We were walking on the Esprit du Bois Trail last week when we came upon this tribute to a man named Ken McCrea. A bird had been carved into a tree in his memory. He died in 2020 and was just 65 years old. I looked up his obituary. He was the president of a successful insurance company and a loving grandparent who travelled the world and volunteered in his community. His family had chosen to remember him in a unique way with this carving.
Hanging in branches of the tree with Ken’s carving were Christmas decorations with messages from his grandchildren written on them.
Winnipeg has many different kinds of memorials to people who lived what might be considered ordinary lives. They weren’t well-known or famous but in their own way, they made a differenceand left their mark on our city.
One of those people is Pamela Hasker the mother of two boys who died of breast cancer when she was only 48. Pamela was a physiotherapist at St. Boniface Hospital where she was a strong advocate for her patients. Pamela loved to play ultimate, do yoga and garden. She was an avid reader. There is a plaque in Pam’s honour on a bench in Peanut Park.
Several of the benches in Peanut Park have memorial plaques on them.
Lyle Thomas was only sixteen when he died in 2001. He was working with his Dad building the Provencher Bridge when a tripod toppled over killing him almost instantly. Lyle loved skateboarding and was on the varsity basketball team at West Kildonan Collegiate.
Lyle had a younger brother named Cody. His parents wrote in his obituary that he had touched the hearts of everyone who had known him.
I live in the Exchange District of Winnipeg and walk by this unique memorial to Ed Letisnky many times each week. Ed died in a farming accident in 1980 when he was only forty years old. A Winnipeg architect he worked for the city as an urban design coordinator.
Ed was one of the authors of a plan to turn the Albert Street area into a trendy shopping and dining destination. We now know it as The Exchange District. Ed loved to sketch and do karate. He left a wife and daughter when he died.
Winnipeg has many memorials to famous and well-known people who are recognized for their heroism or historic achievements but we also have memorials to more ordinary folk who also made valuable contributions to our city. I’d like to discover more of them.
I first learned about kindergarten teacher Anna Vogt from my friend Elfrieda Neufeld, who was related to Anna and wrote a story about her for the historical journal Preservings in 1996. As a former kindergarten teacher in both Winnipeg and Steinbach, I was very interested in learning more about Anna a woman who had been a kindergarten pioneer in those same two communities.
Anna Vogt referred to affectionately by her students as Tante Anna (Aunt Anna) was born onSeptember 16, 1883, in Schoenwiese, a village in the Chortitza Mennonite colony in Ukraine. One of the nine offspring of Andreas Vogt and Aganetha Block Vogt, Anna was a sickly baby who her parents didn’t expect to survive. But survive she did and started her education in the Schoenwiese school.
She had to quit school after a few years to help out in the family dry goods store and do housework. In 1902 she was baptized and became a member of the Mennonite church. Her Dad was a minister who valued education and so when Anna was almost thirty years old she convinced him to let her go to Germany to study to become a teacher.
Anna’s education fees were subsidized by a rich mill owner named J. J. Thiessen from the city of Dnipropetrovsk and in 1912 she was off to the prestigious Pestalozzi-Fröbel Haus in Berlin. The school founded by a woman named Henriette Schrader- Breymann in 1882, just the year before Anna was born, was named after prominent Swiss and German educators who believed child’s play was valuable, that each child should be taught as an individual and that children learned by doing.
Pestalozzi-Fröbel Haus was one of the few places in Germany where women could be trained as professionals. By the time Anna went to study there, the school had gained an international reputation with students coming from England, the United States, and many other European countries.
Because Anna’s education had been limited in scope and truncated so many years before, she had to work hard to get her certificate, but in the summer of 1914 just a month before World War I broke out she graduated. That fall her father died and Anna spent the next five years in Dnipropetrovsk working as a nanny and tutor for her benefactor J.J. Thiessen who was a widower with four children.
Just after World War I ended, Anna established her own kindergarten in the community of Nieder Chortitza and soon had more than a hundred children attending classes. Nieder Chortitza was especially hard hit by the civil war in Russia. In 1919 just after Anna must have opened her kindergarten twenty-one people from the village were murdered by the army of Nestor Makhno. Anna moved her kindergarten to other villages and for a time taught at a teacher training institution in Nikolaipol.
Anna, her mother and six of her siblings, and their families came to Canada in 1923 and made their home in Steinbach Manitoba. Anna opened a kindergarten in her home shortly thereafter and later moved it to a building on Elmdale Drive in Steinbach.
