Veteran honours family with extraordinary gift to hospital

World War II veteran Joseph Novak donated more than $1 million to a Yukon hospital and university.

Joseph Novak donated over $1M to hospital foundation, creates bursary at university

Joseph Novak has donated more than $1 million to the Yukon Hospital Foundation. He calls it payback for the care that was given to him and his family. (CBC/George Maratos)

Joseph Novak calls his million-dollar donation payback.

"What else was I supposed to do with the money," said the 97-year-old.

The World War II veteran speaks casually about the record donation he's made to the Yukon Hospital Foundation.

"The money couldn't go to a better location than to the people who care for people," said Novak. "The hospital was very good to me and very good to Mary and to Peter," his youngest son. 

Novak was married to his late wife, Mary, for 73 years. He credits her with his kindness and willingness to give.

Mary and Peter died in 2019, within three months of each other.

Novak says it was their wish to give back to the hospital when the time came.

Karen Forward, president of Yukon Hospital Foundation, says the money donated by Novak will help purchase a new mammography unit and support mental health care. (George Maratos/CBC)

"We have never seen an individual donation of that magnitude. Mr. Novak is just an amazing individual," said Karen Forward, president of the Yukon Hospital Foundation.

"It's incredible that his family has decided to leave money to the hospital and help all Yukoners." 

The donation will help purchase a new mammography unit for the hospital and support mental health.

The hospital foundation isn't the only organization to benefit from Novak's philanthropy.

He's also given $150,000 to Yukon University to create a bursary for Indigenous students studying communications.

Both of Novak's sons had long and distinguished careers with the CBC.

"Young Indigenous people deserve this," said Novak.

Novak always planned to make a big donation, it just came sooner than expected.

In 2020, Novak was living independently on his own in a condominium in downtown Whitehorse.

Then, in January, he fell in his kitchen and was hospitalized for several weeks as a result.

"I told them I'm ready to go home and my doctors in the hospital told me, Joseph, there's no way you're going home," said Novak.

Novak's new home would be Whistle Bend Place, a continuing care facility just outside Whitehorse.

Novak's youngest son Peter was a longtime broadcaster for CBC Yukon. He died in 2019. Joseph donated $150,000 to Yukon university to create a bursary for aspiring Indigenous broadcasters. (Tim Kinvig)

Finding a new home

Novak, for the most part, was at peace with the move to assisted living.

But there was one thing weighing heavy on his mind: the fate of a beloved gift, something called a Quilt of Valour.

"It's quite a significant award, I know that for a lot of veterans, including myself, it means more than medals, it's something tangible you will always have," said Terry Grabowski, a fellow veteran who nominated Novak for the quilt.

"If you have not so great days, you can wrap this quilt around you and  just remember that there's many, many Canadians out there who are very thankful."

"I was concerned as to where it was going to end up," said Novak. "I didn't want it to end up in someone's garage or in a box or a warehouse."

Soon after moving to Whistle Bend Place, Novak got an idea.

After noticing some empty wall space in a hallway near his wing, he planted the seed with staff at the facility.

Joseph Novak points to his 'Quilt of Valour' that now hangs at his new long term care home in Whitehorse. He says it reminds him of the soldiers that didn't make it home. (George Maratos/CBC)

After some gentle, not-so-gentle nudging, staff agreed the quilt's new home could be the care centre.

Still, accommodating Novak's request took a bit of work.

"We don't have too much wall space in the central area of what we call the village center," said Julia Mertz, a recreation therapist at Whistle Bend. "We have some beautiful murals and artwork displayed here in the building. So we were pressed to find an actual spot for it."

"We had to rent a scissor lift from a company in town, get that over here for the day," she said.

All that work has been worthwhile. Novak was brought to tears the day the quilt went up.

"It reminds me how lucky I am that I was able to come back home," said Novak. "I think of the boys that didn't make it."

He says the quilt is worth more than all the money and gold in the world.

"That's the value of the quilt to me, it's worth everything … it's priceless."

Joseph Novak was just 20 years old when he went to war. The lance corporal served close to three years. (Submitted by Joseph Novak)

The Quilt Man

Novak has been living at Whistle Bend for about three months now.

He's setting in nicely, making friends with staff and residents.

He buys them gifts regularly, including 85 chocolate bars at Easter and a single rose for every woman in his wing for Mother's Day. He's already planning to have cookies made for everyone on Canada Day.

"I'm always giving because I believe and Mary taught me, if you receive you should also be able to give," said Novak. "I'm doing what every human being should be doing but I think the majority don't look at life the way I look at life."

Novak also has a new nickname.

Staff and residents call him "The Quilt Man."

He says he couldn't be happier.

"I wake up every morning and I say, boy, I'm alive, thank God, another bonus day," said Novak. "Let's be happy and that's my motto to be happy."


George Maratos

Associate Producer

George Maratos is a reporter and associate producer at CBC Yukon with more than a decade of experience covering the North.