Ralph Diegel may not look or act like he’s 90 years old, but there he was Thursday morning, the day of his 90th birthday, shaking the hands of dozens of folk visiting his store to wish him well and reminisce about fond memories, something everybody seemed to share with him.
At 24 years old, it’s impossible for me to even comprehend how much somebody 66 years my elder can accomplish, and simply listening and watching him interact with friends and family was like unfurling the many pages of a book, but only being able to glimpse a handful of pages.
At 17 I graduated high school and prepared for post-secondary education, but Ralph lived in a different time, when the world was at war and Allied troops pushed the European front on their way to Berlin to end the Second World War. When he was 17, he enlisted.
“The war was on,” he said. “Everybody was joining and it was a real struggle. There were no boys in grade 13, because they all enlisted. We had to serve our country.”
Ralph said at 17 he was standing in front of a recruitment officer in Ottawa, having passed the tests to join the Royal Canadian Navy, but still needed to get permission from his parents to join.
“I had to phone my dad and get permission then,” he said before he was told where he’d be going to train. “I thought I’d be going to one of the coasts and when they said I’d be going out west, I thought ‘wonderful, I’ll be going to Vancouver,’ but I was sent to Thunder Bay for six months to train at Port Arthur.”
After three years, fresh from the Second World War, Ralph worked for Price Signs in Sudbury for a few months before being laid off in the winter. It was then his uncle, George Deegan offered him a job for the holiday season of 1946.
“I was a veteran at 20 when I started working here for my uncle,” Ralph said, having served since 1943. “He said he needed help for the Christmas holiday and I’ve been working here ever since!”
And for 70 years, Ralph has been working at Deegan’s Shoes, eventually becoming the owner. In 2014, he and his wife Pat Kenzie-Diegel celebrated the store’s 125th anniversary.
At 90 years-old, Ralph still hasn’t retired, still working behind the counter, taking phone calls and welcoming customers. Everyone who came to celebrate his birthday Thursday morning had a story to share about his kindness, patience, and good humour.
Some brought up the iconic rocking horse stationed in the middle of his store, saying they've known that horse since they were kids. Others talked about the fun they had playing music with Ralph in their bands, Ralph being a trumpet player himself. There was no shortage of good memories.
“I have a lot of friends and friends are very important,” he said, taking a look around the room, listening to the music being played. “This is all just so incredible.”
Ralph smiled as he greeted each guest, every individual recalling a fond memory with him. Truly, Ralph Diegel has become a man of the city, with the title of Mr. North Bay being appropriately given to him.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky in life,” he said, speaking of friends and family and life experiences, and having experienced two wonderful marriages, one of 40 years and the current of 22 years, and his kids. He sat down with a coffee and enjoyed the moment while guests shared a celebratory cake.
When he said living for 90 years provided him with countless lessons, I asked him what advice he had for somebody my age going forward.
“Take your time,” he said, “and hurry up.”
When I asked him what that was supposed to mean he smiled at me and laughed a little. I’ll never forget that advice and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand what he meant, but something tells me it will only be a matter of time before I do.