Category Archives: People
In 1986 Dennis Toews was a frustrated and confused ten –year- old boy. His family had just arrived in Canada, and Dennis was trying to learn to speak English in a special class at Southwood School in Steinbach, Manitoba. If you had told him then, that someday he would be living in Hong Kong, and working as a pilot for one of the top-ranked international airlines in the world, he would never have believed you. When I was living in Hong Kong I interviewed Dennis and he told me his dreams do come true story.
Dennis, who is the son of Cornie and Maria Toews, immigrated to Steinbach from Paraguay with his family in April of 1986. He attended Southwood and then Elmdale School, the Steinbach Junior High, and eventually the Steinbach Regional High School. During grade eleven and twelve he worked part-time at a car dealership Penner Chev pumping gas and washing cars. He took a full-time job there when he graduated from high school.
Waldo Neustaeder, his boss, had an incentive and education program to bring in new business. He sent his workers to customer relations seminars in Winnipeg and every six months he rewarded the employee who had referred the most new customers to Penner Chev, with a thousand dollar travel voucher. Dennis won the reward three times and decided to use his travel money to go on a trip to Hong Kong with his friend Ed Wiebe.
Ed’s brother Wilf was a pilot for Cathay Pacific Airlines and Ed and Dennis flew to Hong Kong on a plane Wilf Wiebe was piloting. Wilf asked Dennis if he’d like to sit in the jump seat in the cockpit during the Vancouver to Hong Kong leg of the journey. Wilf also arranged for Dennis and Ed to spend time in the flight simulator Cathay Pacific housed in its Hong Kong headquarters. Dennis was hooked! For the next two nights, he woke up sure that his bed had sprouted wings and he was flying. He decided then and there that he was going to be a pilot and fly for Cathay someday.
It was January of 2000 when Dennis arrived back home in Steinbach from his trip to Hong Kong. Before saying anything to his parents about his new career plans he went to Harv’s Air Service to find out about getting his pilot’s license. Owner Harv Penner told Dennis he could take his first ground school class for free. Five minutes into the first class Dennis knew he’d been born to fly. He went home and told his parents he was going to be a pilot. During the next five months, while still working at Penner Chev, he got his pilot’s license and upgraded some of his high school courses so he would qualify for admittance to Mount Royal College in Calgary where he earned a Diploma in Aviation.
After both his first and second years of college, he gained valuable experience flying fishermen up to the Grass River Lodge near Flin Flon owned by Ike and Liz Enns from Steinbach. A tip from a college classmate landed him a job at an aviation company called North Write in the fall of 2002. He worked for them for four years. He flew Cessna 172s and Twin Otters often landing on water or ice with pontoons and skis. He delivered personell and supplies for oil and diamond exploration, brought cargo to northern communities and flew hunters and fishermen to vacation spots.
While working for North Write he was able to log the 1500 hours of flying time he needed to have a chance at a job with Cathay Pacific. He also had to study for two difficult written exams. He went to Calgary to write the exams and then decided to fly to Hong Kong and personally hand in his resume at Cathay Pacific headquarters. In December of 2006, they gave him a job.
In 2009 when I interviewed Dennis in Hong Kong he was flying the Air Bus 340 and 320 to London, Paris, Johannesburg, Rome, New York. Bahrain, Sydney, Auckland and many other destinations. He loved the opportunity to see the world and travel to so many different places. From what I could find out from Linked In and Facebook Dennis continues to live in Hong Kong today, has been promoted to the rank of captain and still flies for Cathay.
Dennis said the question he gets asked most often when he tells people he is from Steinbach, Manitoba is whether he is related to Miriam Toews- since he and the well-known Canadian writer share a common last name and hometown. While he can’t claim Miriam Toews as kin, her father Melvin was his teacher at Elmdale School, so he does have one connection with the best selling author.
