In Memory Of
August 26, 1937 - September 13, 2020
It is with profound sadness and gratitude for an extraordinary life that we announce the passing of beloved husband, Tato, and Dido - Prof. George (Yurko) Foty after a lengthy and tenacious battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Yurko was born in the Bukovynian village of Tovtry (western Ukraine) on August 26, 1937 to Rev. Dmytro and Minodora Foty. The first few years of his life were spent surrounded by family in the neighboring village of Lenkivtsi, with many happy memories of adventure with loved ones. Given the political climate of 1942 Eastern Europe and the fact that his father was a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, it soon became too dangerous for the family to stay, and so they began their long journey west. Along the way, Yurko’s sister Marta was born, and the family continued to flee the Soviet Union on foot. An unexpected saving grace for them was the German ancestry of Minodora’s grandmother, whose ancestors were resettled to Ukrainian lands during the reign of Catherine II of Russia. Beginning in 1944, Germans and Volksdeutsche were expelled from various Eastern and Central European countries. The family’s distant German ancestry and Minodora’s knowledge of the German language allowed them to escape Soviet persecution and certain death, and be “repatriated” to German lands. Once in Germany, they were given shelter in various rural areas in exchange for odd jobs. Upon the end of the war, the family found themselves in an Allied displaced person’s camp “Lexenfeld” outside of Salzberg, Austria, where Rev. Dmytro served many fellow displaced Ukrainians and the young family once again felt some familiarity and community. Though Tato did not often speak of those tumultuous and traumatic years, the memories he did share were oddly happy and sometimes even resembled those of a typical childhood, full of play and shenanigans.
In 1947 the family was sponsored to immigrate to Canada by a cousin, and after a brief period in Winnipeg, ended up at their cousin’s farm near Smoky Lake, Alberta. Already a pre-teen, Yurko cherished this part of his life, and it was clear that living in such an area made a great impression on him and on who he became later in life. For the rest of his life, he remained incredibly nostalgic about his years in Smoky Lake. In 1950 the family moved to Toronto, where Yurko’s father assumed the position of parish priest at the St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral on Bathurst Street. Yurko began attending Harbord Collegiate Institute, and soon developed a great love for playing football. The Toronto Ukrainian community provided him with many cultural opportunities that also brought him great joy, including Ukrainian dancing (including workshops with the legendary Vasyl’ Avramenko) and becoming a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox youth group SUMK. Upon graduation, Yurko briefly experimented with studying engineering at the University of Toronto, only to then decide to pursue something wildly different at the University of British Columbia. It was while driving across the country to attend UBC that he made a pit-stop to stay with a SUMK friend in Edmonton, a friend who would only a few months later introduce him to a young and beautiful Lesya Yusypchuk. It was no secret that “George from Taranna” did not make the best first impression on Lesya, but she very uncharacteristically decided to throw caution to the wind, and accompany Yurko to visit his relatives on the farm near Vegreville. The two were smitten and fell deeply in love, with many trips back and forth between Vancouver and Edmonton in the following years.
While at UBC, Yurko took the only Slavic courses available to him, which focused on the Russian perspective of history in Eastern Europe. This thirst for knowledge and desire to fight historiographical tendencies would shape his life’s work. Tato’s favourite parts of his undergraduate years were playing football for the UBC Thunderbirds and living in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house. He shared these memories proudly with his children, including finding all brother ATO houses on family road trips, and attending every game when the U of S Huskies hosted the UBC Thunderbirds.
Yurko soon realized that he wanted to pursue an academic life and was accepted into the Master’s program in the Slavics department at the University of Alberta. His thesis on the mythology of Kyivan Rus’ (1963) was the first thesis in the field of Ukrainian folklore at the University, an area he was deeply passionate about for the rest of his life.
