There were about 50 of them. One by one, hour by hour, these brave souls rappelled from the top of the downtown CIBC building, like public-spirited lemmings.
One of the last on Thursday afternoon was 78-year-old Hermann Nieweler. He owns Hermann’s Jazz Club, our city’s long-running jazz hangout, just a few doors up from the CIBC.
I’d been surprised to learn Hermann was to rappel down a 13-storey building for charity. The last time we chatted, he said he’d just had a kidney transplant.
Yet there was Hermann, wearing a yellow hard-hat and a red T-shirt, lowering himself by rope on a sunny September day. A little Canadian flag, stuck into his body harness, flapped in the breeze.
On the sidewalk, a female vocalist backed by a jazz band sang: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” Which seemed an odd selection, given the circumstances.
As we watched the dramatic descent of Hermann Nieweler, I spoke with his daughter, Ingrid Reid, who’d come from Vancouver with her husband to watch.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said, seeming a trifle nervous.
As her dad reached the halfway mark, dangling on his rope, there were cheers.
“Hermann!” yelled the jazz singer. “You look good!”
At 7 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2010, Hermann got a phone call from St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. The hospital clerk said: “There’s a kidney in an airplane, in a bucket of ice.” The kidney was for Hermann.
The transplant was a success. Yet afterward, Hermann found his muscles were weak. He was wheelchair-bound at first.
Hermann says he recovered his strength by walking around Cleveland Dam in North Vancouver, where he lives. His kidney doctor deemed him healthy enough for Thursday’s rappelling adventure.
“He said, ‘Hermann, you can do it,’ ” said Hermann.
As well as overseeing his jazz club, Hermann worked for years as a contractor. He’s experienced his share of heights. The prospect of lowering himself down a 13-storey building did not frighten him.
“No,” he said. “I’m mentally ready. Also, I know I have my muscles back.”
Born to a German farming family in Munster, Westphalia, Hermann immigrated to Canada by himself when he was 22. He’s had plenty of adventures. He once built an igloo-shaped church in Inuvik, for instance.
It was his friend, Donna May, who asked if he wanted to rappel for charity. May, who is 69, had already done it twice herself.
On Thursday she rappelled for a third time. May wore a cape that said “Super Nurse” in red letters. It was sewn for her by friends in her women’s darts league.
“I’m getting nervous” May confided minutes before her descent.
But surely, I said, you are an old hand by now?
“Yes,” she said. “But as I told you, there’s that initial drop off.”
Some rappellers wore superhero costumes. One guy was dressed as Batman. Only his costume was mostly green. Loudspeakers blasted Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon, and Katmandu by Bob Seger.
Two young women, gazing skyward, asked what was going on. I told them it was an annual charity event, this year raising money for Easter Seals Camp Shawnigan on Vancouver Island.
A stout, grey-haired woman in a turquoise top said: “They have more nerve than I’d have.”
When Hermann reached the sidewalk safely, everyone cheered. Afterward, he posed holding a sign that read: “I did it!”
“It was excellent,” said Hermann. “Yeah, no problem.”