Jim Birt was born at home at 285 Brooklyn Street, Winnipeg to James Archibald and Nellie Ellen (nee Heywood) Birt. Jim and his parents are buried in the St. James Cemetery.
The family survived by remaining very close; the older girls helping to take care of the young boys. Their father was determined to keep his family together. Jim remembered standing with his father and the other children before a judge who was determined that a single man could not possibly care for such a large family, given Dave and Jim so young. “I want my children with me”, vowed Jim senior. He found a family, the Schneiders, who were living in large house and were willing to have the Birts share their home. The Scheiders had five children, all around the same ages as the Birts, making ten in all. Jim used to laugh about Saturday night baths by the kitchen stove. First his sisters and the Schneider girls bathed, then the adults, then the teenage boys and finally little Jim Birt and Herb Schnieder. “By our turn the water was pretty soapy”, Jim recalled.
Jim, his brother and their friends were free to play all over town and to swim in the river in the summer. Once his father, upon coming home from work, saw his young sons waving and calling from the top of the town water tower. His heart nearly stopped. He called to them, “Just wait now for Dad. I’ll come and help you down.” He managed to stay calm and he talked them down to safety.
In 1939, his sister Helen married Henry Bellin and moved to Lac Du Bonnet. Jim’s father and the rest of the family moved back to Winnipeg. Young Jim, a teenager by this time, found work as a bicycle messenger boy for a drug store until he was old enough to enlist. He joined the Canadian Air Force, and served from 1940- 1950 as an instrument technician. He was stationed at various locations across Canada, including Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.
After the war, Jim found work in Winnipeg, first at Bristol Aero and then at Air Canada as an instrument technician. Jim married Hazel Lauttamus on July 26, 1952 in the Lutheran Church, on Maryland and Sargent. He was 30 years old. The couple bought a house at 388 Ferry Road. It was close to Jim’s work and they were surrounded by the Birt and the Heywood families, who also lived in St. James.
This was home for the next 50 years, as they raised their family of three girls: Darcy Ann Talarico (now Orestes), Terry Ellen Hollier and Kathryn Elizabeth Solmundson. Their six grandchildren are Darcy’s son Sean Talarico, Terry’s John, Dave, and Kathryn Hollier and Kathy’s Anna and Kirsten Solmundson. Their one great – grandchild is Chantelle Talarico who has two sons, Aiden and Ryder.
Like most service men returning to civilian life, Jim was a keen community worker. He helped at the Airways Community Club and became a scout leader at St. James Anglican Church. As he had learned a lot from his father, who was a trained artist, Jim started taking art lessons at Tech Voc School and Red River Community College. As well, he completed a comprehensive, correspondence course from the Washington School of Art. He encouraged Hazel to attend art classes also, so they would have this hobby in common. In 1965, they started teaching oil painting classes for St. James Civic Centre and the Bourkevale Community Club.
Over the years, Jim won many awards for his oil paintings and pen and ink sketches. At one time, he and Hazel belonged to, and Jim was vice-president of, both the Sketch Club and The St. James Art Club. In 1979, they helped found the Norman Art Group from members of their students. Each year, the Red River Ex gives out an award called ‘The Jim Birt Art Award’ set up by his daughters and the St. James and Norman Art clubs.
Jim had connected with his Birt family members in Prince Edward Island, during the war, and for the rest of his life kept going back to visit them. When he retired in 1980, he bought the old Cherry Hill school house near Mount Stewart, in PEI. He and Hazel spent many happy summers among his relatives there. He helped to research the Birt family history by going to Suffolk, England; and he helped illustrate the ‘The Birts of PEI’ family history book in 1986.
Jim travelled far and wide with his Air Canada pass; taking the family back and forth across Canada, as well as to England, France, and Italy. When the children were grown, he and Hazel traveled to see the great art collections around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York and the Hermitage in Russia.
After a long, interesting life Jim died in 2001 at the Deer Lodge Veterans’ Hospital, after a five year battle with Alzheimer’s. His ashes are buried in St. James Cemetery on Portage Avenue in Winnipeg.
Information: Birts of Prince Edward Island book is available on line at www.birt.eastmill.com