The guy with the toothpick

In the Image

October 19, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 21
Ed Olfert |
(CM File Photo by Donna Schulz)

A good friend, Wes Neepin, died this past week. I’ve written columns about Wes in the past but used a pseudonym, because I never got around to asking permission to tell his stories. Anonymity seems less important now.

Wes was in his nineties. He was born in a tent in northern Manitoba. He was kicked out of school after attending only three days. It was something about being non-status in a school where only “status Indian” kids could be taught, or the other way around. He taught himself to read and write many years later, when his career on the railroad was hampered by his illiteracy. Along with his determination to work hard came addictions and the resulting chaos in his personal life, including broken relationships and hard deaths of loved ones. Alcoholics Anonymous eventually helped him to achieve sobriety.

About 25 years ago, Wes appeared in Grace Mennonite Church in Prince Albert, sitting at the back, glowering, chewing on a toothpick. He escaped after the service, but the following Sunday, I raced to cut him off. We arranged to meet. That was when Wes told me that he had left his last church because he was upset, and I should not be surprised if he walked out on us as well. I assured him that would be okay, but insisted that if that happened, he tell me what had caused his annoyance.

It never happened.

I can’t say that Wes never chafed in our midst. When the church talked much about peace, justice and compassion, “the guy with the toothpick,” as Wes was known, occasionally grew impatient because he wanted action. He lived action. Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats . . . Wes lived those “least of these” ministries, all of them. Years ago, he was featured in a CM story, planting a food box outside the church, and then personally committing to stocking that box, in aid of street people. He visited in prison, he volunteered with our Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA), he supported the local Salvation Army outreach ministries. Wherever there was need, Wes was close by, offering a response.

Through those years, Wes settled his spirit. He found a partner who supported him with matching passion to live a compassionate gospel. His ethnic sense of humour and sense of story defined much of him.

The COSA group of which we were both a part would meet in homes, supporting a person released from prison. When the gathering was at my acreage, I put the guys to work cutting and bending iron for a welding project. Wes ran my chop saw, cutting heavy pipe. I pointed out to him that when the blade became worn and small, a few more cuts were possible if the pipe was turned a little in the vise. Wes responded: “Oh yeah, I forgot I was working for the Mennonites!”

Wes worked to the end in support of addiction recovery. He referred people to me for Fifth Step counselling, and I’m aware of folks who literally owe their lives to Wes.

A few weeks before he died, I visited Wes in hospital, not realizing that the end was so near. He talked of the good people in his life, folks stopping by to visit, the strong support of his wife’s family. The staff at the hospital had been gentle and good to him; even the food was pretty good, just a little short in quantity. There was not a single word of complaint; only peace was offered. I left that visit energized, feeling blessed that Wes was my friend. Shortly after, his body started shutting down. The next visit was near the end. The sense of acceptance, peace and dignity was still present. The twinkle had not yet dimmed.

I’m convinced that twinkle continues, in many other eyes.

Ed Olfert lives in Laird, Saskatchewan, and can be reached at

(CM File Photo by Donna Schulz)

Share this page: Twitter Instagram

Add new comment

Canadian Mennonite invites comments and encourages constructive discussion about our content. Actual full names (first and last) are required. Comments are moderated and may be edited. They will not appear online until approved and will be posted during business hours. Some comments may be reproduced in print.