Dennis says he never would have believed during his childhood in Steinbach that someday he’d be a pilot for Cathay. He has a photo he’s kept to remind him of his dreams come true story. The day he came home from his first flying lesson at Harv’s Air Service he asked his sister to take a picture of him standing in his bedroom pointing to a model Cathay plane he had hanging from the ceiling. He told his family that someday he was going to fly planes for Cathay. And that is exactly what he does!
Our family saw Little Women when it opened on Christmas Day. One of the things I enjoyed about the film was that director Greta Gerwig gives more prominence and depth to the character of Amy March, the sister who is the artist in the family, and one who has not always seemed that likeable in previous movies based on Louisa May Alcott’s book. Amy matures and shines in the new movie. My favourite scene is one in which she makes a really impassioned speech about the limitations placed on women in the 1800s.
I always knew that the novel Little Women was semi-autobiographical and after seeing the movie I wanted to learn more about what Amy March had in common with Louisa May Alcott’s younger sister Abigail who was known as May to her family. As it turns out, like Amy in the book, May was also an artist. With the income from her writing, Louisa was able to help her sister May study art in Boston and Europe.
May who was a writer, as well as an artist, wrote a guidebook for other woman called Studying Art Abroad and How To Do It Cheaply. Although it wasn’t easy to be a female artist and get your work exhibited in the late 1800s May had several of her paintings accepted into the famous Paris Salon, something very few women managed to achieve. She was friends with American artist Mary Cassatt who also exhibited at the Paris Salon.
While living abroad May met and fell in love with a Swiss businessman, Ernest Nieriker, and they were married in a quiet, private ceremony in Paris. Theirs was a happy marriage but sadly May died shortly after the birth of her little daughter Louisa, who they called Lulu. At the dying request of her mother, Lulu was sent home to America to live with her Aunt Louisa.
I think one of the reasons Greta Gerwig’s film Little Women is proving so popular is because she gives us new insight into some of the characters in the much-beloved novel, helping us see them through a modern lens in ways that are both engaging and intriguing.
Last week I spent a morning in Carmen Manitoba talking to a group of some twenty -five women about my life and travels. Susan Mooney had invited me to speak. She and her husband Tom are long-time residents of Carmen, but Tom’s parents Isaac and Lottie Mooney lived in the Steinbach area from 1944-1980. One Christmas Lottie gave her son Tom and his wife Susan a gift subscription to The Carillon and they have been subscribers ever since. Susan has been reading my newspaper column Viewpoint since I first began writing it in 1985. She had always wanted to meet me and decided inviting me to Carmen, as a speaker for her women’s group, would be a way to do that.
I was interested to learn that the group, which meets at the Carmen United Church, has been in existence for almost forty years. Every Wednesday they invite a speaker to make a presentation and then they ask questions and have a discussion. In the weeks prior to my October visit, Theresa Oswald, a former Manitoba Health Minister had been a speaker as had Jean Friesen a university professor and spokesperson for the Treaty Relations Committee of Manitoba. The week following my visit Nilufer Rahman a Muslim community builder and filmmaker was scheduled as the guest and after her retired Canadian senator, Joanne Buth was speaking. I was told authors Miriam Toews and recent Governor General award winner Joan Thomas had presented in past years.
The women began their meeting by introducing themselves and then answering a question posed by Susan Mooney. She said since she had always wanted to meet me she wondered who might be a person the other women had always wanted to meet. A number thought they would like to meet Queen Elizabeth while several named favorite childhood authors like Lucy Maude Montgomery, Beatrix Potter, and A.A. Milne. Others mentioned the Dali Lama, Michelle Obama, Margaret Atwood, and Eric Clapton. One woman was looking forward to meeting a refugee family that would be arriving in Carmen shortly. Hearing the women’s answers was a great way for me to get to know the group a little better. I told them I already felt like we were kindred spirits.
