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(E) Born, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  11/24/2003 | Community | Unrated
(E) Born, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire


Born, when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire


"I go at my own pace. I get there"

Jim Kruzic keeps up with busy life

Still drives, bought first car in 1939


The elevator door is open, but Marijan Kruzic - Jim to his friends - strides by and heads for the stairwell.

"It's only four floors down," he says over his shoulder. "I don't always walk up but sometimes."

As he unlocks his blue Toyota in the parking lot of the Shepherd Village seniors' community on Sheppard Ave. E., a neighbour says, "Drive carefully."

Kruzic grins and whispers to her, "We're going to the pub." He's kidding. This is just a get-acquainted joyride.

He's reminding his passengers to fasten their seat belts when he pauses. His eyes are puzzled.

"Why are you so interested in me?" he says.

Well, for one thing, he's 100 years old and still driving. Driving confidently and decisively, at that, keeping up with the Scarborough traffic and quickly, calmly, hitting the brakes when someone runs a red light and cuts him off.

But there's far more to Kruzic than a well-used parking spot with his name on it. This is a man who's lived through all but three years of 20th-century history. He's the same age as the King Eddy hotel downtown. When he was born, his Croatian homeland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Across the Atlantic, the Wright brothers were still just talking about flying. He's a testament, if you like, to the benefits of city living. Most of his life has been spent in one urban sprawl or another.

On a more personal note, there can't be too many people who've had a Toronto Star subscription since 1932, which is when he came to the city.

Kruzic left Croatia in 1928, shortly after he and his wife Ruzica were married. He was 24, she was 18. They spent the next six years apart before she was able to join him. Kruzic tries to recall the name of the ship that brought him to Canada. "Metagama, maybe?"

Sure enough, the Internet comes up with Metagama, sailing the North Atlantic route for Canadian Pacific with no first class, only "cabin" and third.

"I came third class," he says. "It was 11 days. Flying's better. The food's not so good."

He landed in Saint John, N.B., and was put on a train for the Prairies, where he and his fellow immigrants were slated to work on the harvest.

"I didn't want to do that," he says. "I didn't want to go. We were near Thunder Bay. The train was going slowly between Port Arthur and Fort William and two of us jumped off. I had $20 in my pocket. All my belongings went to Winnipeg, I guess. I didn't speak a word of English. It was scary. If they caught you, they deported you."

Kruzic found safe haven with Croatians in Port Arthur. He worked laying railway ties, lumberjacking and in a leather factory until he found a job as a riveter on the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit.

"That's where I made the money to bring my wife over," he says. They've been married 75 years and have two daughters. Ruzica suffers from Alzheimer's and lives in the Shepherd Village long-term-care facility.

Kruzic sits in his neat little apartment, bright-eyed, slim and straight-backed. He bustles across the room to fetch a book from shelves well-stocked with classics - he's just finished War and Peace and moved on to Les Miserables - and at one point demonstrates the push-ups he does first thing every morning. They're the real thing, too, not the wussy ones where you keep your knees on the floor.

"On a good day I can do 10," he says, hardly breathing heavily.

He learned to use a computer when he was 98 but is more impressed by outer space than cyberspace.

"Man on the moon," he says. "To see that ... it would have been magic when I was young. Something out of a book."

After he moved to Toronto, Kruzic owned four grocery stores. When he retired, he got his licence and sold real estate until he was well into his 70s. And he was always an activist on behalf of Croatia. He travelled to Yugoslavia in the mid-1930s to protest the treatment of Croatian dissidents and wound up behind bars, he says, until the Canadian consul got him out.

He headed the Ontario branch of the Croatian Fraternal Union for 27 years until in 1999, he was named president emeritus.

He ponders his own long life. "Luck? Moderation? I don't smoke, I don't drink ... I do drink sometimes. Red wine mostly. And I go at my own pace. I get there."

Frequently by car. The conversation keeps coming back to driving. Kruzic learned in 1939 but without the formality of passing a test.

"Never! I got my first car in Timmins. I was just looking, not thinking of buying. The salesman said, `Would you like to buy one?' I said, `I don't have a licence.' He said, 'No problem.' You bought a car, they gave you a licence with it. It was a 1929 Chevy. I paid $87."

"Now, I'll drive you anywhere you want to go. Short distance, long distance, I don't care."

(For the record, says transportation ministry spokesperson Bob Nichols, Kruzic is the 12th oldest registered driver in Ontario. "There are two aged 102 with active licences and nine aged 101," Nichols says. "Whether they still drive regularly, however, we don't know.")


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