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‘I came here not for an easier life, but for a better life’

From the Hungarian revolution to a half century of dental practice in Cranbrook; Dr. Imre Rokus looks back on his journey
Imre Rokus (waving) with friends, arriving in Canada via ship in 1957. (Photo courtesy Lisa Rokus)

A remarkable dentistry career of 52 years came to a close last fall, with the retirement of Dr. Imre Rokus, who set up shop in Cranbrook in 1969.

History follows closely beside Rokus’s life — European, Canada and B.C. history. But the more than 2,700 patients he has helped at his Cranbrook practice, and the hundreds more in his volunteer work at the Salvation Army’s community dental program in Cranbrook, is the best attestation to this history.

Rokus’s journey to Canada and eventually Cranbrook began when he was 19, escaping the Soviet backlash against the Hungarian Revolution — a spontaneous national uprising that was crushed by Soviet tanks and troops in November, 1956. Thousands were killed and wounded and nearly a quarter-million Hungarians fled the country.

Rokus escaped in dead of night, without a passport, crossing the border at midnight into Yugoslavia, itself a Communist country.

The Yugoslavs put Rokus and other refugees into a Second World War era German-built POW camp in the Slovenian Alps.

“The Yugoslavs weren’t sure what to do with us,” Rokus said. “Eventually we got a visit from the United Nations, and things started moving. That’s how we ended up going to France.”

Upon hearing that Rokus and a group of friends wanted to go to Canada, a German friend told them to look up his uncle, in a place called “Kelovna.”

“We were staying in Normandy for a few weeks, then we boarded a boat for Canada — we landed in Quebec City.”

In Quebec, Rokus and his companions told Immigration they wanted to go to British Columbia, wherever that was.

“The Canadian government was nice to us — they spotted us with a train ticket from Quebec City to Abbotsford — all the way across Canada. The trip took three days.”

After a turn picking strawberries near Abbotsford, the group decided to make their way to Kelowna, where they were welcomed by their contact — a German who helped them find accommodation in seasonal dwellings for orchard pickers.

“It’s the German people who looked after us,” Rokus said of those first days in the Okanagan.

Rokus, who already spoke a little English, was able to secure a job helping carpenters on the construction of the first bridge across Lake Okanagan — July, 1957. The three-lane, 650-metre floating bridge was the first of its kind in Canada. Rokus worked the night shift.

When his job ended, in December, 1957, Rokus began studying English and public speaking in night school. He lived with his friends, with everyone pooling their money and sharing expenses to get by.

Still, the only prospects for Rokus seemed to be orchard work. “I kept rejecting these jobs, that the Unemployment officer kept offering me, always working in orchards, until finally he got upset with me.

“I told him I wanted a job where there are people, where I can learn English. I concluded that in my opinion, if you wanted to get anywhere in this country, you have to master the language.”

The Unemployment officer then found him a job washing dishes in the [Kelowna] hospital.

“‘There are women there,’ he told me. ‘You’ll learn English in no time.’ ‘I’ll take it,’ I told him.”

Rokus started at the hospital June 1, 1958.

A year later, in May, 1959, Rokus went to the University of British Columbia to take an entrance exam.

“They gave me an IQ test, and an English test. The professor gave me an interview. He told me ‘Look, your English is really not up to snuff, but you did really well on your IQ test. So we’re going to admit you, but we want you to only take half the courses.”

So Rokus began attending UBC on a part-time basis, taking Mathematics, Physics and English.

“I loved Physics and mechanics, schematics … but I didn’t learn this kind of language in the kitchen.”

Lectures were thus difficult. When Rokus didn’t recognize a word during a lecture, he would jot it down as it sounded, then look it up later.

“English is a non-phonetic language. You don’t say it the way you write it,” he said.

Nonetheless, Rokus passed his courses, spending all his weekends doing the required reading in English.

At age 23, Rokus began applying to Dentistry schools — in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. But his counsellor at UBC urged him to apply at UBC itself, which was establishing its first ever Dentistry program. Acquiring recommendations from employers and professors, and sitting for an interview with the Dean, Rokus was accepted into UBC’s inaugural Dentistry program — which set out to incorporate up-to-date and cutting edge practices and procedures.

Rokus was among the first to graduate in the inaugural class of 1968. During this time, he became an advocate for the sedation — rather than the physical restraint — of overly agitated patients, especially children, who would be so fightened that they would be unable to be treated. This was considered unorthodox and modern at the time.

Rokus ended up getting a special accreditation from the College of Dental Surgeons for sedation. Later, during his years of practice, he said other dentists would refer agitated patients to him to treat.

“I didn’t advertise it. I didn’t push it. But you don’t want to be treating scared people every hour of the day. It wears on you.”

After graduation, Rokus ended up working for the government for one year.

“I came out to the Kootenays to treat children in neglected communities, like Sparwood, like Parson, Riondel, etc. And then, after a year, I set up my home practice in Cranbrook — in 1969.”

Rokus operated his practice out of the Green Clinic on Baker Street, eventually moving into Cranbrook Family Dental on 21st Avenue North.

The Cranbrook branch of the Salvation Army launched its Mouth Minders community dental clinic in the fall of 2013, to help patients who couldn’t normally afford to see a dentist. Dr. Rokus was among the dentists invited to join from the outset.

“Nancy [Savarie] asked me if I wanted to work there. I went to see the set-up there, and liked what I saw,” Rokus said. “I was still working in the office part-time. So I went a couple of times a month, or whenever they needed.

“The feedback, as I understand it, is that the community really appreciates this, especially the doctors. Most of these people come into the clinic in pain. Eighty per cent of the time, if not more, it’s an emergency service.”

Since opening in 2013, the Mouth Minders clinic has seen about 100 patient/clients a year. Approximately 700 have been treated over the years.

Dr. Rokus’s career arc — over half a century of practice — is unprecedented.

“Dentists don’t hang around for 52 years, like I did,” he said.

Over the years, at his practice, Dr. Rokus has seen to some 2,700 patients — a considerable number, considering a dentist in the Lower Mainland may see 800 to 900 over the course of a career. Given, of course, as Rokus explained, that a dentist in an urban centre would actually serve a smaller neighbourhood with a smaller population base, than in a regional centre like Cranbrook.

But once Imre Rokus landed here, and started a family, there was no question of moving anywhere else. And his contribution to the dental health of the community is history in its own right.

“I came here not for an easier life, but for a better life. That’s why I stayed.”

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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