Anywhere from 25-50 children ages 3-6 attended classes at Anna’s kindergarten from 9:30 till noon. The school was closed in January and February because of the cold weather but remained in session in July and August. Anna charged $1.00 a month for tuition for a family’s first child. Additional children were only charged 50 cents and Anna never turned down children even if their families couldn’t pay.
Anna ran a tight ship. Although at times children were free to chat and visit, when Anna asked for silence she expected it and tested it by dropping a pin to see if she could hear the sound it made. Activities during a typical kindergarten session included crafts, colouring, nature study, memory work, snack time, and storytelling. The Christmas programs put on by Anna’s students were popular community events.
In 1938 she accepted an invitation from the German-speaking Mennonite community in the North Kildonan area of Winnipeg to open a kindergarten there. She continued doing that work until 1966. Anna worked alone except during her last ten years of teaching when she was joined by assistant Annie Dyck who carried on Anna’s work after she retired in 1966 at age 82.
Anna died in 1975 at age 91, outliving all save one of her siblings. She was a resident at the time in the Bethania Personal Care Home which had been founded by her sister Maria Vogt and her brother Abram Vogt.
In her tribute to Anna, my friend Elfrieda Neufeld calls her a forceful visionary with a hearty laugh who left a legacy of love for children.
I am working on a writing project that involves Amelia Earhart the American aviation pioneer and discovered in my research that she was friends with movie star Mary Pickford. Mary was born in Toronto and grew up there before moving to the United States where she had a successful career in the American film industry for five decades.
Mary was a huge star during the silent film era and co-founded the United Artists film studio as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was still a Canadian citizen when she died in 1979.
Amelia who in 1932 became the first woman to fly solo non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from Newfoundland to Ireland made a short film with Mary Pickford in which they promote women’s rights and encourage women to take on any career they like.
Mary thanks Amelia for being a role model and encouraging women to break through the limitations that have been placed on them for centuries. This is in a time when many professions were still not open to women and long before the women’s equality movement in the 1960s and 1970s.
The movie clip of Mary and Amelia’s conversation which you can view here is less than a minute long. At the end of it, Amelia Earhart’s husband George Putnam a famous publisher, author and explorer and Mary Pickford’s husband Douglas Fairbanks, a famous actor and movie producer enter the scene and introduce themselves as Mr Earhart and Mr Pickford.
Quite astounding since in that era women almost always went by both their husband’s first and last names. My grandmothers for example were called Mrs Peter Schmidt and Mrs Diedrich Peters.
I think it’s terrific that these two famous women and their partners were using their notoriety to encourage independence and personal achievement for other women.
One of the reasons I wrote my novel Lost on the Prairie was because I wanted to leave my grandchildren a story based on their family’s history. I wanted them to know a little more about what life was like for their Mennonite ancestors.
Another woman who did something similar around 1960 was Helena Penner Hiebert. Helena was the daughter of a very wealthy family who came to Canada from Ukraine just before she was born in 1874. Her father established a hardware empire in Manitoba.
His good fortune meant Helena could study with a private tutor, graduate from the University of Winnipeg and become a faculty member there.
Helena married Dr. Gerhard Hiebert in 1902 and her husband became a surgeon at the Winnipeg General Hospital and a teacher at Manitoba’s Medical College. Helena and Gerhard had three daughters. Gerhard died in 1934. After living many years in Winnipeg and serving her community as a school trustee Helena moved to Quebec to live with her daughter Catherine Brown and she died there in 1970 at age 95.
During her retirement, Helena decided to write stories for her grandchildren. She called them The Granny Stories.Those stories which John Dyck highlights in a 1997 Preservings article provide an intimate look at Helena’s childhood.
Helena describes a diphtheria epidemic during which she lost three siblings.
She talks about the neighbor girl who was her best friend and a local farmer who froze in a blizzard.
There’s a story about the day her father stopped a turkey from attacking her by cutting off its’ head and the day she burned herself on a hot stove.
She and her siblings learned why their mother had warned them to stay away from the bog near their property when one of the family’s cows nearly drowned in it.
There is a charming story about a blind fiddler who gets everyone dancing when he comes to Helena’s village.
Helena provides a detailed description of her older sister’s wedding.
She tells her readers how her mother faithfully put a candle in her window at night to guide wanderers. Often people caught in a blizzard or having nowhere else to go would find shelter for the night in Helena’s parents’ home. Her mother never let them leave in the morning without first serving them a good breakfast.
Helena’s Granny Stories was a way for her to record the past for the next generation of her family. She is an inspiration.
