Born in a church manse on Vancouver’s Beatty Street on March 28, 1916, Fred Ko’s long life was defined by quiet fortitude and his connections to the people and places around him.
Ko died in Richmond Hospital on Saturday from COVID-19. At 104 years old, he is one of the oldest Canadian victims of the pandemic.
“He was just a super-optimistic, very gentle soul,” said his daughter Alison Ko, who lives in Kimberley, B.C. “Everybody calls him the Buddha.”
Fred Ko had two daughters, a son and two grandsons, but Alison says he was a grandfather to many more.
“He’s the grandpa to all [my sons’] friends and all my friends.”
She recalls a time her father’s generosity and patience stood out when Alison and her sister, Catherine, returned home late from a party.
“He would be sitting up in the kitchen reading and we’d walk in the door and he would just go, ‘Tsk tsk tsk,’ and not say a word, close his magazine and walk up the stairs.”
Advocate for Chinese Canadians
Fred Ko was the third child born to Chinese Canadian parents in Vancouver. The family started out with a printing press that produced the first Chinese telephone book, and later opened gift shops in Toronto and Vancouver.
While her father was humble, Alison Ko says he sometimes gave hints of the influence he had on the Chinese community.
Her cousins told stories of hanging out at his store and seeing members of parliament stop by to see Fred.
Once, at a family gathering, he let slip that he had negotiated with former prime minister John Diefenbaker over immigration rights.
“But he just looked like the guy who sat at a coffee shop,” Alison Ko said.
She says her father never spoke about experiencing racism until the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
“He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, we went through hard times, too,’ but growing up we had no idea about the challenges that they would have had because of racism.”
‘It was so fast’
The pandemic was hard on Fred Ko. His daughter says his usual routine of getting up early to go for walks around the malls ended and he lost much of his physical strength.
“And then he lost a lot of kind of that spark,” said Alison Ko. “He would tell me that, ‘I hear the words and I know them, but I don’t understand them.'”
Ko had been living in Richmond with Catherine for the last 10 years before contracting the virus last month from someone who lived in the same building.
Alison Ko says her father’s passing still feels surreal, despite his age.
“It’s not really a surprise that at 104 life was going to come to an end, but we just didn’t think he would,” she said. “And all our relatives and our families just thought Fred will get through this. But it was so fast.”
Once Ko was hospitalized, his three children and two grandchildren were only able to communicate with him by video calls.
That’s how they said goodbye as he died on Nov. 28.
“We sat staring at a screen, watching him take his last breath and I didn’t even believe it.”
Fred Ko’s death has made his family reflect even more on their own vulnerabilities to the virus. Alison, who has a background in nursing and works on the opioid crisis, says it hit her when she was called to the front line to respond to an overdose earlier this week.
Despite the toll the pandemic restrictions took on him, she says her father never complained.
“He was of the generation that knew that he needed to put everybody else like the community’s needs first.”