outdoors and parties. When he met Frieda, he was building houses, later owned a beauty and barber salon and subsequently went into real estate. A musician with a generous streak, he toured Europe with his choir and bought Luci her first piano.
“He was happiest when we were singing in German and drinking beer,” Carole said. “There was a sadness about him too, at the same time, because I don’t think you can really eradicate that history.”
Gus was religious, and was a member of Gibsons United Church until it closed earlier this year. As his daughters went through his belongings, they found that Gus had already written what he wanted to be read at his service. It included a passage about two sets of footprints walking together that become one set when times get tough – a metaphor that God will carry you through the darkest days.
The service will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 23, at 11 a.m. in the chapel at Devlin Funeral Home. His daughters said they would love for the Search and Rescue volunteers, his fellow church members and those who knew him to join.
“We’re pretty grateful to live in a caring community like this. We were overwhelmed by all the support,” the daughters said.
Two days before he died, Gus told Carole that he’d heard his mother calling to him to come home.
“Metaphorically, home can mean other things – not just a location on the planet,” Carole said.