I met Phil Dietrich several years ago as a volunteer. At the time, the Abbeyfield building was in the early stages of becoming a home for independent seniors. Dietrich, known to many as a hard worker with a natural friendly disposition, was on the front line along with his wife Marlene—always busy doing various repairs and improvements to the building.
The late Terry Whyte had worked long and hard to make this future Independent Living home a reality in our community. Soon after, he learned that city council had given the OK to make the Extended Care Unit attached to the old hospital a home for seniors that is owned and operated by the Port Alberni Abbeyfield Society.
Making the building available and suitable to accommodate the needs of seniors was indeed a challenge for Whyte, the board of directors and the dozens of volunteers willing to give their time to get the building ready for future residents. They relied on the invaluable support, experience and desire of people like Phil Dietrich to do the job, and thanks to their effort, Abbeyfield managed to open at full capacity in 2002.
At that time, Phil became an important part of the operation. He continued volunteering for the next two decades as a maintenance man by doing all sorts of needed improvements.
Phil and Marlene got together in the fall of 1976, meeting in a grocery store. At that time, Marlene was working for Coulson Prescott Logging and Phil was an employee of the paper mill.
Second marriages for both, their lives have been enriched with the children, family members and friends each brought to their union.
“We now live each day as it comes with joy and gratitude,” said Marlene.
Unfortunately, Phil is experiencing memory loss and it is hard for him to recall details of his life. Marlene has filled in the blanks for this interview.
Phil’s family includes three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Marlene, who includes her foster families, has six children, nine grandchildren, 26 great grandchildren, and will become a great-great-grandmother in July. Quite a family!
Together they began buying houses and renovating them during the economic downturn of the early ‘80s when real estate was cheaper. Over the years, they renovated and rented out twelve houses.
“He taught me some wiring, plumbing, carpenter work and clean-up when I joined him after work,” said Marlene. “We enjoyed working together—sometimes I felt like a surgical nurse, handing him tools.”
Phil is also a member of the New Democratic Party, working in every federal and provincial election as the “Sign Man” since 1969. Marlene also became involved in NDP politics in many capacities.
The Dietrich home in Cherry Creek has been a hub for many throughout the years. Christmas breakfasts and New Year’s dinners were celebrated every year. Breakfast is a “come when you can” event, and one year they had 56 people for pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream, homemade smoked sausage, ham and the famous McKinnon eggnog recipe. New Year’s dinners included 25 pounds of mashed potatoes, two turkeys (one smoked) and the Phillips family Granny Tosh’s Christmas pudding with coins in it, said Marlene.
An interesting note is that the house on Cherryvale Lane, owned by Marlene, was built by her late first husband’s grandfather, William Abbot Phillips, in 1912, and it has been in the same family ever since—now seven generations. It has grown over the years with renovations and additions on the four-acre homestead.
Camping with the grandchildren became a summer event in a small fifth wheel and an old tent trailer as a bedroom, taking cousins for their trips around the Island and reading aloud the Harry Potter books.
Marlene has been an active volunteer in the Alberni Valley—at first secretary, then president and now treasurer of the Abbeyfield Society since its inception. She is a member of seven boards, including the AV Historical Society as a volunteer in the archives.
She says she brings the community back to Phil, “as we sit with a glass of wine at 4 pm and catch up on all the news.”
At the closing of this interview, she said, “It is hard to believe that Phil and I have been together over 40 years. Time has gone by so quickly. He is a loving and demonstrative husband and father who believes family is everything. Unfailingly appreciative, complimentary and considerate, he is a wonderful partner, companion, and an example to both of our families. Everyone remarks on his wonderful smile.”