A life snuffed short: 49 years ago a brilliant young med student by the name of Aron Katz drowned in the Whiteshell in the course of saving his own younger sister herself from drowning

Left: 21-year-old med student Aron
Katz Right: 18-year old St. John's
High graduate Aron Katz in the 1969
St. John's yearbook, "The Torch"

By BERNIE BELLAN On July 21 I received an interesting email from someone by the name of Reid Linney that immediately aroused my interest.
Here is what Reid wrote: “Hi, I’m a member of St. John’s High School’s Class of 1969. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of our graduation in 2019 and embarked upon a fundraising effort for an annual scholarship. The scholarship honors our classmate, Aron Katz.


“In 1973 he gave his life while saving his sister from drowning.
“Aron was in med school at the time.
“Our class, and members of Aron’s family, raised enough money to fund an annual scholarship of $2,500.
“It’s awarded to a graduating student who shows academic promise and exhibits both personal courage and empathy for others.
“On Tuesday, August 16, at 9:00 am we’ll be meeting at the school to install a memorial plaque on the Alumni Wall.
“If you have any interest in joining us, please feel free to do so…
“Cheers,
“Reid Linney”

Reid’s email intrigued me. I admit though that I had never heard of Aron Katz, although he would have been only two years older than me at the time of his death. I responded to Reid:
“Hi Reid,
“This is a very poignant story. It reminds me of another story - also about a St. John’s student who died tragically around the same time (in 1971). Her name was Rebbie Victor. (She was shot by accident by another student in a prank gone terribly wrong because no one realized they were playing with a loaded gun.)
“I wrote about her in 2020 and that story really resonated with readers…
“Regards,
“Bernie Bellan
“Publisher,
“The Jewish Post & News”

Attached to Reid’s email was the text of the plaque that will be dedicated on August 16:
ARON KATZ
1951-1973
Graduating Class of 1969
Aron was an exceptional young man of great intellect and even greater courage, who in the summer of 1973 was about to begin his third year of Medicine at the University of Manitoba. He gave his life while saving his younger sister from drowning during a camping trip in the Whiteshell and was posthumously honoured for his heroism with Canada’s second highest award for bravery—The Star of Courage.
Incredibly bright, unselfish, kind and humble, Aron was the second youngest of seven children who grew up under very modest circumstances in an old wooden clapboard house on Alfred Avenue. He had an exceptional thirst for knowledge and was a valued member of St. John’s High School’s “Reach for the Top” team, a televised, academic quiz show in which the best and brightest from Winnipeg high schools competed. Aron made friends easily, loved sports and was a huge Jimi Hendrix fan. He dreamt of being a doctor one day in order to help others and had just completed the first half of his medical degree.
At their fiftieth anniversary reunion, Aron’s fellow graduating classmates from 1969 (Room 333 – The Theatre Room) decided to honour him in perpetuity with an annual scholarship in his name, recognizing a graduating student each year who best demonstrates academic promise and exhibits empathy for others; in particular, one who has shown extreme courage when faced with a significant challenge in their life. Donations were made by twenty-six members of that class, together with Aron’s five surviving siblings
Aron Katz left this world much too soon. May his memory and legacy last forever. God bless him.

Reach for the Top edited 1

The above  photo from the 1969 St. John’s yearbook shows Aron Katz (seated, second from left), with the other members of the school’s Reach for the Top team, along with their two coaches.
The caption in the yearbook only gave first names and, while I recognized two of Aron’s teammates: Lenny Leven (seated to Aron’s left) and Ricky Kraut, along with Bernie Melman (standing, right), who went on to become vice-principal of Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate, I wasn’t sure who the “Harvey” in the photo was. After running an OCR program on the St. John’s yearbook, I discovered that Harvey was Harvey Koffman - who was the only Grade 10 student on the team.
I was also pretty sure that the “Mr. Carr” in the photo must have been Alex Carr, brother of Jim and Robert, but it was only after I confirmed that with Fern (Zamick) Carr, Alex’s wife, that I could write with assurance that it was indeed Alex Carr.
Interestingly, after I emailed Fern Carr, asking her about the photo, she responded with her own story about herself having been on the Gordon Bell provincial champion Reach for the Top team.
Here is what Fern wrote:
“Al taught at St. John's from 1967 - 1999, and besides being Aron's coach, was his chemistry teacher. I showed him the photo and it really brought back memories - thanks.
“You know, I was on the RFTT team (as a student from Gordon Bell) while Al was the St. John's coach. We probably unknowingly were at the same tournaments together. Another coincidence is that Al's Baba Leibe lived directly across the street from my baba and zaida on St. Anthony. We both visited our respective grandparents every Sunday, again though, before we knew each other.”

