Members and supporters of Stephen’s Backpacks Society in Airdrie are mourning the death but celebrating the life of the charity’s vice-president of operations, Andrew Nowak.
Nowak, 65, passed away on the morning of Feb. 5 at the Peter Lougheed Centre, after battling an infection that emerged after he passed a kidney stone in January.
Executive director Nancy McPhee, who was engaged to Nowak, said her late fiancé had developed a passion for Stephen’s Backpacks Society – an Airdrie-based charity that distributes backpacks full of school supplies and hygiene items to children in need every fall, among other things – in the four years he was involved with the organization.
“He just had this incredibly positive spirit,” said McPhee, who is the mother of the charity’s namesake. “Stephen’s Backpacks gave him such a purpose and he just loved it.”
McPhee said she met Nowak – who went by “Andy” – in 2018, and the two struck up a relationship. She said Nowak proposed to her in 2019, and the two were planning to get married this summer.
“It’s really wonderful when you have the opportunity to journey with someone,” McPhee said. “Our future was cut short, but in the four years I knew him, we packed in so many memories – painting projects, going to see his dad in Montreal. He was just an amazing human being.”
Born in Montreal in 1956, Nowak spent much of his adult life in Coldstream, B.C., according to his obituary, where he owned a painting business. His hobbies included being outdoors, cutting wood, sitting by a fire, working in his shop, gardening, flying kites, cooking, and watching the latest movies.
He later moved to Airdrie, where he met McPhee and became involved with Stephen's Backpacks as a volunteer.
“As soon as he saw the backpacks and came out to the warehouse – I think it was Christmas 2018 – he said ‘I want to be a part of this,’” McPhee said. “We had six volunteers that night, and he put his heart and soul into it.”
Nowak made a positive impact during his time as Stephen’s Backpacks’ vice-president operations and volunteered hundreds of hours for the charity. McPhee said he helped reorganize the charity’s warehouse in Calgary and created a “sled” system for the stairs, so that volunteers wouldn’t have to carry heavy boxes up and down.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephen’s Backpacks wasn’t able to put on its usual slate of community events, which McPhee said led to Nowak suggesting a new fundraising initiative. Using their carpentry skills, he and Stephen started making and selling custom, handmade cutting boards, with proceeds from each sale funding the donation of one backpack.
The cutting boards were a big hit, McPhee said, adding some local companies bought dozens at a time.
Always a busybody, she said Nowak taught her how to slow down and enjoy the small things in life, but he also encouraged her do things outside of her comfort zone, like ride a quad or face her fear of heights.
“He just really taught me the importance of working hard, but at the same time, relaxing and watching a hawk fly overheard or [looking up at] the stars,” she said.
Nowak was hospitalized earlier this winter after passing a kidney stone, according to McPhee, who said he spent two weeks in hospital as a result.
“They had put a pick in his arm with a couple of antibiotics to fight the infections that had seeped into his blood,” she said.
While he was feeling fine after first leaving the hospital, Nowak’s health started to go downhill again around Feb. 1, McPhee said, resulting in another trip to the doctor, who immediately sent him to the Peter Lougheed Centre.
“Apparently, this infection had got into the colon and the colon had collapsed,” she said. “That got into his bloodstream. [The doctors] went in the morning of Feb. 5 to remove the colon, and he never came out of it.
“I sat with him for six and a half hours, holding his hand. The blood pressure just kept dropping.”
A private memorial service was held for Nowak on Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. at the McInnis and Holloway funeral home.
A tree in living memory of Nowak will also be planted in the Ann & Sandy Cross Conservation Area, south of Calgary.