I watched a fascinating New York Times documentary yesterday about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the woman who discovered pulsars in 1967 while a graduate student at Cambridge University working on her thesis project. This was big news in the world of astronomy but most of the credit for the discovery went to Jocelyn’s thesis supervisor Anthony Hewish, who in 1974 won the Nobel Prize for ‘his’ discovery.
In the documentary, Jocelyn talks about reporters coming to interview the two of them after the discovery was made public and they directed all their scientific questions to Anthony while Jocelyn the ‘girl astrophysicist’ was merely seen as a human interest part of the story and was asked to open more buttons on her blouse for photos, questioned about her waistsize, asked how many boyfriends she had and whether she would call herself a blonde or a brunette.
Jocelyn went on to a long and impressive career as a researcher and professor and served as the president of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 2018 she was awarded a special prize for her breakthrough work in discovering pulsars. It came with a 2.3 million pound prize. She donated the entire amount to the Institute of Physics to fund scholarships that would help female, minority and refugee students become physics researchers.
There is a name for what happened to Jocelyn. It is called The Matilda Effect and is named after Matilda Josyln Gage who first brought attention to the issue of women scientists whose work was accredited to men in an 1870 essay she wrote called “Woman as Inventor.”
Sadly reading the comments section on the documentary in the New York Times, it became clear that while things are beginning to change The Matilda Effect is still alive and well.
Recently I was walking by Laura Secord School where I attended kindergarten in 1958-1959 and I saw a sign erected in honour of Lillian Beynon Thomas. I had never heard of Lillian. I was curious. Who was she?
I discovered Lillian was one of Winnipeg’s first newspaperwomen and the page she was responsible for in the Winnipeg Free Press at the turn of the century was called Home Loving Hearts. Many of her readers were prairie farmwives who wrote to her about their lonely and often isolated lives. Some of them had been abused or abandoned by their husbands and many had no right to inherit their family homesteads if their husbands died. Lillian started advocating for them in the paper interspersing her opinions among the recipes, homemaking hints and fashion tips she featured on her page.
Lillian Beynon was a school teacher in Morden Manitoba in 1906 when John Dafoe the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press travelled through town. Lillian boldly asked him for a job. He gave her one writing a woman’s page for the paper.
Affectionately dubbed ‘Lilly Kate’ by her family, Lillian Beynon was born in 1874 in the city of Mississauga Ontario. When she was five years old she developed tuberculosis and it left her with a damaged hip which would make walking difficult for her for the rest of her life. Ten years later her family moved from Mississauga to a farm near Hartney, Manitoba.
Lillian went to Toronto to finish high school because with her weak hip she couldn’t have walked to the school in Hartney. She came back to Manitoba when her family settled in Winnipeg and Lillian became one of the first women to get a BA from the University of Manitoba.
In 1911 Lillian married Alfred Thomas who also wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press. He encouraged Lillian to become a part of the Manitoba Political Equality League in 1912 as they fought to get women the right to vote in Manitoba through a variety of tactics including a satirical play called A Women’s Parliament which was staged at theWalker Theatre in 1914. It was Lillian’s idea to stage the play and she had a role in the drama which helped achieve voting rights for Manitoba women in 1916.
Friendly and with a warm personality Lillian also started a literary club in Winnipeg and was an active member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. When World War I broke out her husband Alfred was fired from the Winnipeg Free Press because he refused to support the conscription effort. The two of them moved to New York where Lillian did charity work and took writing courses.
Alfred got a job at the Winnipeg Tribune in 1922 so they moved back to Winnipeg and Lillian kept on writing this time successful plays and novels. She won a short story prize sponsored by Macleans Magazine for a piece she wrote called Five Cents for Luck. In 1961 when she died at age 86 she was trying her hand at writing episodes for television dramas.
I was happy I had made the effort to get to know Lillian Beynon Thomas. I was inspired by how she overcame the physical challenges she faced from the time she was a child to become a pioneer as a newspaperwoman and a suffragette and then as an author and playwright. She was always ready to try new things. What a legacy!
I’m glad Lillian Beynon Thomas is recognized on the grounds of the very first school I attended. I can only dream of leaving the kind of legacy she did!
When Prince William and his wife Kate visited Canada in 2011 they planted a hemlock tree on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s Governor-General in Ottawa. It is a tradition that when someone famous visits Rideau Hall they plant a tree. On our visit to Ottawa, we took a tour of Rideau Hall and the park surrounding it and I made some notes about the trees I saw.
There are 150 trees planted by famous visitors on the Rideau Hall grounds. Many of the trees have grown large and their boughs stretch wide and high.
One thing I noticed was many of the people who planted the trees at Rideau Hall had made a positive difference in our world.
