Howard Weitzel: A true champion

Howard Weitzel was born on Dec. 8, 1921, the third oldest child, to Alvin and Maude (Stevens) Weitzel at Edam. He received his elementary education (Grades 1 through 8) at Horse Hill School, which was located nine miles northwest of Edam.

When his older brother left home, Howard, as the second oldest son, had to quit school to work on the farm. Farming then bore little resemblance to the machine-driven mega-farms of today. Farms were much smaller and labour-intensive. Farmers had to be physically strong and able to work long hours. Howard was no exception. He remembers farming with horses, the back-breaking labour of picking roots and rocks, stooking grain sheaves by hand, and milking 12 cows daily. During the Dirty Thirties, he worked with a threshing crew for $2 a day. But despite the emphasis on work with little time for recreation, there was an upside.

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He attributes his early years on the farm as largely responsible for his generally good health and long life.

At the young age of nine years, Howard got his start pitching horseshoes in the back yard. His older brother Roy helped him learn some of the basic skills. His father also contributed to his development. Howard was a fast learner, but no one would have been able to predict that he would become a great champion.

Howard remained on the farm for 34 years. His younger brother, Charlie, was now old enough with sufficient experience to take on his responsibilities. In 1955, Howard moved to Mervin to begin a new career with the railway. The base for construction and maintenance was located in Turtleford, a few miles north of Mervin. Howard was hired on as a section man - working with a crew, pounding spikes and laying track. It seemed that he had traded one physically demanding job for another. Howard worked for eight years near communities that included Turtleford, Battleford and Blackfoot, Alta., to name a few. He then moved to Battleford in 1963 and continued to work with the railway for two more years. At this point, Howard was ready for another career change, primarily to be closer to his family. He was hired as a custodian at Battlefords Union Hospital, a position he held for 21 years until his retirement.

Howard acquired a great love for the sport of horseshoes while still on the farm. After the work was done, Howard spent his time practising in the back yard. He entered his first competition at a community picnic in Edam at the age of 14, and then in sports days in communities including Turtleford, Vawn and others. Howard was a consistent winner and soon gained a reputation as a player to be reckoned with.

In addition to competing, Howard also ran horseshoe tournaments in communities like Vawn and Battleford. With respect to the latter, he organized an excellent tournament for the Knights of Columbus. Howard also built horseshoe pitches in various communities - often after hours in the dark.

Howard's exploits in the world of horseshoes are legendary. He continued to win and improve to the point where he was unquestionably the best horseshoe player in the area, and later a provincial, national and world champion. Remarkably, it seemed that Howard got better with age. Not content to rest on his laurels, Howard set his sights on winning at a higher level. He won 15 men's open provincial championships. He won the Men's Canadian Open in 1990 at age 67. In 2000, he won the World Men's Championship in Genola, Minn. And, in 2012, he won the Canadian Senior Men's Championship. At the age of 80, after competing with the "young guys," for 25 years, Howard decided to compete against older players. It should come as no surprise that Howard won 10 elder horseshoe championships.

Great champions are rewarded for their accomplishments. In recognition of the great champion he was, Howard was inducted into the North Battleford Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame, the Saskatchewan Horseshoes Hall of Fame and the Canadian Horseshoes Hall of Fame. And, as one would expect, the shelves and walls in Howard's apartment can barely accommodate his many trophies and plaques. But perhaps the greatest testament to Howard's status as a horseshoe player is that everyone in the area knows him for the great player he is. Howard's exploits have been detailed countless times in the local press. He is instantly recognized, and admired.

Howard is a staunch Roman Catholic and a man of faith. He believes in the power of prayer. At one point later in life, Howard was diagnosed with cancer and was given two to three years to live. He strongly believes that prayers made on his behalf were the reason for his complete recovery.

Despite his illustrious career in the sport of horseshoes, Howard was above all a family man. He first met Velda Nelson when she was a teacher at Horse Hill School. Howard and Velda were married on Nov. 10, 1949. They were blessed with a large family of seven children - Howard, Yvonne, Jocelyn, Alvin, Sandra, Robert and Michael, and a large number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

At age 91, Howard still plays horseshoes with his friends. Not many of his horseshoe friends are left, but those that are, still enjoy a friendly game with Howard. It's friendly and usually not competitive. However, even at his advanced age, Howard still likes to compete in seniors' tournaments. He usually wins.

On the occasion of our city's centennial, we take time to recognize a man whose extraordinary career in the sport of horseshoes spans 81 years. Howard Weitzel has greatly enriched the culture of our city. We honour and stand in admiration of a great champion.

(Sources: Weitzel family, Horseshoe Canada, News-Optimist)

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