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Love at first sight — and sound — has lasted nearly 60 years
It was love at first sight – and sound – for Tony and Mary Zelko, the charming Osoyoos couple will celebrate 57 years of marriage on Feb. 27.
After hearing that two attractive sisters from his native Slovenia were living in Rossland, B.C. not long after he had settled in Osoyoos, Zelko arranged to meet them.
“I arranged a ride with another friend from Slovenia to get up to Rossland,” said Tony. “As soon as I got there, I met the two girls and I pulled out my accordion and started playing and singing a song and she (Mary) fell in love with me.
“Both sisters were beautiful, but I fell for Mary because she was more my type. She was kind and thoughtful and I knew right away that she was the one for me.”
Fortunately, Mary felt the same way.
“I have to admit I did fall pretty much in love right away,” she said. “He could play music, he could sing, he was handsome and he was goofy.”
After that first meeting, Tony returned to Rossland two months later and asked Mary out on an official date.
“We just went for long walks together … we couldn’t even afford going to the movies because we had no money,” he said. “But I know after that second visit that she was my girl.”
After countless trips between Osoyoos and Rossland for over two years, Tony asked Mary to marry him and she accepted.
“I’m a good writer and I had written her many letters and made it very clear that we would get married whenever she was ready,” he said.
Mary selected Feb. 27, 1960 and they were married in Rossland with a group of 30 family members and friends in Mary’s uncle’s home.
As an accomplished musician dating back to his youth in Slovenia, Tony hired himself to play the music on his wedding day.
“I played a few tunes and sang a few songs,” he said smiling. “Not many people can say they played at their own wedding, but I did.”
With Tony and Mary getting ready to celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary on Feb. 27, the happy couple say being able to escape the atrocities of war in Slovenia to come to Canada and eventually meet and lead a wonderful life together in Osoyoos makes them blessed.
“I found the best place on Earth to call home and I met the best woman in the world to share my life with,” said Tony, near tears. “I’ve been blessed.
“I’ve worked very hard my whole life and seen a lot of very bad things and seen many people die, but I’ve also lived a wonderful life with an amazing woman in this beautiful town I love here in Osoyoos.”
At the tender age of 17, Tony was forced to leave his home in Slovenia, which was then a part of Yugoslovia under Dictator Josip Tito near the end of the Second World War.
“I had no choice … I had to go or they would have shot me dead on the spot,” he said.
He saw many good friends die beside him and to this day doesn’t like to talk about the horrors of war he witnessed as a teenager, said Zelko.
After the war ended, his only thoughts were to get out of his native country and come to Canada.
He worked on his father’s farm, played music professionally and operated a cabinet shop for a decade before coming to Canada.
“I had relatives who already lived in Canada, so I had been dreaming about Canada my entire life,” he said. “I grew up under the communist system and I had no freedom, so I made my plans to escape.”
At age 33, he boarded a plane for Halifax, then took the long trip across Canada by train to Sicamous and then boarded a bus for Osoyoos.
He chose Osoyoos because his grandfather, who had settled in Montana years earlier, had told him many stories about the Okanagan Valley.
“He told us it was this wild country with lions and bears and this powerful creature called the rattlesnake,” he said. “I liked those stories so much that I made up my mind at that very young age that this is where I wanted to live.”
He knew within days this is where he would spend the rest of his life, said Tony.
“I arrived in Osoyoos and I knew this was my town, my community and my home,” he said. “It’s always been the most beautiful little town in the world. It has the lake, fruit, vineyards and the nicest people. It was paradise then and paradise now.”
Mary also planned to leave Slovenia and arrived in Rossland at age 22 to live with her younger sister Louise.
After meeting and getting married to Tony, they settled in Osoyoos and have never left.
Their son Gordon still lives here with his two children, while their daughter Kathleen Wudzija, a mother of four, lives in Ladner. Her husband John taught at Osoyoos Secondary School, where he met Kathleen, who worked for many years as school librarian.
Tony started working in the construction industry soon after moving to Osoyoos and eventually founded Zelko Construction, which was a successful business in this town for decades.
“The last building I built was our current home (83rd Street), when I was 80 years old,” he said proudly. “I loved the construction business and worked hard my whole life, but it was work I really liked.”
Mary worked in the hotel service industry for a few years, before working for 23 years at the former B.C. Tree Fruit packing house in Osoyoos.
When Tony wasn’t working and raising his family, playing music was a huge part of his life.
He’s best known for playing the accordion, but also plays guitar and mandolin.
He has been a part of the Osoyoos Cherry Fiesta Canada Day parade for decades.
“I’ve played music for the Slovenian and Croatian communities from Osoyoos to Kelowna for as long as I can remember,” he said.
He’s still a regular performing for residents at Mariposa Gardens and the Extendicare home operated by the South Okanagan General Hospital.
Mary says her love for Tony has only grown stronger with the passage of time.
“He’s a good man, a wonderful father and very hard worker,” she said. “I would say we’re closer now than we’ve ever been.
“When we were younger, he was working all the time and you’re raising children, you often don’t have a lot of time together, but now it’s just the two of us and we get along better than we ever have.”
Tony agrees and says the key to a long and successful marriage is mutual respect.
“The key to a wonderful marriage in my opinion is to never be jealous, enjoy the good times together and have each other’s back during the bad times,” he said. “You have to be a good team and we are.”
After beating prostate cancer that almost killed him 30 years ago and surviving open heart surgery in 2009, Tony hopes he and Mary have many more good years together.
“I’ve seen a lot of death and beaten death all of my life, but it has still been a wonderful life,” he said.
And he’s truly blessed to have had Mary join him for the joyous ride for the vast majority of it.