Harry Bondar put North Battleford on the map

The legendary Harry Bondar is remembered as the owner of the largest boat and RV centre in western Canada. He was born on April 7, 1922, to Robert and Jesse Bondar at Prince Albert. Harry received his elementary education in Regina. He went to only Grade 8, but he was self-taught and became well educated nevertheless. Harry's daughter, Wendy, noted that to this day, Harry is a voracious reader and doesn't miss a news broadcast on TV.

Back in the early 1990s, my youngest son and I would spend hours walking around the premises of Hunter's Sports Shop, looking first at an acre of boats on the lot on the north side. Then we would spend another hour inside admiring the cabin trailers (including checking out the interiors), fifth wheels, motor homes, single-person watercraft and Honda motorcycles. Harry was always there - socializing, doing business and talking to customers, many of whom had come from across Western Canada and the United States. For us, spending time at Hunters was a treat. One day we found a boat that was perfect for us - a 1979 Glastron with an 85 horse Mercury. It was priced at $3,500, which nicely fit our limited budget. Harry sold the boat to me personally with the assurance that if I found anything wrong with it, he would run it through the shop - no charge. That was Harry. It didn't matter if you were a poor school teacher buying an old boat or a millionaire dealing on a $200,000 motor home, he treated you the same.

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During the Second World War, Harry served in the navy. He came close to losing his life when his ship was torpedoed. He ended up with shrapnel in his leg, a condition that affected him for the rest of his life. Harry started in business with a small navy pension. It wasn't much, but he turned it into a success - a model for his future endeavours. During his lifetime, Harry steadily built larger businesses - larger buildings and inventories that resulted in phenomenal success on a grand scale.

Hunter's Sports Shop had its beginnings long before Harry assumed ownership. The Cote family ran a hardware and harness shop in 1905. They opened a second store (a sports shop) in a frame building at 1045 King (101st) Street. Jules and Alphonse, Michael Cote's sons, ran the sports shop until 1946, at which time they sold it to Bill Hunter. Bill changed the name to Hunter's Sport Shop. He owned Hunter's for only a short time, after which he sold it to Harry Bondar in 1946. Harry had owned and operated his own store in Eatonia, but he married a girl, Ruth Caplan, from North Battleford and the newly married couple decided to make the Battlefords their home. In the 1950s and '60s, with a business sense and confidence that was typical of Harry, he built and operated stores and display lots at 1301 - 101st St., and later at 1991 - 100th St. During that era, business was booming, so the Hunter's enterprise expanded again. Harry built a large store at 2072 - 100th Street (the present location of Aaron's) and greatly expanded his product line. Business was better than ever. Again it was time to move to bigger and better facilities. But this time, Harry's plans would have stopped the most seasoned and aggressive entrepreneur in his tracks. In 1976, Harry opened a 33,000 square foot trailer and marine centre at 27th Avenue and Highway 4 north. It was a stroke of genius. The scale of the offices, service bays, parts inventories and showroom complex, and the "acre of boats," trailers, and fifth wheels was truly remarkable. Hunter's was vastly larger than any business in the Battlefords. Harry also owned another highly successful enterprise in North Battleford - Vanguard Trailers. So, Harry was building trailers and marketing and selling them at Hunter's. All of Harry's ventures were phenomenally successful. Unquestionably, Harry was a genius. Hunter's put North Battleford on the map.

Then, on July 20, 1992, tragedy struck. Fire ravaged Hunter's main building, gutting the interior. Harry had spent 47 years building the business and now this. The billowing clouds of black smoke could be seen for miles. So intense was the heat that five firefighters were injured. Damage was estimated at $12 million. Circumstances dictated that rebuilding Hunters in North Battleford was not viable. Harry moved the business to Edmonton. It was a blow to our city. Not only was the Hunter's fire a personal setback for the Bondar family, it significantly affected the Battlefords as well. Many businesses who had relied on Hunter's to purchase goods and services scaled down their operations. The fire was also responsible for the Vanguard shut down.

Harry's success as a businessman is legendary. But his human, personal side is just as remarkable. Ethyl Caplan, Harry's sister-in-law, noted Harry was incredibly motivated. Don Backus who, with his brother, owned and operated Madison Billiards across the street from Hunter's on 101st Street, had some insightful and kind things to say about his good friend. Harry often went over to Madison's to enjoy a cold drink (cola or orange) and visit. Don noted Harry was a man of boundless enthusiasm and supreme confidence. And, he had a photographic memory - to the extent that he could remember a customer's name and what he had purchased years ago. He could even remember serial numbers of boats and trailers. Ross MacAngus, who worked for Harry when he was 14, also related that Harry had an unbelievable memory. Paul Sayers recalled buying a 16 foot Peterborough with a 35 horse Johnson from Hunter's and Harry recalled everything about his boat years later. Wendy Ditlove related that her father loved his business, his staff and his customers, and North Battleford.

Another of Harry's fundamental qualities was his wonderful generosity. For example, he basically funded the Boh's senior hockey team, buying equipment and hockey sticks, and covering the cost of travel. Harry also gave large donations to other sports teams in the Battlefords, and he invested heavily in developing the Table Mountain ski resort. Chris Heidel, a former long-time employee lauded Harry as a great leader who valued his employees, and would do whatever was necessary to take care of his customers. Their needs came before his. The late Vic Cooper worked for Harry for decades. He thought of Harry as a father figure. Don Backus also recalled that when he helped the staff at Hunter's with their annual midnight madness sales, he was impressed with Harry's manner of dealing with the public. He remembered Harry telling him, "Donnie, we need lots of cash registers. We don't want our customers waiting in line. If we don't look after our customers, it's one hell of a way to do business." Don had the utmost admiration and respect for Harry.

Harry's long hours at work did not diminish his love for his family. Harry and his wife, Ruth, enjoyed a long and happy marriage. They were blessed with four children, two boys, Bobby and Blair, and two girls, Debbie and Wendy, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. The family remembered the many wonderful times at their cabin at the lake. His kids and grandkids are immensely proud of Harry. He was a tremendous role model. Sadly, Ruth passed away in June, 2007. Harry misses Ruth and says she was the best thing that had ever happened to him The family will always remember her for her cheerful disposition and loving nature.

Harry was a man of faith. He and Ruth and their family attended the synagogue every week. Ethyl Caplan noted Harry was incredibly hard working and scrupulously honest - a man of his word. There can be little doubt that a belief in a higher power influenced Harry's relationships with his family, his employees, his customers and how he lived his life.

Harry is living in Edmonton, as do his sons and their families, and Debbie and her family. Wendy and her family live in Saskatoon. His sister-in-law, Ethyl, lives in Calgary. Her husband, Abe (who owned Abe's Fine Foods on 101st Street in North Battleford), is no longer living. Harry is in his 90s and his health is not good, but he can look back with pride on his accomplishments and a life of unmatched success.

On the occasion of North Battleford's centennial, we note with pride Harry Bondar's remarkable talent, entrepreneurship, and phenomenal success in business that put North Battleford on the map. Harry built the largest trailer and marine dealership in western Canada. Hunter's was also the largest employer for the Battlefords in the private sector. Hunter's Trailer and Marine helped support many businesses who supplied parts and labour. Harry Bondar was one of a kind, the likes of whom we are not likely to see again. Not only was he successful in business, he cared about his community and fellow man. Harry Bondar was truly an extraordinary citizen.

(Source: Wendy Ditlove, Ethyl Caplan, Julian Sadlowski, Pictorial Story of North Battleford, Don Backus, Chris Heidel, Ross MacAngus, Paul Sayers, Battlefords News-Optimist)

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