Yurko married Lesya in Edmonton on June 9, 1962, one year before completing his Master’s degree. Even before convocating, Yurko was hired by the Slavic Studies department at the University of Saskatchewan, and Saskatoon became home. This began an exemplary, challenging, and treasured career as a university educator. Tato loved the pursuit of knowledge, but most of all – he loved his students. He went above and beyond for them, even extending invitations to those who had nowhere to go during the Christmas and Easter holidays to join our family. Among the many achievements of his career, he was most proud of the student and faculty exchange with Chernivtsi University in western Ukraine, a historically unique opportunity that deeply affected the lives of those involved. The Chernivtsi Exchange was a cultural and educational “exchange” in the truest sense of the word, during a time in history when such opportunities were not readily available. Tato and Mama were lucky to accompany the students in 1985, which was his first visit back to his homeland, meeting many relatives essentially for the first time. This visit did not come without its difficulties, and given his personal history, Tato was given a “bodyguard” to be with him constantly to monitor his movement. Despite all the complications, Tato firmly believed in “cleaving the rock of ignorance” and getting in good trouble. Tato deeply loved Ukraine, believing to his core that she was one of the world’s best undiscovered treasures, and this love and patriotism colored much of what he did in his life.
In addition to teaching a variety of courses in Ukrainian and Russian language, Ukrainian civilization, literature, and folklore, Tato produced the vocabulary handbook Ukrainian Words to Enjoy Everyday Ukrainian Culture, and the popular “little yellow songbook,” Let’s Sing Out in Ukrainian. Tato loved to sing, and his love of singing was infectious. One of his greatest joys was to see young people singing from his songbook, and Tato was happiest when his entry way on Penryn Court was a sea of shoes, and his house was filled with young carollers singing in Ukrainian. He particularly loved lecturing about Kozak history, and was an astounding repository of dates and little-known facts about these heroic characters of Ukraine’s past. He also treasured the literary greats Taras Shevchenko, Lesia Ukrainka, and Ivan Franko, bringing their work to life in many of his classes over the years.
Tato lived by the words of Metropolitan Ilarion (Ohienko) – “служити народові, це служити Богові” (“by serving one’s people/community, one serves God”). Among his proudest community contributions was the founding of Vesna Festival with his two closest friends, Albert Kachkowski and Slawko Kindrachuk. Little did they dream that their hair-brained idea of starting a festival to promote Ukrainian culture in Saskatoon would still be around 46 years later. Tato also took great pleasure in working “the map” at Folkfest’s Karpaty Pavilion. Not only would it give him a chance to play geography and history teacher after retirement, but he would meet individuals and families and be truly fascinated by their family histories. Petro Mohyla Institute, All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox Church, The Ukrainian Museum of Canada, The Ukrainian Business and Professional Association – Tato supported and contributed to them all, with a genuine interest and passion to see them succeed as pillars of the Saskatoon Ukrainian community. Whenever he could, he would try to pull in and include his students in these ventures, setting his sights on the future. Tato inspired generations of students, filling their brains and hearts with all things Ukrainian. Even in his last years, as the grip of Alzheimer’s took a hold of his mind and memory, often his first concern was for “the students.”
To describe the kind of parent Tato was is perhaps the most difficult, as he was our rock, our hero, and our inspiration. From annual family camping trips, to numerous impromptu get-togethers with the kumy; from countless unsolicited grammar consultations, to wild story-telling sessions complete with unique voices for all the characters; from adoring the long succession of family German Shepherds, to quiet and simple moments enjoying his beloved yard – Tato was truly the kind of Tato anyone would wish to have, and set our bar of expectation for our own lives sky-high.
Yurko is survived by the love of his life, Lesya (Yusypchuk); daughters Tanya, Ksenya (Yaroslav Goutor), and Nadya (Yakym Oneschuk). He was the most giving and loving husband and father, always guiding with calming love and reason. He reached new levels of adoration with the advent of becoming a doting Dido to grandchildren Katya and Hooka Bulawka and Solomia Oneschuk. Also left to mourn his passing are his sister Marta (Vasyl) Kostyniuk (and family), brother-in-law Orest Yusypchuk, relatives in Edmonton and Toronto, and his dear kumy who he always made sure to describe as “chosen family.”
The family would like to thank Dr. Thomas Gabruch and the staff at Trinity Manor and Samaritan Place for their kind and compassionate care of Tato. You have made these last, most difficult years easier for all of us.
Tato takes with him a piece of us forever, and he will be missed every day.