Roma Burnett and husband Ron love to travel so much they’ve been to 35 countries, 15 islands and sailed 14 oceans, seas and canals, and they still have places they want to visit.
“Then again, after we come back from those trips Ron and I realize just how lucky we are to live in Kitimat,” says Roma.
After retiring the couple briefly discussed moving, but realized that Kitimat would always be home and that they didn’t really want to leave their friends and the community that had given them and their family a home.
She said even now, after having retired, Kitimat keeps the couple as busy as they were when they worked.
“We are involved with the Masonic Lodge and the Shrine Hospital for Children, and I belong to Daughters of the Nile who raise money for children with physical disabilities or burn wounds in Shrine hospitals,” said Roma.
On top of that, she has two dogs to look after, and plays her keyboard for the dogs and for Ron, as well as gardening and writing the occasional letter to the Sentinel.
“This has been a good community to grow up in, work and live. Where else can you be only five minutes from everything you need, including a family doctor and dentist, and be able to breath good clean air?” asked Roma.
She doesn’t always remember Kitimat being that way though, when she arrived in Terrace by train from Saskatchewan, on the very auspicious date of Friday, July 13, 1956.
“We were known as stubble jumpers (someone from a prairie province or state). At first my mom and us three kids lived in one room in what was then Osborne’s Guest House in Terrace, which was situated where the hotel is now on Main Street,” said Roma.
She lived there with her mother and her siblings for nearly six months while they waited for a house to be built in Kildala.
“There were no houses ready in Kitimat. The houses in the Nechako area were already full and my dad was forced to live in the bunk houses at Alcan when he first came here,” added Roma.
When her mother and her three children finally did come to Kitimat in December, it was by train, because there wasn’t a road to Kitimat yet. That would only be built later, between 1957 and 1958.
As houses were being built in Kildala, the city centre was being built on pilings. Starting at 5 a.m. every day for months on end the pile driver worked, and all the houses shook due to the unstable ground.
“About half of the houses in Kildala were not supposed to be permanent,” said Roma.
The family’s first New Years dinner in Kitimat was in the cafeteria on the top floor of the old Hudson Bay store at the smelter site.
“There was a party with all the people from Saskatchewan at our house and some friends of Dad’s took my girlfriend and I down to see the Delta King, which was used as a bunkhouse for men. There was a big sign before you got on the boat that said ‘No women allowed on Delta King!’” said Roma.
“Anyway we went on board – I’d never been on a boat that big coming from Saskatchewan.”
She said when she and her girlfriend did eventually return home, her father was livid.
Roma started grade 10 in January 1957 at Kitimat High, which is now Mount Elizabeth Middle Secondary School.
She said the school was small, with plywood dividing the rooms as there were so many new families arriving daily, with lots of children.
“We also had to walk over to the ‘huts’ at Nechako school grounds for some of our subjects. It wasn’t much fun with all the snow we got in those days,” said Roma. “However out of those humble classes came doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, teachers and even astronauts. The education was good in spite of the hardships.”
She said there was no television back then and that children had to make their own fun. The only movie theatre was in the rec centre at the smelter, which required catching the Alcan workers’ bus to see a show.
“We sat on hard wooden chairs and you could hear the clink of empty bottles during the movies as the fellows dropped their booze bottles,” said Roma.
She remembers as a child having to walk along boardwalks everywhere in Kitimat – stepping off them accidentally meant sinking up to her knees in mud.
“You had to be tough in many ways in a new town built out of the bush. I once had a terrible tooth ache and had to walk from our house on Stikine Street to the only dentist’s office,” said Roma.
“I had a tooth pulled, walked home and about two hours later, in terrible pain, had to walk back and have a second tooth pulled with no freezing, as it didn’t take.”
To make matters worse, she had to walk back home again, as her parents were still at work.
Her mother was an industrial nurse at Alcan till she retired and her father worked in stores at Alcan.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, Roma spent her summers while still in high school making beds in the old hospital at the smelter site.
It was also while she was in school in Grade 10 that she met Ron, whom she would later marry.
After graduating in 1959, they briefly parted, Ron going off to the University of British Columbia and Roma undergoing nurses training for three years at the Royal Inland Hospital School of Nursing in Kamloops.
“I came back to work in the old hospital in 1963, just for a year. Heavens knows what I thought I was going to do after that,” said Roma.
Ron and Roma were married in the Anglican Church in 1965, and their daughter was born in Kitimat in 1974 where she attended school.
She graduated and studied out of town, and while she works in Alberta, she still considers Kitimat her home.
“We had a corner store for years and after working at the hospital I would work at the store till midnight. It was very tiring but you had to do what you had to do,” said Roma.
She was still in nursing in Kitimat 37 years later when she retired.
“What can I say – Kitimat grows on you!”