 

Reid Linney had also attached a brief clipping from the Canadian Press about Aron’s death:
“PINAWA, Man. (CP) – Aron Katz, 19 (Ed. note: he was actually 21), of Winnipeg, saved his 14-year-old sister Marian (Ed. note: her name was Miriam) from drowning Tuesday in Big Whiteshell Lake but lost his own life. RCMP said when the girl ran into trouble swimming, the youth pushed her to several other swimmers, then drowned.”

Once I finished reading Reid’s email, along with a couple of the attachments he sent, I set out about trying to learn as much as I could about Aron Katz. I’ve noted before that nothing resonates more with readers than learning of a young life – full of promise – snuffed out suddenly and totally unexpectedly.

Subsequently, I was able to find Aron’s obituary on newspaperarchive.com:
ARON KATZ
“On July 10, 1973 accidentally in Whiteshell Provincial Park, Aron Katz, aged 21 years, dearly beloved son of Mr. and Mrs. I. Katz of 497 Alfred Ave, and precious brother of Shirley, Dr. Saul, Matylda, Ann, Ronia (Mrs. Larry Epstein) and Miriam. Services were held July 11 at the Chesed Shel Emes and interment in the Hebrew Sick Benefit Cemetery. Aron was a third year student at the University of Manitoba Medical School. In lieu of flowers, contributions to a memorial fund may be sent to the University of Manitoba Medical School.”

I was also told that two of Aron Katz’s good friends were David Manusow and Gerald (Yosel) Minuk – both of whom had been schoolmates of Aron’s at St. John’s, also colleagues of his in medical school.

David Manusow told me that he had written a tribute to Aron on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his St. John’s graduating class’s reunion. David sent me the text of his tribute:

Aron Katz
(1951 - 1973)
Written and delivered by David Manusow on Saturday, August 17, 2019