In my talk, I used examples from my own life to expand on an idea I was first introduced to at my son’s university graduation many years ago. On the journey of life we have a choice to be pilgrims or tourists. Which will we be? After my presentation, the women asked questions and made comments and their ideas and contributions were thought-provoking and meaningful. During our lively discussion, I learned more about the women’s families, travels, reading preferences, community work and faith affiliations.
The women take turns bringing soup for lunch each Wednesday, so I was treated to a hearty bowl of hot vegetable soup and some fresh bread before beginning my drive back to Winnipeg. The women in the group are busy with all kinds of other interesting things. The woman to my left at lunch had come to our meeting from her yoga class and the one on my right told me she was headed off to a community choir practice.
Before I said goodbye the women posed for a photo with me. I wanted a reminder of my morning with them. I gave Susan Mooney a hug and thanked her for inviting me. Two other women who also happened to be near the church door as I left gave me hugs too. I left Carmen enriched, blessed and delighted to have spent a morning with such a group of caring, engaged and intelligent women.
This past week Dave and I have had a houseguest from Bangkok staying with us here in Winnipeg.
We first got to know Joop Rathlertwongse in 2007 when he was an international exchange student at the Steinbach high school where Dave and I were teachers. He was living with a host family but when they went away on a trip Joop came to stay with us for a while. During his year in Steinbach, Joop learned to love Mennonite food, got to try skiing, ice-skating and snowmobiling. He even learned how to build a quinzee. Before coming to Manitoba Joop was attending an all-boys school during the week and spending weekends at his family home in Bangkok. Joop enjoyed learning about Canadian culture during his year in Manitoba. He made lots of friends.
We next saw Joop when we made a trip to Bangkok in 2010. Joop picked us up from the airport and spent a day showing us his home city. He took us to a water market and…down to the riverfront, and out for a great Thai dinner.
Joop also took us to the Mahidol University where he was working on a social science degree. At the time he was hoping for a career in international relations and was about to go to Myanmar to do research for a paper he was writing on the elections there.
In 2011 Joop came to visit us in Hong Kong just before we moved back to Canada. I took him to visit the famous Che Kung Temple. We went out for Italian food one night and we took Joop along to our final karaoke night in Hong Kong.
Fast forward to 2019 and Joop is back in Manitoba this time to attend the wedding of the daughter of his host family in Steinbach. He decided to stay for ten days or so to meet up with old friends and that included us. We have hosted him for several nights. Last night he took us out for some great Thai food at the Sabai Thai Eatery. Lots of things have changed in Joop’s life since we saw him last. He has graduated from university and has established a successful career in procurement with a major oil and gas company. His job takes him regularly to Papua New Guinea and he works closely with colleagues in other countries. He has his own condo in Bangkok now and drives out to see his parents and two brothers on weekends. He is still looking for adventure and thinks about taking a job posting in another country or continuing his studies in Canada.
I’m on the bus and suddenly it pulls over to the side of the road. A transit van is there to meet us and two transit employees board the bus and move to the rear. We all turn around. A man is lying on the floor. The transit employees try to wake him up to no avail. They call the paramedics. A fire truck pulls up and four paramedics jump out. They gather around the man and speak to him in the most polite and kind way. Calling him “my friend” or “buddy” or even “sir.” Trying to gently shake him awake. Taking his vital signs. Asking him politely if he has taken some medication. Reassuring the rest of us that they will try to settle the situation quickly. Finally supporting the man on both sides they are able to get him to walk off the bus and we continue on our journey. The entire time the man is treated with respect and civility.
I’m at the Millenium Library. The guards who screen my purse and bag at the front door do so respectfully. They are friendly and polite. They ask me how my day is going. I am looking for about a dozen books I want to read by authors who will be presenting at a children’s writing conference I plan to attend. I no sooner enter the children’s section than a helpful technician approaches. “Can she be of assistance?” I hand her my list and within five minutes or so she and her colleague have found every book for me.
I’m breezing through Winnipeg Square hurrying to the bus stop on Graham. A young man just ahead of me stops at all four sets of doors we pass through to hold them open for me. What a gentleman!
