Renato Tognetti, Black Jack Cross Country Ski Club’s oldest active member, turned 90 years old on Wednesday; although we had already gone to print, in all likelihood he spent the day skiing.
This impressive man swims three times a week — 10 laps and four sets of 30 pull-ups on the racing platforms — skis every other day (or more) at Black Jack where he has had a free pass since he turned 75, and greets people with a broad grin and a healthy, youthful face that tells more about his philosophy of positivity than words ever could.
Tognetti looks back fondly on 30 years of skiing at Black Jack, a sport he picked up around the time he retired.
“Oh, I’ve seen changes in a lot of things,” he said, nodding, “put a lot of work in too. Cutting old trails, building new trails, digging ditches to stop the runoff from washing out the trails.”
He has plenty of good memories of days spent working and skiing with Jimmy Douglas, Eric McLeod, Dave Rusnell, and “many, many others.”
Born and raised in the Italian village of Cardoso in Tuscany’s Serchio valley, about an hour’s drive north of Pisa, he never harboured any intention to leave his homeland.
He wasn’t interested in war either, but in early 1941, when he was 19, he enlisted to fight for Italy.
In 1943, Italy surrendered to the Allied advance, but it wouldn’t be the end of their war. Italy was a mess of different allegiances to one side, the other, or neither. German troops began rounding up Italian soldiers and sending them to prison camps.
Tognetti and his brother were on a passenger train, heading home from their post on the border with France, when they saw that the train was pulling into a station that bristled with gun-toting Nazis. The engineer slowed down but did not stop, and went straight through.
Tapping his head, Tognetti said: “He knew what was going on.”
The rest of the war years were spent in the crossfire, dodging bombs and mortars from both the Axis and the Allies, and “selling wine to both sides,” chuckled Tognetti’s nephew, Roland Guasparini, a medical doctor in Trail.
Tognetti married in 1947 and they started to raise a family. Still happily married 53 years later, Tognetti’s wife passed away.
It was Guasparini’s father and others in the family who wanted to move to Canada, not Tognetti. The family had already established a long history of moving “back and forth” between Italy and different places in North America. “My cousins and others wanted to go, so I followed,” he said.
Guasparini told the story, “My dad came home from the fields one day, tired and sweaty, and said, I’m sick of working in the fields! His cousin said to him, Well, they’re taking immigration applications in Canada.”
So Tognetti and several members of his extended family immigrated to Canada in 1950. He started off working on a farm in Quebec for $1.50 per day plus board, but soon moved to Trail, joined by his wife and their two children Ione and Sergio. A third, Lori, was born shortly afterwards in Trail.
Arriving in Trail, Tognetti recalled, “I didn’t even know where I was!” Since then, though he may have moved around for work, his home has been at the corner of Lookout and Spokane, surrounded by family in a neighbourhood that mostly traces its origins to Italy and Scotland.
For Tognetti and his family in 1950, the tangle of steep, narrow roads meandering through a cascade of small houses and stone walls, stacked one on the other, was immediately reminiscent of Cardoso. Their Trail neighbourhood even has the same aspect as the hillside village they left behind, and to which he has returned six times to visit.
“I’m very happy that my family grew up here,” he said, noting the schools and the opportunities. He’s happy his children have been able to “make good lives for themselves,” with all three living comfortably in Vancouver with their own families.
He worked for CPR and Cominco, mostly in the Warfield yard. “It was really good,” Tognetti said, “I enjoyed it, and learned a lot.”
Refusing to be at loose ends when he retired, he set right into a new mode of life, swimming all year around, skiing through the winter, and gardening through the summer. He also took on new hobbies, such as building and refacing the rockwalls around his property, a five-year project that earned him a place in the recently published book, Set in Stone — A History of Trail’s Rock Walls.
The multi-coloured stones in his masterful walls were collected from “all over the place,” from Waneta to Kamloops. Any time he found beautiful stones, he filled his trunk and took them home.
True to his Italian roots, Tognetti remains in close touch with the earth, hunting mushrooms in the area from Salmo to Castlegar. In his large garden he grows “everything,” from leaf crops and other vegetables to a variety of fruit trees bearing apples, cherries, apricots — with peach branches grafted on — pears, raspberry bushes and more.
On Saturday, Tognetti and Guasparini will hit the road to visit Tognetti’s children in Vancouver. At 90 and fit as a fiddle, Tognetti is still driving. When asked his secret to a long and happy life, his advice is simple but strong:
“Eat good food,” he said, “lots of lettuce, many kinds, big salads with onions and vegetables. Drink a couple of glasses of wine each day. Cheese and prosciutto.” Laughing, he passed over a plate full of colourfully wrapped treats. “And eat lots of chocolate!”
Excercise is clearly a part of his day-to-day routine, but he said attitude is just as important.
His nephew said, “He always has a good sense of humour, and spins things in a positive way. He takes a positive view no matter what.”
Tognetti smiled, “And I keep on working hard all the time.”
“He never stops,” Guasparini laughed.