There is a brass marker at the base of each tree telling you who planted it, when it was planted, as well as what kind of tree it is.
I saw a sugar maple planted by Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president. The anti-apartheid activist spent twenty- seven years in prison and became a worldwide symbol of hope to those fighting for freedom and equality.
Diana, Princess of Wales has a tree in Rideau Hall Park. This popular British royal used her notoriety to draw the attention of the world to the needs of people with AIDS and the victims of land mines.
In July of 2011, when William her son and his wife Kate visited Rideau Hall, they stopped for a few moments of silence beside the tree Diana had planted, just after planting their own tree. Following in the footsteps of Diana’s dedication to public service the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have established a foundation that promotes mental health and wellness.
John F. Kennedy planted a flourishing red oak tree. Kennedy inspired the establishment of the United States Peace Corps. The organization has sent 200,000 volunteers to 140 countries to help those in need.
When Kofi Annan visited Canada Adrienne Clarkson was the Governor-General living at Rideau Hall.
There’s a tree planted by Kofi Annan of Ghana, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. He won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring peace to conflicts in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Nigeria, Libya, East Timor and the Middle East.
Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko greet Governor General Michaelle Jean at Rideau Hall before planting their tree
Japan’s Emperor Akihito has a tree at Rideau Hall. In 2011 after a tsunami devastated his country he did something no Japanese royal has ever done before. He made a live television appearance to talk to his people to reassure them and give them hope and then he and his wife visited shelters for storm refugees.
Many of the famous people who have planted trees at Rideau Hall have used their lives to serve others, and make a difference in the world.
It’s International Women’s Day and I am going to celebrate by introducing you to some of the amazing women I’ve met on my international travels.
This is Wayan in her restaurant and health shop in Ubud, Bali. Wayan is one of the main characters in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love. Wayan opened her business to support herself and her daughter after leaving her abusive husband.
This is Por Ko, the principal of Goldstone School in Phnom Penh Cambodia. I volunteered at Goldstone and so admired how Por Ko ran a school in a huge old house where she had turned the bedrooms into classrooms and made do with limited resources and staff to provide the best education possible for 150 students.
These are domestic workers in Hong Kong enjoying their Sunday fellowship. They work a six-day week and Sunday is their only day off. They leave the Philippines to go to Hong Kong and work for wealthy families. Their earnings are sent back to help their families in the Philippines. Many of the women leave their own children behind to care for the children of wealthy Hong Kong residents. I interviewed a group of these women for an article in the Winnipeg Free Press. I so admired their courage, resilience and faith.
This is Beatriz a fellow grandmother and a fellow teacher in Merida Mexico who led a workshop we took about making chocolate. It was a delight to get to know her and visit with her. Her teaching supports her family and she is helping her son and his fiancee get their chocolate-making business off the ground.
Victoria was a university student from Odesa who served as our guide on a walking tour of Kyiv. Intelligent, articulate and engaging Victoria was studying languages and she and a friend came up with the idea of practising their English by giving free tours of Kyiv and then asking people to make a donation when the tour was over. Their self-initiated business had drawn the attention of the local television station and they interviewed my husband Dave to see how he had enjoyed his tour with Victoria. We took Victoria out for lunch after our tour and heard a little of her life story. I so admired her many talents and her vision for the future.
When I was volunteering at a tutoring centre in Runaway Bay Jamaica I went to visit an affiliated daycare set up by this amazing woman named Claudette Brown. She runs a daycare for 140 children on a tiny piece of land in a ramshackle old building with four small rooms. Six other women work with her. She receives no government support. Sometimes parents forget to pick children up at the end of the day so Claudette takes them home with her.
Dee Dee, a woman in her early 30s was our snorkelling guide on a trip to Boracay in the Philippines. Her sister cares for Dee’s Dee’s seven children while she acts as a guide on her brother-in-law’s touring boat. After our snorkelling trip, Dee Dee invited us to her home. Made from bamboo, with a concrete floor and thatched roof it does not have running water. Dee Dee’s Dad who is debilitated from a stroke lives with her. Dee Dee depends on the tourists who come to Boracay for her income. When I asked her what keeps her going despite the many challenges she faces, she said it was God. “I know God is always watching over me.”
We met this marvellous young woman Ayaka when we were touring a kaleidoscope museum in Kyoto. She was a museum worker and was very friendly. We struck up a conversation with her and she offered to meet us after her shift and show us the sights of Kyoto. She explained how the subway worked, took us to her favourite restaurant and spent the evening filling us in on what life was like for a young woman in Kyoto. Ayaka had big dreams and a desire for new experiences. We have kept in touch since our first meeting.
