Slice of Okanagan life and lore to find new home in Romania

Ray Taheri’s close friendship with a man who made an indelible impression on him, and the Okanagan in general, has set him on a global adventure.

Taheri, a UBC Okanagan professor, is headed to eastern Europe on Wednesday, with a 70 -pound bronze bust that’s the likeness of his old friend Peter Nicu in tow. Atop Nicu’s head is a hat and a symbol that is synonymous with Kelowna and, for many, Nicu, himself — the Ogopogo.

Once he gets to Nicu’s old homeland in Romania, he will fulfill a deathbed promise he made to Nicu 10 years earlier.

He will install the statue at a children’s centre where he plans to develop an educational program aimed at fostering creativity and curiosity.  It’s what Nicu — who in life gained the nickname “father of the Ogopogo” for his Ogopogo-themed creations — would have wanted, he thinks.

Tucking away a little local history and building a legacy half a world away is a big undertaking at any time, but in the aftermath of a global pandemic, when plane travel has been stymied by a variety of issues, it’s all the more significant.

Taheri, however, said that he is undeterred.

“My main goal is to fulfill my promise to my dear friend and to tell the story of his legacy to become a beacon of hope for many young generations to come,” Taheri said.

“This is something to remember.”

Before Nicu moved to the Okanagan, he was born in Ukraine and as a young boy fled what Taheri described as an abusive childhood. He ended up in nearby Romania.

“Being hungry, scared, cold, and not speaking the language, he was in the streets of Iași for a day and finally passed out in front of the flour milling factory. Luckily, the owner of the factory saw and took him in. It took him several days to recover,” Taheri said.

“Peter started to work in that factory and educated himself in machinery. He showed such talent in engineering that he was selected to study engineering in the Romanian Air Force.”

Taheri said he was 19 when he graduated with honours from the Air Force academy and, shortly after, he joined the Romanian Air Force as an officer.

He remained in the Air Force until the Second World War started. Taheri said Nicu was the head of the entire Romanian Air Force warplanes engineering crew. When Romania fell, he became a prisoner of war and was sent to Germany.

A few years later, he was released and eventually made Canada his home, and his adventures continued.

“Peter’s life, it’s a legacy of I would say perseverance, hope, triumph, love, sorrow all combined,” Taheri said.

While the Ogopogo’s roots are tied to the Indigenous people of the Okanagan valley, its likeness has been taken in a myriad of directions, one of which Nicu is tied to.

Taheri said he gained the nickname, “the father of Ogopogo,” after building a statue of the mythical beast.

“He also designed and engineered an amphibious vehicle in the shape of Ogopogo. The designed vehicle brought enormous joy to residents of Kelowna for many years during the annual parades,” Taheri said.

“He made this machinery as a 50 (foot) long Ogopogo much bigger than the one we have downtown but same sort of shape. And it was kind of amphibious vessel, it would go into the road from Glenmore or Rutland all the way to near the lake and then it’d actually sink into the lake and you would see a creature.”

Taheri is in awe of all that Nicu did and he’s proud to be the one to bring his life story to more people, both in Romania and at home, in Kelowna.

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