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Their arrival coincided with that moment when the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Winnipeg, and transformed the once tiny and isolated fur-trapping settlement and Hudson’s Bay trading post. Within three decades the settlement had become a major grain capital of the North American middle west. “All roads lead to Winnipeg,” the Chicago Record Herald reported in 1911. “It is destined to become one of the greatest distributing commercial centers of the continent as well as a manufacturing community of great importance.”

Though the city failed to live up to those grand predictions, Winnipeg did grow rapidly in size, sophistication, and importance over the first half of the twentieth century, establishing the country’s first national ballet company and symphony orchestra. Today its population is over 600,000, and the city’s downtown core, built around the meandering curves of the Red River, boasts an impressive stand of modern high-rises to complement its fine Victorian buildings.

The Mennonites on the surrounding prairies had long felt the lure of Winnipeg’s affluence, and after World War II the more assimilated families began to move into the city to take jobs in manufacturing, trucking, and construction. Among them were Ron Reimer’s parents, Peter and Helen, who in 1949 sold their farm in nearby Deloraine and moved to the Winnipeg neighborhood of St. Boniface, where Peter took a job in a slaughterhouse and Helen raised their four young children, of whom Ron was the eldest.

Even as a small child, he was dutiful and hardworking, a boy whose combination of personal privacy and dogged industry often amazed his own mother. “He was always so shy and quiet,” Helen Reimer recalls, “but he was also such a busy little boy. I had to think up ways to keep him out of trouble. I would show him how to cook. He always wanted to be doing something with food and cooking.” It was a passion that would stay with Ron. As an adult he would eventually support his wife and two children by running his own business as the operator of a coffee truck, supplying sandwiches and other prepared foods to construction sites around Winnipeg.

By 1957, when Ron was in his early teens, the music of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard had reached Winnipeg. Cars, girls, beer, and rock ’n’ roll music soon had strong claims on his attention. For Mennonites of Ron’s parents’ generation, the swift cultural changes of the late 1950s were threatening. Though not themselves especially devout, they had only a decade earlier moved from an almost exclusively Mennonite farm community where some of the day-to-day values and assumptions were still closer to those of nineteenth-century rural Russia than late-twentieth-century urban North America. In what would prove to be a kind of reverse migration, the Reimers were among many Mennonite families who, in an effort to resist the seismic cultural shifts taking place in the city, returned their families to their roots on the prairie. In 1959, Ron’s father bought a farm some sixty miles from the city, near the town of Kleefeld, in Mennonite country, and moved his family there.

Ron, fifteen years old at the time, hated the move. Kleefeld itself was little more than a ramshackle scattering of stores along a few hundred yards of gravel highway (grain store, post office, grocery), with nowhere for Ron to channel his formidable work ethic. He would pick two hundred pounds of saskatoons and sell them for twenty-five cents a pound—grueling labor for little pay; nothing like the money he was able to make in the city. And his father insisted on taking even those paltry sums from Ron for upkeep of the old clapboard farmhouse on its patch of scrubby land.

It was in this state of boredom, penury, and growing friction with his strict and authoritarian father that Ron, at seventeen, accepted the invitation of his friend Rudy Hildebrandt to visit Rudy’s girlfriend in the nearby town of Steinbach. Rudy’s girlfriend had a nice-looking roommate, a girl named Janet, whom Ron might like.

Like Ron, Janet Schultz was raised in Winnipeg, the eldest child of Mennonite parents who had joined the postwar migration from the prairie to the city. Growing up in the Winnipeg neighborhood of St. Vital, Janet was a lively and inquisitive girl whose passion for reading—first Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, then thrillers, and eventually books on psychology—opened up for her a perspective on life beyond the traditional Mennonite values of her parents—and in particular her mother, with whom she constantly clashed. “I wanted an education, but my mother wanted me to get out to work and bring home money,” Janet says. Eventually she was convinced to quit school after ninth grade and take a job at a sewing factory. Janet gave her paychecks to her mother, which did little to foster goodwill between them. A further gulf opened between mother and daughter when Janet, in her early teens, stopped attending the Mennonite church. “I found it was so restrictive,” she says. “I didn’t think it was biblical. They said it was a sin to smile. I didn’t think that way.” In fact, by age fifteen, Janet was given to joking about her parents’ religion. “Why don’t Mennonites ever make love standing up?” she liked to ask her friends. “Because someone might think they were dancing!” Janet herself loved to go dancing and roller-skating, and as an exceptionally pretty hazel-eyed brunet with a shapely figure, she never lacked for dates.

Convinced that their eldest child and only daughter was slipping dangerously from their control, Janet’s parents, like Ron Reimer’s, joined the migration of city Mennonites back to the farm. In 1960, when Janet was fourteen, the Schultzes relocated to New Bothwell, a tiny settlement amid the silos and grain fields forty-five minutes from Winnipeg. Janet missed the city’s movie theaters, restaurants, roller rinks, and dance halls—and soon began accepting dates from any boy who had a car and thus could offer her escape from the farm. Janet’s mother tried to curb her daughter’s social life but to no avail. Shortly after Janet’s fifteenth birthday, her mother told her to move out. Janet went gladly. She moved to the nearby city of. Steinbach, where she found work at a sewing factory and shared a small apartment in a rooming house with her cousin Tina. Not long after that, Tina’s boyfriend brought a young man over to meet Janet. He was a tall blond boy of seventeen with large blue eyes and a shy way of glancing at her. His name was Ron Reimer. “I was flirting with Ron,” she says, laughing, “and I was thinking he wasn’t flirting back, so I figured he didn’t like me.”

Ron did like her, but was too shy to reveal his feelings in front of the other couple. He invited Janet to have a look at his car on the street, then asked her out to see a movie on the weekend. He raised money for their date by taking the transmission out of a junkyard Ford and selling it to a friend for ten dollars. That weekend, Ron and Janet went to see Gidget Goes Hawaiian. “I don’t think I watched five minutes of that movie,” Janet laughs. “I was too busy eyeballing him. Oh, he was so sexy!”

Over the course of the summer they saw a lot of each other, joining Tina and Rudy on double dates—usually just a drive out to one of the isolated country roads where they would park, drink a six-pack, make out, and talk. As Ron and Janet compared their backgrounds, they were amazed to discover how much they had in common. Their similarities drew them together, but paradoxically enough so did their differences. Janet could compensate for Ron’s sometimes passive reluctance to take decisive action; Ron, on the other hand, with his slow, considered approach to life, could rein Janet in from her more reckless enthusiasms and impulses. Together they made up a single entity stronger than either one of them.

When Janet decided to move back into Winnipeg, there was never any question but that Ron would follow her. Though they did not rent an apartment together—this was the early 1960s, and such boldness would have been unthinkable for a pair not yet out of their teens—Ron did spend much of his time with Janet in her rooming house. It was there that they slept together for the first time. Both had been virgins. And not long after that, Janet missed her period. She had just turned eighteen. Ron was nineteen, soon to turn twenty. It was young to marry, but they had talked about marriage before. This was simply a sign that they should bless their union sooner rather than later. The two were married on 19 December 1964 in the city of Steinbach. In acknowledgment of the emancipation they now felt from their disapproving parents, they deliberately declined to be married in one of the city’s twenty Mennonite churches.

     

 

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