On the bus, a young woman in a nurses’ uniform who looks like she has just finished a long day of work, gets up as I make my way down the aisle of the crowded bus and offers me her seat. Do I look that old? I thank her but tell her I will stand.
There are plenty of well mannered and neighborly people in this world. I see them every day and experience their kindness and courtesy every day. Yes, there are some folks who are rude or let their anger get the better of them but I want to be more diligent about noticing and appreciating the way most people are friendly and polite.
“Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
On Sunday the theme of the sermon in our church was that question from the poem The Summer Day by Mary Oliver. Our pastor talked about people she felt had done incredible things with their one wild and precious life.
One example she gave was Rachel Held Evans a 37-year-old best selling author of four books and mother of two young children who died suddenly on May 4 from a brain infection. I have been reading Rachel’s blog for many years and admired her.
Rachel was an evangelical Christian but she spoke out long and loud about making the church a place where everyone was welcome including those who were part of the LGBTQ community. She was a Christian feminist who advocated for an equal role for women in the church and in society. I especially respected her common sense approach to the issue of abortion. She encouraged people to vote for political candidates who would actually bring about the changes in society that research has shown reduce the abortion rate. She encouraged hard questions and firmly believed you didn’t need to sacrifice your intellectual integrity to be a person of faith. Rachel was respected and loved by millions. She became an articulate and powerful spokeswoman for people of faith who believed in a very different kind of Christianity than the one espoused by the supporters of Donald Trump.
Evidence of the importance of Rachel Held Evans life was clear as almost every major news source in the United States ran stories about her death. The Washington Post, The New York Times,The New Yorker, The Atlantic,CNN,CBS,NPR, Fox, Newsweek and hundreds of others. A Twitter hashtag #Becauseof RHE soon garnered a host of moving testimonies from people who said their lives had been changed because of her. These tweets were shared thousands of times worldwide.
Rachel Held Evans was indeed a person who made the very most of her one wild and precious life. She inspires us all to emulate her.
I have been reading Helen Norrie’s regular column about children’s books in the Winnipeg Free Press since she first started writing it in 1978. So it was a real pleasure to share a table for lunch with her at an event at the University Women’s Club earlier this week.
I asked Helen how she chooses the books to write about in her column. She told me the Winnipeg Free Press delivers boxes of new children’s books to her home, books they have received from publishers who want the newspaper to review their latest offerings for children. Helen then chooses the ones she will write about giving preference to books by Manitoba and Canadian authors. I asked her what she does with all those books she receives and she told me she donates most of them to local libraries and other charities that distribute books to kids.
I was also curious about how she had started writing about children’s books for the newspaper. She said she had been working as a teacher librarian at the time and was writing book reviews as a part of that job. She decided to send some of the reviews to the Free Press and they printed them. She has been reviewing children’s books for the newspaper ever since. She has also taught courses in children’s literature for the education department at the University of Winnipeg.
Since I serve on a Winnipeg Library Advisory Committee I was aware that a new library is being built in River Heights and will be named after Helen and her husband Bill Norrie who served as Winnipeg ‘s mayor from 1979 to 1992. Helen told me she is particularly pleased about that for her husband’s sake. We chatted a bit about how the role of libraries is changing dramatically. I told Helen I had grown up in Steinbach, a town without a library at the time, so I had relied on books from the University Extension Library as well as trips to the Good Will Store in Winnipeg as a source for reading material. I work together with Michel Saint Hilaire at the Winnipeg Art Gallery so I knew about the colorful mural the talented Winnipeg artist had a hand in creating to honor Helen’s husband Bill’s life. Helen told me she had been so pleased with the mural on the corner of Ellice and Langside since it reflected Bill’s interests and love for the city of his birth.
We also chatted about our families. I told her about my son’s career as a professional musician and the birth of my new granddaughter. She told me about her great-grandchildren.
