George Couchie is one of five being inducted into the Kiwanis Walk of Fame. (supplied by the Kiwanis Club of Nipissing)
With his 93rd birthday approaching, you can still see Ralph Diegel, North Bay’s “Mr.Downtown” in his armchair at the back of his shoe store “Deegan’s.”
When approached and asked how he felt to be part of this year’s induction into the Kiwanis Walk of Fame in Downtown North Bay, Diegel eases back in the chair and with a big smile says “they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel if they chose me.”
Ever the hard worker, we had to pause the interview a couple of times for Ralph to help a customer in his store.
Deegan’s has become a staple in downtown North Bay amidst all the change. The store was opened 129 years ago, but it was Christmas time in 1946 that Ralph walked in and the store has never been the same since.
“I was engaged to Mr. Deegan’s niece after the Second World War,” Diegel explains. “My first job after the navy was painting price signs and it was a cool fall day and I was up on a ladder painting away. Mr. Deegan came up to me and said ‘if you would like an inside job for the winter, come see me after work.’ So I went to see what he had to offer.
“He told me ‘you’re engaged to my niece and I don’t have any sons, and if you like the job maybe you can buy my business out of your salary.’ I thought that didn’t sound bad.”
Certainly it doesn’t sound bad when you consider that was 73 years ago and the store is still going strong. There have been some changes, such as moving in his second wife, Pat’s antique business.
“My second wife had an antique store across the street. When we got married I gave her space in the back so she didn’t have to pay any rent,” Diegel said while laughing. “Keeps it all under one roof.”
It was a humbling experience being able to talk to Ralph. As previously mentioned, he is a veteran of World War Two.
“I was 17 when I tried to enlist,” Diegel explains. “I had to phone my dad and get permission then. I loved being in the Navy, but I was lucky I never saw the enemy face to face, not even an oil slick.”
However, his time in the Navy instilled a sense of hard work and dedication in Ralph that would serve him, not only in the shoe business but around the community of North Bay for years to come.
After the war, Ralph served as Commanding Officer of the 104th Brilliant Sea Cadets for 8 years. Diegel’s trumpet abilities have also served the community well as well by performing the “Last Post” at city and area funeral homes.
Diegel has also assisted the Salvation Army for over 54 years, 40 of them performing with the Salvation Army Band wherever they performed. Ralph has also been an active Rotarian for 60 years and helping the North Bay Figure Skating Club for 52 years.
“My daughter figure skated,” Ralph explained.
So how much skating did Ralph do?
“Not much when I didn’t have a stick in my hands,” he says with a laugh.
The Walk of Fame is an honour Diegel takes seriously, as evident by the multiple times Ralph asks his wife what he should wear the night of throughout our sit down chat, and with a resume like his, they are certainly not scraping the bottom of the barrel as Diegel put it.
With the Walk of Fame stone set to be installed in the downtown sidewalk in early November, it ensures that Mr.Downtown, much like his store and the iconic horse which resides inside, is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Week one: Ralph Diegel
Week two: Mort Fellman
Week three: Jack Lockhart
Week four: Murray Leatherdale
Week five: George Couchie