Rong was our bicycle guide on several of our visits to Yangshou China. She was an incredible young woman who biked into Yanghsou every morning from her home 15 miles away. The money she was earning as a guide would help her younger brother go to school and help with her mother’s medical expenses. Rong had lost the sight in one eyein a childhood accident but that didn’t hold her back from being a fabulous guide. I wrote a story about her for the Winnipeg Free Press.
These four women and I formed the high school English Department at an international school in Hong where I taught for six years. They were the absolute dream team to work with- dedicated, hard-working, innovative, caring and collegial. Meena was from India, Rebekah from the United States, Vanessa from Hong Kong, I was from Canada and Liz was from Australia. We were truly an international group of educators.
Children, children everywhere! One hundred and forty of them! Our host here in Jamaica, Tony Beach took us to visit Mrs Brown’s Daycare in the Edgecombe Ghetto of Runaway Bay last week. Tony has great respect for the work done at this daycare and he wanted us to see it for ourselves. Here’s Tony with Mrs Claudette Brown who runs a daycare for 140 children on a tiny piece of land in a ramshackle old building with four small rooms. Six other women work with her. When we drove up the children outside playing in the small cement and dirt front yard rushed up to the gate to greet us. The children said “Hello, Hola and Bonjour” welcoming us in three languages. “Do you want to know how to say hello in German?” Dave asked. When he said, “Guten Tag,” the kids quickly copied him. A little boy immediately grabbed Dave’s hand and a little girl mine when we entered the yard offering to be our guides. It was amazing how many children were crammed into each of the tiny rooms. In the two-year-old’s room, they were giving the children lunch. Tony told us when the daycare runs short of money for salaries the women who work there simply divide whatever funds they have left after expenses for their salaries. Apparently Mrs Brown often ends up staying at the daycare till well after it closes at 5 pm, sometimes till 8 o’clock, because parents don’t show up to pick up their children. Sometimes she just ends up taking children who are left behind home with her.
The kids ran to get books and asked me to read to them. I was amazed at how they knew their colors, the names of shapes, concepts like big and small and over and under. Tony told us the local primary schools say children from Mrs Brown’s daycare are usually well ahead of the other students when they enter school. A teacher in a tiny dark classroom with tarp walls was working on counting concepts with a small group of older children. Tony and Mrs Brown were having a heart to heart talk while we toured the daycare. Tony runs an after school program in Runaway Bay and he tries to share supplies donated to his program with Mrs Brown and help her out financially when he can. Often parents of Mrs Brown’s students can’t afford to pay the minimal fee she charges and she hates to make the children leave because she tells Tony, “it’s not their fault their parents don’t pay and I can’t punish them because of their parents.” As kids do everywhere these Jamaican sweethearts loved Dave and they all wanted to play with him. Claudette Brown gets no government support for her daycare. It is her own service to the community. She’s quite an amazing woman.
We were so glad Tony had taken us to Mrs Brown’s daycare. She is doing so much to help so many children with so very little.
As far as I’m concerned the poet stole the show at yesterday’s inauguration of American President Joe Biden. Standing full of promise in her bright yellow coat and bold red hat twenty-two-year-oldAmanda Gorman’s voice rang true and clear across her country and the world as she recited the rich and rhythmic words she had written especially for the occasion. What passion! What poise! What purpose! I’ve listened to Amanda recite her poemThe Hill We Climb about half a dozen times now and so far I just can’t choose which is my favorite line.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another
Even as we grieved we grew, even as we hurt we hoped, even as we tired we tried
Victory won’t lie in the blade but in all the bridges we’ve made
We will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one
If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.
Let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left
For there is always light if only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.
I have a feeling Amanda’s poem will be read or listened to in many classrooms this morning. By yesterday afternoon my Twitter feed was lighting up with ideas from teachers about how they might share The Hill We Climb with their students.
I was thrilled about that. I taught high school English for six years and inevitably when I would introduce our poetry unit there would be groans in the classroom. Teenagers thought poetry was boring, hard to understand, and certainly not something they could write. I loved to watch them develop personal preferences for certain poems and poets, learn that a poem could mean something different and true to every person who read it, and realize they too could be poets.
Amanda’s poem will certainly become one that is oft-recited and loved and its words will be interpreted in a myriad of ways as people think about how its message applies to them. I wonder if it may have the power to inspire a whole generation to believe they can be poets and also practical people of principle who dream they can change the world and then go out and do it.
A very young and incredibly gifted Black female poet stole the show at yesterday’s American presidential inauguration. What could be more fitting or give the world more faith in the future?