One thing I forgot to mention to Helen was how impressed I had been with the address her husband gave on the occasion of our son’s graduation from the University of Manitoba in 2003. Bill Norrie was the chancellor of the university at the time and I wrote one of my columns in the Winnipeg Free Press about the inspiring speech he gave to the graduates about celebrating diversity and building bridges between all kinds of people and communities. He ended with a prayer by Sir Francis Drake I have often quoted since. You can read it here.
I so enjoyed my conversation with Helen Norrie. It was lovely to meet a woman who loves children’s books as much as I do.
Yesterday I was my aunt’s guest at a lecture at the University Women’s Club located in the historic Ralph Connor House. My aunt joined the club after retiring from the nursing faculty at the University of Manitoba. Her generous invitation included a lunch following the lecture. I happened to be seated at a table across from Muriel Smith. I had such an interesting time chatting with her.
Muriel was the first woman to serve as a Deputy Premier in Canada. She received that appointment in 1981 from Premier Howard Pawley after being elected to the Manitoba Legislature as a representative for the Winnipeg riding of Osborne. Muriel had previously served as the president of the Manitoba New Democratic Party, and as a member of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission. During the Pawley government she held various cabinet portfolios including Minister Responsible for the Status of Women.
A look at her profile in the May 2009 issue of the University of Manitoba Bulletin when Muriel was awarded an honorary doctorate degree, lists an impressive number of involvements in local, national and international organizations. She is described as a passionate advocate for human rights and gender rights.
During our lunch Muriel and I talked about our children. She filled me in on the interesting and varied lives of her four daughters. Learning I was from Steinbach she engaged me in a lively conversation about Miriam Toews’ books many of which she had read. She talked about her time spent in Oxford England where she went to university at the same time as her husband was a Rhodes Scholar there.
When she found out I had been a member of the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Association we also chatted about Karmel Schreyer, a family friend of Muriel’s who lived in Hong Kong for many years and published several successful novels for young people. It was lovely to meet Muriel and learn more about her service to our province.
Muriel and I also shared our table with another fascinating Manitoba woman. I’ll write about that tomorrow.
Way back in 2006 a young man named Renan Canto from Merida Mexico came to Steinbach as an exchange student at the regional high school where both my husband Dave and I were teachers. Renan was in my grade ten English class and Dave was his basketball coach. I taught journalism and one of my students Courtney Fehr did a profile of Renan for our school paper. During his interview for the article Renan talked about what a great experience he was having in Canada.
In 2007 Dave and I went on a holiday to Cancun Mexico with our friends Rudy and Sue Nikkel. We knew Renan’s home in Merida was about a three and half hour drive away but we contacted him anyway and let him know we would be in Mexico. Renan and his brother came to pick us up in a chauffered car and drive us to their family home in Merida.
On the way we stopped at the famous Mayan archeological site at Chichen Itza where Renan’s father had arranged for a private guide to give us a tour.
When we arrived in Merida Renan’s parents rolled out the red carpet for us.
His mother made us a wonderful supper and they hosted us for the night.
The next day before we traveled back to our hotel in Cancun Renan’s parents treated us to brunch in a restaurant housed in a beautiful old home in Merida. We have never forgotten their wonderful hospitality.
When we knew we would be in Merida with our friend Rudy this year Dave contacted Renan. He told us he had gotten married this fall and Dave invited him and his wife to join us for lunch. Renan picked a fantastic seafood restaurant called La Pigua. We had a delicious meal and a wonderful visit. Renan and Lizmar have only been married for four months and they described their month long honeymoon in France, Italy and Greece. Renan who studied electrical engineering owns a lighting company and installs commercial lighting as well as orchestrating light shows for special occasions. He told us about a light show he had done at some ruins called Teotihuacán near Mexico City. Renan’s wife Lizmar runs a dance studio where around a hundred students study ballet. We had a long visit and agreed we will try to meet again during our time here in Merida.
It was great to reconnect with Renan and to meet Lizmar!