“This is dedicated to the memory of our dear classmate and friend, Aron Katz, who died accidentally in the Whiteshell on July 10, 1973 while saving his younger sister from drowning.
“It would be remiss of me to try to improve upon the eloquent tribute to Aron written by his sister Shirley that Danny (Bronstein) just read, but I would like to elaborate on some points, as well as share some personal reminiscences.
“Aron was the second youngest of 7 children, all academic stars, who grew up under very modest circumstances in an old, white 2-1/2 storey wooden clapboard house on Alfred Ave. (Many years later, I still recall Aron complaining that the sound of mice scurrying about in its walls interfered with his studying!)
“As you his classmates know, Aron was extremely intelligent, unselfish, kind and humble. He had a thirst for knowledge and acquitted himself well as a member of the Grade 12 ‘Reach for the Top’ team. He was also a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix and Cream.
“While we were friendly in high school, we didn’t really become close until university. We shared the same aspirations and took most of our pre-Med courses together. I can remember studying Organic Chemistry through the night with him out at the Fort Garry Campus, as well as a frigid winter evening in Kildonan Park triangulating stars for our Astronomy course. Because I didn’t have a car, Aron would pick me up in his family’s huge black 1955 Buick Roadmaster to write our exams.
“After we were both accepted into Medicine in the fall of 1971, we became even closer. We sat beside each other in lectures, and took all of our labs and spares together. We also car-pooled together that first year (along with Yosel (Minuk) and Morley Shatsky). At the end of that year, Aron bought a brand new Datsun 510 4-door sedan (navy on white) for the then-princely sum of $2,300.00. He was immensely proud of that car and loved driving it.
“With the demise of that car pool after first-year, Aron and I decided to ‘go it alone.’ “Always considerate and never one to complain, Aron travelled at least 2 miles out of his way in the opposite direction each day to take me to and from school. I have fond memories of spending the occasional Friday afternoon at the Balmoral Hotel bar with Aron, reviewing our ‘surface anatomy.’
“I can also recall when Aron and I, and his longtime sweetheart Lorraine Shapiro, celebrated after the Xmas ‘Comprehensive’ in 2nd year by going to the old downtown Met to see the movie, ‘The Stewardesses’ (in 3D, no less!). Unbeknownst to us, and much to our collective embarrassment, it turned out to be an X-rated pornographic movie that was subsequently banned. Incidentally, at least a third of our 2nd year Med School class happened to be there as well that evening, celebrating!
“Aron was an extremely good student, and at the age of 21, had just completed his 2nd year in the U of M’s Faculty of Medicine. He had spent his first and was just starting his second summer in the Medical Microbiology Dept. working on the Australia antigen/Hepatitis B virus. He enjoyed medicine and was looking forward to beginning his 3rd year in September, 1973.
“Always an avid camper, in early July Aron took his little sister Miriam camping at Big Whiteshell Lake and well, now you know all the rest. I received a call that evening from Morley Shatsky (who lived across from Aron) informing me that Aron had drowned. The next day, Aron’s only brother Saul contacted me, requesting that I be a pallbearer. It was the saddest, most emotional funeral I have ever attended.
“And thus it all ended. I would now ask that you all rise for a minute of silence to remember our dear friend and classmate, Aron Katz, a young man of great intellect and even greater courage, who left this world much too soon.
“May his memory and legacy last forever.
“Thank you.”

I also heard from Gerald (Yosel) Minuk, who told me that he had only a few things to add to what I had already gathered:
“Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to your story on Aron Katz (z”L) but I’m going to disappoint you. I’m afraid that over the past 50 years since his passing, only three of my memories remain.
“The first was as his classmate at St John’s high school where I remember being amazed (and somewhat envious) of the wide breadth and depth of his knowledge. That impression, which was shared by his classmates and the entire school, was supported by the fact that the success of the school’s ‘Reach for the Top’ team largely rested on Aron’s shoulders.
“The second memory was as a member of his university carpool where Aron would often recount with much pride the various accomplishments of his family (but never himself). “Aron was particularly proud of his older brother who I believe was in medical school at the time and went on to become a highly regarded emergency physician out east.
“Finally, as mutual members of the medical school’s Class of 75, I recall how sad it was to learn of Aron’s passing. Not only for his family but also for the discipline of Medicine itself. Aron was one of those fortunate individuals who had been gifted with both exceptional knowledge and compassion, attributes that are essential to becoming an exceptional physician.
“In closing, I might also point out the serendipity as to how Dr Eadie’s account of a drowning came to Reid’s attention. Shortly after my wife and I had purchased our cottage at Big Whiteshell lake in the early 1990’s, an elderly lady was going door to door selling an anniversary book of the lake that contained stories submitted by lake cottagers. I purchased a copy and it sat on our bookshelf for several years until my wife decided to thumb through it. On reading Dr Eadie’s submission, she asked if the story could be about my friend the medical student who had drowned while saving his sister that I had once told her about. My initial reaction was that it couldn’t be as I was under the impression that Aron had drowned at Winnipeg Beach or perhaps Gimli but on reading the story, I realized it might be Aron. So when Reid decided to pay tribute to Aron by establishing the Aron Katz Memorial Scholarship at St. John’s High School, I sent Dr. Edie’s story to Reid.” (Ed. note: Subsequent to publishing this story in the August 3 issue of The Jewish Post & News, Reid Linney was able to get in touch with Dr. Eadie's daughter, Sheelagh. Sheelagh said that, while the story of Aron Katz's drowning was eerily similar to the drowning about which her father wrote, it is almost certain that Dr. Eadie wrote about a drowning that occurred in 1975, not 1973.)