Previous chapter [“The hermit,” April 5]: During the early 1980s, my family had arrived at our new cabin on the Gifford Peninsula in Desolation Sound, which was backed by nothing but wilderness. You can imagine how startled we were to see a bearded stranger at the edge of those woods, watching us. He introduced himself as Russell Letawsky. Up on our deck he told us his remarkable story: the unlikely tale of the man who would eventually become known as the Hermit of Desolation Sound.
Russell Letawsky was born in 1942 to a Ukrainian farming family in Northern Alberta. He was the middle child of five: two boys and three girls.
Together the siblings helped out with their parents on their wheat farm in tiny Skaro, Alberta, a dot on the map an hour northeast of Edmonton. Russell’s oldest sister Gladys has said that Russell was always the smartest person in their family, parents included. And that he was, for a time, very good looking and a sharp dresser.
In the late 1950s, youthful rebellion roared across North America thanks mostly to rock ‘n’ roll, and Russell Letawsky was a bonafide greaser. He once described his teenage years as a cross between Who Has Seen The Wind and Happy Days, and Russell was Fonzie, the definition of a juvenile delinquent.
Russell had his own gang that challenged rivals to rumbles. He also stole cars, lots of them, for the sheer thrill of joyriding at top speed down arrow-straight prairie dirt roads with the radio cranked. And, somehow, he never got caught.
Russell’s well behaved and responsible older brother Jim knew what was going on and did not approve. Russell looked up to his brother, so by the time he had graduated high school, Russell had done his best to straighten out. But tragedy struck in the early 1960s when Jim was killed in a skiing accident near Wells, BC.
Russell didn’t want to become a self-described “hay seed” like other lifers in his prairie town, so headed for the coast.
In Vancouver, Russell Letawsky spent his money on the finest clothes he could: starched white-collar shirts, crisp three-button suits and thin black ties. He fashioned his hair in a close-crop like Paul Newman and soon landed a job as a shoe salesman at Debbie’s Shoes at the corner of Granville and Robson streets in the mid-1960s.
If you consider where he would eventually wind up, Russell Letawsky’s politics were surprisingly opposite to the burgeoning youth culture of the day. In the ’60s he was as right wing as you could get.
Vancouver seemed like too much of a frontier town for Russell’s lofty career aspirations. He moved on to bustling Toronto to make his fortune and soon landed a career position with a telecommunications firm and joined Toronto’s Junior Board of Trade. Russell Letawsky had arrived. He got married and had a baby daughter.
In the late ’60s, Toronto’s bohemian counterculture scene was in full swing down in Yorkville, Canada’s answer to Greenwich Village. But to Russell, the clean-shaven, right wing, nattily attired businessman from Alberta, the scene down in Yorkville was a freak show, a zoo. He was also staunchly anti-marijuana and wanted nothing to do with that scene.
Russell Letawsky was a yuppie when everyone else was a hippie. How on earth did this man ever become the grizzled Hermit of Desolation Sound?
One night in 1969, Russell and his wife were attending a swingin’ Toronto cocktail party hosted by a Bay Street stockbroker friend. Something happened at that party that would help alter the course of Russell Letawsky’s life forever. That’s in the next chapter of Hermit of Desolation Sound.
Grant Lawrence is an award-winning author and radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. Hermit of Desolation Sound is currently airing as a weekly radio serial on North by Northwest, CBC Radio One in BC. The Peak is proudly presenting “Grant Lawrence and Friends: An Evening of Stories and Songs,” Saturday, May 11, at Max Cameron Theatre. Advance tickets are on sale now at the Peak, Unit F - 4493 Marine Avenue.